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Leader: ‘And little England sucked a peppermint’

“TO ME it seems quite clear that the Pageants of the last few years have been effective to a marked degree in teaching average men and women the history of their own country.” Thus Archbishop Randall Davidson, commending the English Church Pageant of 1909 to the actors and audience. Like the Archbishop, the organisers of the English Church Pageant saw it primarily as a means of educating the English about the history of their religion; for, as they said in the official handbook, “the vast majority base their ideas upon false generalisations and crude prejudices”. A sceptical observer of the present day might be tempted to apply the same criticism of the massed Druids in Fulham Palace gardens; but there was a higher purpose behind the fashion for pageants that swept through Britain in the first half of the 20th century, which sustained the performers through long hours of outdoor rehearsals. Pageants were beautiful and artistic, a quality grasped even by the didactic Percy Dearmer: “The arts not only give pleasure in the high form of truth and beauty, but also educate by virtue of that beauty and that truth.”

Professional, electronic entertainment has dominated society for so long that the bond between drama and real life which once existed has been forgotten. The bond continues in the imagina­tion only, except in those many pockets of amateur dramatics that refuse to die out, despite the scorn with which they are often regarded. Unlike film and television stars, the actors in amateur dramas are known to the audience. They become the characters they play, but also, despite the costume and make-up and strange speech, they remain the man who comes into the library every Thursday morning, and the woman behind the counter in the post office. This familiarity is what ties the drama to the life on the other side of the footlights. The audience, who bought tickets out of loyalty to the performers, can through that loyalty elevate the performance. The bond between them can transform a spec­tacle into an communal offering, and, in the best productions, an offering into a celebration.

This sacramental aspect was touched on by Virginia Woolf in her last novel, Between the Acts. The village pageant has come to an end, and the vicar has given his speech of thanks (and asked for contributions to make up the financial shortfall). “Was that the end? The actors were reluctant to go. They lingered; they mingled. There was Budge the policeman talking to old Queen Bess. And the Age of Reason hobnobbed with the foreparts of the donkey. . . And little England, still a child, sucked a peppermint drop out of a bag. Each still acted the unacted part conferred on them by their clothes. Beauty was on them. Beauty revealed them. Was it the light that did it? — the tender, the fading, the uninquisitive but searching light of evening. . . ‘Look,’ the audience whispered. ‘O look, look, look.’”

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