Tag Archives: medieval plays

A Holiday Spectacle

by Marc Williams

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade processes through Times Square.

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. I remember waking up on Thanksgiving with the smell of sage wafting through the house as my mother began a long day of cooking and baking. Of course my morning was spent in front of the television watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And now that I have children of my own, Thanksgiving has come full circle: I’m the one doing the cooking and my son, now four years old, is the one enjoying the parade.

The Macy’s parade has been around since 1924, when Macy’s department store on 34th Street decided to hold a parade as a marketing ploy. Macy’s employees dressed in costumes—clowns, cowboys, and the like—and walked with Central Park Zoo animals on a six-mile route through Manhattan. The parade was a success for Macy’s, became an annual event, and is now the most popular holiday parade in America. The Rose Parade in Pasadena, California and Mardi Gras krewes in New Orleans are also major parades, and communities all over the country stage parades in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, Independence Day, fall harvests, and other occasions. Parades big and small are commonplace, yet many viewers probably don’t realize that modern parades owe a debt both to theatre and to the church.

During the early Middle Ages, the Catholic Church in Europe began dramatizing events from the Bible in an attempt to share the liturgy with a growing population that was largely illiterate. Church interiors were utilized in these liturgical dramas, with the central nave area of the basilica used for spectators and the columns along either side of the nave were used to separate different “stages,” or “mansions,” as they were called. The audience would walk from one mansion to the next, one mansion featuring the Garden of Eden, the next featuring Noah’s Ark, and so on. Interestingly, this staging technique—in which the spectator moves in and out of different acting areas—is still used today. It’s the same staging technique encountered in a “haunted house” attraction, and is also used by theme parks. Disney’s famous It’s a Small World After All and Pirates of the Caribbean rides use the same concept, although the audience is seated in a boat that moves through the attraction.

Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

In the 13th century, Pope Innocent III forbade the clergy from participating in these liturgical plays. The performances were enormously popular but the Pope believed the scripture was becoming obscured by scenery, costumes, special effects, and scripts that were becoming increasingly colloquial.

The plays, known as “mysteries,” then moved outside the church. In some cases, the plays were held immediately outside the church—right on the church steps. Large stone basilicas with impressive steps and entryways could make for impressive theatrical backdrops. In some towns, performances moved to a town square. The image below from the Valenciennes Passion shows a town square that has several “mansions” built into its existing architecture for the performance of a 25-day long play depicting the life and death of Jesus Christ. The city’s own gates appear to be used as the gates to Jerusalem, with a setting constructed for the temple, another for the sea, and so on.

Setting for the Valenciennes Passion, 1547.

In other towns, the spectators were spread out, with groups seated on risers in different areas of the town. For these mystery plays, the sets, costumes, and actors moved from one audience to the next on pageant wagons. These impressive devices could “dock” with an existing stage platform, providing a custom backdrop for the performance. Also, the wagon would also carry all the props and costumes needed to tell the story. These pageant wagons are the forerunners of our modern parade floats; the audience sits or stands as the small staging area moves to them. The performance occurs, then the float moves along the designated route.

An English pageant wagon.

Spectacle was of tremendous importance during the mystery plays. Because the church was no longer the organizing force for the performances, the plays were presented by other groups in the community. In England, for instance, the responsibility was given to the local craft guilds. Typically, each guild was responsible for one story: finding the actors, building the scenery and costumes, and paying their share of the overall expenses for the event. The guilds were typically assigned a story related to their expertise: the shipwrights would present Noah, the goldsmiths would present the three kings, since they could supply gold crowns, the blacksmiths might be in charge of nailing Christ to the cross, and so on. The guilds took tremendous pride in their contributions and their efforts were dazzling: some wagons featured trap doors for surprising entrances and exits, others featured elaborate scenic detail that was stunningly lifelike, while some featured flying effects and other stage magic.

Indeed the same is true today at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. New balloons and floats are added each year, and these new efforts are consistently focused on providing a new spectacle that has never been seen in a parade before. In this year’s parade, for example, Cirque du Soleil provided a new float that is the biggest in parade history, complete with acrobats and contortionists—it was like a little self-contained circus.

Cirque du Soleil’s “Dreamseeker” float in the 2013 Macy’s Parade.

In my BLS course Eye Appeal: Spectacle on Stage and in Life, we discuss modern-day spectacles like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and historical spectacles like the mystery plays. We consider why we are so consistently impressed by the “wow factor” that spectacles offer, and wonder what draws each of us individually toward these spectacles. For me, the Macy’s Parade takes me back to my childhood home, watching television in my pajamas with the smell of sage in the air. What memories do you associate with the Macy’s Parade? Or do you have another favorite holiday spectacle?