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Life in Community

Drama around the Manger

December 19, 2017 by

manger still life

Most of us know the Christmas story. Its ungraspable reality, along with what it leaves unsaid, offers fertile ground for Christmas tales, plays, music, art, reflections, and sundry traditions.

This year in preparation for Christmas, my husband, David, and I lost ourselves in The Child of God, a German play written in 1912 by Emil Hermann. It is styled on medieval miracle plays, which simply means it’s a Bible story targeted at ordinary people. Fortunately we worked with an English translation.

We chose to perform this play because we love its refreshing simplicity that keeps it easy to practice and stage. Some scenes are only several meaningful movements removed from a tableau. Few scenes are held together by a strong narrative thread. Most are disciplined, tightly structured, visually expressive, and aesthetically pleasing. So what makes the play tick? And what holds it together?

I will hazard that it is the innate tension between its modernity and its medieval essence. Even though the play’s power and beauty always communicate, almost all the medieval characters fall flat on modern sensibilities, Our decision to stage The Child of God in the round forced us to probe into the script, since this particular form of dramatization evokes intimacy, and just how intimate can a contemporary audience become with a caricature or a stock character?

The play’s sparse dialogue placed the onus on us involved to breathe each character into life. Working with the actors, I discovered that Hermann infuses the medieval format and style with modern theatre techniques: carefully balanced dramatic structure, symbolism, thematic threads, and surprising subtlety that forward his aims. Because he keeps the medieval sing-song poetic meter and monosyllabic vocabulary, the hidden richness is easy to miss and I certainly have in the past.

scene from a christmas play

Let’s take a brief look at the innkeeper, called Moneybags with all the unsubtlety of medieval finger-pointing, who in a fourteenth century miracle play would have caricatured a money-grabbing, fawning innkeeper, consumed by himself and his little kingdom. Hermann adds enough meat to flesh out a human being with foibles, weaknesses, and a beating heart that responds to the already-born Christ Child. However when angrily confronted by his hard-hearted wife, Moneybags retreats. When Joseph offers a solution to the housing problem, Moneybags, relieved, agrees and trots affably back to serve his “high lords and ladies.” Touched but unmoved, Moneybags mirrors most of us. In other plays he has been called Everyman.

In contrast Hermann offers us the kings. They are not as readily approachable as Moneybags. They first appear in their own scene, medieval in character, regal, grand, and extraordinarily powerful. King Balthasar holds “a scepter in my hand.” Melchior wears “a crown upon my brow, / For this did God the Lord allow.” And Caspar sounds the same paean for himself: “I am the king over all the Moors, / This saber I carry at my side.”

They are also inordinately proud of their gifts for the child they seek: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They could remain insularly pompous, but their obsessive quest after the “heavenly star” and their individual, heated confrontations with Herod which they animatedly recount assure each of them a place in our hearts, a necessary gift from the playwright that prepares us for the final scene.

When the kings arrive at the manger, they repeat their self-satisfied introductions, and they draw attention to their magnificent gifts, but the sands beneath their feet are starting to shift. The once proud Balthasar answers Joseph’s simple query, “How come you, highly honored lords, / To us poor folk in a stall?” with:

Whether rich or poor, of low or high fame,
In the light of God’s grace we are all the same.

Thus Balthasar stops the manger scene in its typical tracks. Bits slip quietly into each king’s praise of the babe that foreshadow the play’s imminent climax. The kings do offer their traditional frankincense, myrrh, and gold, which the shepherds gape at and which the lords can leave behind without any noticeable change in their lives.

Unexpectedly Balthasar pauses at the manger as he rises from his knees:

Thou Child so tiny, God so great,
Who holds the whole world in thy hands.
Of what avail earth’s power and state,
Before the Kingdom thou commands?

This gives the other two kings a moment’s pause before he continues with a shocking pronouncement:

Our kingly scepter, saber, and crown,
We humbly lay before thy throne.

This is breath-taking stuff. Balthasar doesn’t only speak for himself. He has plumbed the other kings’ depths, just as Christ has waded through his and plucked the very heart out of his breast. Has Balthasar blundered into a stalemate or has he struck a resounding chord?

manger scene

Time at the manger stands still as Caspar and Melchior wrestle with their unexpected summons. The kings’ single-hearted quest, their devotion to one another, and their determined stand against Herod the Evil, have sorely tested each one. They have known refining fire.

When these men, weighted with worldly power, bound by war, wealth, and honor, and necessarily bloodied by it all, see Christ their king, finally see him in a baby, they each bow down before his throne. Free willingly they relinquish independence and power symbolised in their release of scepter, crown, and saber. They have arrived where Moneybags dared not tread.

These kings had been prepared. Their eyes were opened to see the mighty mystery in a manger. They respond with all they have, and they will never be the same. May it be so with each of us this Christmas.


About the author

a photograph of Ann Morrissey

Ann Morrissey

Ann Morrissey lives in Beech Grove, a Bruderhof in England, with her husband, Dave. They delight in the English countryside...

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