Come to Judgment
By DAVID CAIRNS In the Abbey one is constantly reminded of opera. The brilliantly contrasted sequence of musical tempo and form is like recitative, aria and chorus. At times one thinks of parts of CEdipus Rex—the Latin libretto, the vernacular narration (written by Auden and spoken by John Westbrook) which sets each scene and freezes the action into timeless ritual, the spectacle of Pride laid in the dust, and above all the pure, austere line and superb rhythmic invention of the Music. Even the fire-swallower at King Darius's Court is the identical hero who performs in Pagliacci at Covent Garden; and the scene in Which the lions, splendidly rampaging figures of animated heraldry, are tamed by the angel of the Lord would be like the enchantment scene in The Magic Flute, if the most moth-eaten apolo- getic menagerie of biological mistakes were not always for some reason inflicted on that long- suffering opera.
The imaginative gulf that separates a modern audience of dutiful culture-vultures perched on hard chairs from the jostling, sweating, intensely Participating multitude in mediaeval Beauvais (where the work originated) only emphasises the tremendous operatic qualities of The Play of Daniel. They leap the centuries and excite us purely as entertainment, as art; the categories, In fact, dissolve. I doubt if many people can catch more than an echo of the comprehensive religious and human experience which the litur- gical drama of the Middle Ages (a crafty example of the time-honoured principle of the Catholic Church : 'if you can't beat it, join it') was de- signed to stimulate. We may industriously think ourselves back into 'the mediaeval mind'; the associations of words and names may automati- cally arrange our thoughts into correct attitudes of traditional piety; staring up at huge fragments of flying buttress looming in the dusk through dim clerestory windows and hearing the golden- toned carillon and the consoling mysteries of plainchant rolling from arch to vault, we may feel encouragingly holy—and if we are honest we will not set much store by it. But the appeal is still potent. For one thing, the primordial grip of a good Old Testament story has not slackened with the weakening of belief. The life of Daniel, presented in short, swiftly-moving scenes, holds the mind.
Mr. Browne's production wisely refuses to go the whole pseudo-mediawal hog and attempt to re-create in full the total, uninhibited atmosphere of the original, but steers a nice course between mummery and false solemnity; we are neither made to feel 'in church' nor obliged to endure the strained antics of a troupe of 'Gothic' harlotry players. (Only Daniel himself, with his C of E air of clean-limbed decency, looks churchy among all the stained-glass figures.) There are a few inventively naïve or spectacular touches —the child angel leading Habbakuk to Daniel's prison by a lock of his long white hair, the for- midable procession of Darius's army, lit by flar- ing torches, up the darkened' nave. But mainly Mr. Browne is content to group his actors in simple, vivid patterns on an almost bare stage and, as a good opera producer should, to move with the music.
For, as in all good operas, the music articu- lates the drama. Simply as sound The Play of Daniel is incredibly exhilarating. Hurdy-gurdy, Recorder, rebec (a minute stringed instrument played nonchalantly from the hip), vielle (which has the precise, spindly fantasy of a Steinberg drawing), psaltery, minstrel's harp, portative organ--the names smack suspiciously of quaint pedantry, rush skirts and rank old English amateurishness. When performed, with skill, by musicians who also take part as characters in the action, in scoring reconstructed from internal and external evidence by Pro Musica's director Noah Greenberg, and heard together with trum- pet, handbells and other small and piquant per- cussion instruments in an endless variety of colours and sonorities, they make a noise as fresh, unexpected and inevitable as a new work by Britten or Stravinsky.
But even more remarkable is the flexibility of rhythm, movement and mood that, by imagina- tive interpretation of the old notation, has been found to lie within the limitations of single-line melody. Apart from an occasional drone bass, the music is entirely homophonic. But never for a moment do we feel the monotony that so often creeps inexorably over the listener to antique music. These bare modal tunes and apparently simple unaccompanied lines of plainchant can turn with extraordinary subtlety from the solemn to the sinister, the racy to the sublime. They are evidence of an art form which in its way is as elaborate and highly integrated as the most refined products of opera. The Play of Daniel would be exciting even if its sounds meant nothing to us; but it is something far beyond a jingle of strange and beautiful noises—the first music-drama. A final touch of truth in the per- formance,- by the way, is the sharp, sweet tone of the choristers from the Church of the Trans- figuration. The disembodied style of the Anglican treble is still held to be the ultimate of beauty in establishment circles. But the more brilliant, and more convincingly celestial, continental style, of which the trebles in Daniel are an example, is gaining converts. In time, as the psalmist has said, all Kings shall fall down before it.