A Village Called Wakefield
by Antholy Esolen
Our family has finally called it quits. We’ve folded our tents and abandoned the strip mall and peep show known as American television. We still have the machine in the living room, whereon we can watch Going My Way, with Bing Crosby as the “progressive” Father O’Malley, back when progressive meant that he took the street boys to the ballgame and then made a choir out of them. He could do that, because all the boys’ families knew one another and knew the priests. And the Irish policeman could bring the runaway lass to the church, because he knew, though he’d not been to Mass in ten years, that a priest rather than a social worker or a jail cell or a shrug was what the young lady needed. The culture of that movie was Catholic, true enough. More remarkable than that: It was a culture. It was a way of life, cherished, inculcated in the young. People ate together, snooping neighbors patrolled the streets, and when the church needed to be rebuilt, the parishioners came out to hoist the planks. Boys played stickball and dodged traffic; old ladies gave presents, even unwanted ones, to the pastor; the people sinned, but knew they were sinning; they came together to praise God, to marry, to christen children, to bury the dead, and to beg for mercy. They tilled the fields of the soul.
Shut your doors upon the tele-god, and you may find yourself accused of retreating from “the world” and of despairing that our popular culture can be redeemed. But show me where there is a popular culture to reject. Mass entertainment we do have, aplenty. Mass entertainment grinds our land flat, leaving bandstands and ball fields and public squares empty while people watch in isolation the games they do not play and listen to the music they do not sing. Mass entertainment dampens the heart; it keeps us content and offhandedly contemptuous of our forebears, for it likes to serve us new vices because they are new–or if not new, then packaged as new. It is crowd control for prisons. It is music at the mall to relieve us of our money. It does not arise from the people; it is dosed out to them. It cultivates no land, sows no seed. One cannot predict what it will be like after a single generation. It is culture’s solvent.
In 1215, to celebrate the resolution of a controversy regarding Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist, Pope Innocent III declared a new holiday: Corpus Christi. What happened then should astonish us. People across Europe greeted the feast not just with joy but with an outburst of grateful creativity so powerful it revived the drama, a form of art that had lain dormant since the days of Terence 1,400 years before. From Portugal to Poland, from England to the Alps, arose the tradition of staging town-wide dramas to celebrate Corpus Christi. Not single plays, put on by a few literate people on the holiday itself and attended by the town. That would be a bolder work of culture than we now know. Yet it was more.
Imagine that for weeks in advance, all the trade guilds and altar societies–carpenters, tanners, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, clerks–build floats and props and fashion costumes and prepare a sweeping pageant of plays (57 at York!) to be performed before all the people, proceeding from one end of the town to the other, from the Thursday of Corpus Christi to the eve of Pentecost Sunday. Imagine that these plays form a cycle to lead the players and the audience in a pilgrimage over the whole terrain of the Christian life, from creation and Adam’s fall to the last judgment.
Such an expression of Catholic culture you would remember till the day you died. And people did remember: Roles were passed down like heirlooms, so that as late as Shakespeare’s day everybody knew that Herod was a roaring bully and that devils are fundamentally stupid. But could only the rich towns afford it, or cosmopolitan places like London and Paris? Not so. A village called Wakefield staged a cycle of 32 plays, a tradition its residents maintained for more than three centuries. In 1377 the adult population of Wakefield numbered 567. That is what ordinary people of faith can do.
How good were the plays? They are not for people who read the New York Times. Their theology is too profound for such. They evince a deep belief in Providence, an abiding awareness that everything in place and time plays its role in God’s salvific order. Let us look at the most famous of them, the so-called Second Shepherds’ Play of Wakefield.