Comedy and Humility, Dinner and “The Second Shepherd’s Play”

Completed barely a year before his death, Caravaggio’s 1609 Adorazione dei pastori (The Adoration of the Shepherds) is an important example of the brutal realism of his religious subjects that made the famed painter both innovative and contestatory. Commissioned for the Capuchin Franciscans, he represents divine figures as people of the times, barefoot as they are with ordinary robes and Joseph’s carpentry toolbox barely visible. By seating the Virgin on the ground, Caravaggio implies that she is not a heavenly queen, but rather a simple young mother. The shepherds admire rather than venerate, conveying their worth and that of the parents as commoners. There is no holy light emanating mysteriously from the barn, no ornate halos topping the figures. The chiaroscuro, tranquility, and naturalism of the scene suggests that there was nothing overtly marvelous about the birth of Christ except as an occasion for humility.

Written down in the fifteenth century was The Second Shepherd’s Play, one in a cycle of thirty-two stories from the Towneley Manuscript depicting Biblical events from Creation through Doomsday. In the program to their translation and dinner theatre performance, Dr. Ann Hubert and Stephanie Svarz contend that by recreating the original practice of performing the play in the great hall of a lord during dinner, it “showcases the ways in which medieval drama integrates humor and piety to guide its audience towards a greater understanding of divine mysteries.” The particular episode performed in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Illini Union re-interprets the annunciation of the shepherds by asking the question: what was going on in the life of these herders the day before they were visited by angels. Like Caravaggio, the anonymous Wakefield Master humanized the shepherds and stressed the quotidian in order to contemplate the relationship between poverty and humility.

The three shepherds greet Mary with humble gifts and adoration.

The production was immersive insofar as it was organized ‘in the round,’ spectators sat at round tables in large groups, and it was largely an interlude between courses in a communal setting. Several sheep were played by students in simple white shirts and brown leggings, and they occasionally nabbed a piece of garlic bread or cannoli from playgoers’ plates. The thieving did not stop there, but was thematized by the main action of the plot. Three shepherds complain about hunger and poor sleeping conditions when they are met by a fellow shepherd with a history of thievery. After some debate, they allow him to join their fire for the night. As expected, he nabs a lamb while they are asleep, takes it back to his wife to disguise as a baby, and then returns before his fellows awake. The next day, his yawns give him away and the three shepherds visit his home to eventually discover the disguised lamb. (That the wife is also played by a male actor cross-dressed was a clever meta-theatric touch.) While the shepherds admonish their peer, they find it in their hearts to share some of their meager rations with his hungry wife. Thus, the play associates humility with husbandry and self-governance. The constant discussion of general hunger and menial living underscored the sumptuousness of the buffet meal we as playgoers consumed all the while, cultivating a gradual sense of self-awareness and thanks appropriate for the week before the Thanksgiving break.

Despite the seeming seriousness of the plot and dramaturgical elements, the dialogue was anything but. The swearing, banter, and complaint by the shepherds as an ensemble both psychologized and particularized the shepherds at the nativity. The explicative of choice was the very English-sounding, “By the rood!” (“rood” referring to the tree/cross on which Jesus was hung). When remarking on the singing of his fellows, one shepherd exclaimed “Take out that English tooth and put it in a turd!” Eventually, when they met Mary and her newborn at the end of the play, one cried out affectionately “Hail little tiny moppet!” while another reflected on the babe’s “poor clothes with no pennies” to furnish him. The gifts they brought were equally comic and ordinary, including a neon yellow tennis ball, again suggesting the dearth of the circumstances of all the characters involved. In addition to the Biblical allusiveness, shepherds provide an interesting ecological lens through which to consider temptation: living in the presence of edible sheep every day, they must consider the long-term implications and sustainable income of keeping them alive for wool rather than simply eating them for immediate gratification. Performed during a national discussion on closing our homes and borders to refugees from Syria and the Middle East (one that happens to be taking place during the Judeo-Christian holiday season), this performance of The Second Shepherd’s Play was a timely meditation on both the power and the utterly ordinary necessity for humility.

  • This production was sponsored by the Program in Medieval Studies and the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
  • For my Shakespeare Bulletin review of the first of these “original practices” performances at the University of Illinois, Mankindclick here.