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The Past Re-Created in Pageantry

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The historic pageant is a British revival of a very old form of popular national drama. In many countries, notably in the Tyrol and Bavaria, peasant plays in the open air dealing with national life have never died. Some forms of pageantry survived here, such as the annual Lord Mayor's Procession in London, with its historic display in dumb show, the Lady Godiva Procession at Coventry and the Welsh Eisteddfod. The nearest approach to the modern pageant was the Eglinton Tournament in 1839.

In 1905 Mr. Louis N. Parker, the well-known playwright, endeavoured to create a new form of people's drama at the Dorsetshire town of Sherborne. This little place has an historic past almost as famous as that of any part of England, and was the site of a great bishopric before Salisbury was founded. Mr. Parker wanted to revive the memory of this ancient greatness.

The dramatist first called his attempt a Folk Play, but under that name it aroused very lukewarm interest. When, by a happy thought, he adopted the title of Pageant, public enthusiasm immediately kindled, the people of the district seized on the idea eagerly, plans were made on a large scale, and many hundreds volunteered their services.

The central idea of Mr. Parker's production was that a pageant is essentially a local affair, presenting the historic life of that locality, as far as possible amidst its own surroundings. The players are local residents who give their services voluntarily and, when they can, make their own uniforms and dresses. Pageants, as Mr. Parker viewed them, were to be held in the open air, without artificial scenery or any of the ordinary accompaniments of a stage. They differed from older displays like the Lord Mayor's procession in that, in place of being in dumb show, they were presented more ambitiously with music, dialogue and dramatic movement.

The Sherborne pageant was of such importance in setting a precedent for what was to follow that it is worth describing in more detail. The pageant was produced in Sherborne Castle, within the ruins of the keep, processions making their entrance and exit by a gatehouse on one side, or by a passage over a moat on the other. At the start a narrative chorus entered from the rear of the ruins. Then followed eleven episodes, each having to do with Dorsetshire history. The coming of Ealdham in a.d. 705 was followed by the defeat of the Danes, the death of Ethelbald, the coming of Alfred,. how the Benedictines established their rule, how William the Conqueror removed the see to Sarum, Roger of Caen laying the foundations of his castle, the quarrel between town and monastery, the expulsion of the monks, the foundation of the school and the coming of Sir Walter Raleigh. There were Morris dances and Maypole dances. The display closed eventually with a grand finale.

The affair at Sherborne was followed by a still more imposing pageant at Warwick in 1906, "in celebration of the thousandth anniversary of the conquest of Meidia by Ethelfreda." A number of cities and towns with specially rich historic associations started plans for displays on their own account. Most schemes necessitated at least eighteen months' preparation, and it was not until 1907-8 that most of the representations could take place. At least six big pageants were presented in 1907, including a very elaborate affair at Oxford, with fifteen scenes and an interlude, and there were also successful spectacles at Bury St. Edmunds, Caris-brooke, Romsey and Porchester.

In 1908 there was a pageant at Chelsea, reproducing with amazing vividness the life of the eighteenth century, and there were others at Cheltenham, Dover, Pevensey and Winchester. In 1909 came Bath, Colchester, Cardiff and the English Church pageant at Fulham Palace. Many of the plans for 1910 were cancelled owing to the death of King Edward, but the Army pageant at Fulham Palace and the Chester pageant were outstanding events that year.

The somewhat unfortunate experience of the Festival of Empire at the Crystal Palace in 1911 gave a temporary check to the movement, but in 1912 saw the Huntingdon, Scarborough and West Sussex displays. St. Albans, Lancaster, Merton and the Stafford Millenary were among the fine productions of 1913. In 1914, before the coming of the Great War, there were pageants at Bristol, Hastings ("The Pageant of Heroes") and Hertford.

It is only possible to deal with the outstanding features of a few of these in detail, nor is more necessary, because the same broad lines of treatment were followed by nearly all. The Dover pageant requires special mention, for, in the opinion of many, it was one of the best arranged and most impressive of all. It did not owe so much as some to its natural surroundings, for the ruins of the old Priory at S. Martin the Less, now part of the grounds of Dover College, are very restricted in area, and have not any extraordinary features. The Dover success was due to good management, keen local spirit and readiness to adapt the production to circumstances. What struck every visitor here was the great heartiness of all; the very children played their part in the Morris dances as though they were delighting in every moment of them. The leading actors made a really striking appearance, particularly King Arthur. Although the rules of anonymity were observed, everyone knew that some of the players in the Dover Priory were people of real note.

The pageant started with the life of King Arthur and finished with the meeting of Charles I and his bride, Henrietta Maria, at Dover. The words of the final scene had been written by the French poet, M. Louis Tiercelin, and were spoken in French by a group of young French students from Douai. There was an orchestra of over 100, including the complete band of one of the regiments of the garrison, a narrative chorus of 80, and a madrigal chorus of 160. The total performers numbered 2,000, and 57,000 people paid for admission. The Dover pageant was not a financial success, but artistically it was rightly regarded as a triumph.

The Pageant of London, part of the Festival of Empire, given at the Crystal Palace in 1911, with Mr. Frank Lascelles as pageant master, was at once the "most ambitious and, financially, the most disastrous production of its kind. A specially constructed open-air amphitheatre was erected at the north end of the Palace, seating 10,000 people and lit at night by searchlights and 200 powerful arc lamps. The pageant was in four parts, with eight scenes in each, one part being produced in turn every fourth day. The first dealt with London from prehistoric days to the Age of Chivalry. The second started with the social upheaval of the Tudor days and ended with the reign of Queen Elizabeth. The third carried our national history on to the end of the Napoleonic Wars, and the fourth gave a picture of the Empire from the landing of Sir Humphrey Gilbert at Newfoundland to the proclamation of Queen Victoria as Empress of India in 1877.

The usual pageant was not, and is not, on so great a scale as this, although the players may often number 2,000. The grouping, the colour schemes, and the control of these large bodies of men, women and children require the most skilled and exact work. Several capable pageant masters soon appeared. Besides Sherborne, Mr. Parker directed the Warwick, Bury St. Edmunds, Dover and York pageants. Sir Frank Benson, Mr. Lascelles and Mr. Gilbert Hudson were notable among those taking up this work, while Mr. Henry Miller has had much to do with indoor pageants.

The selection of beautiful historic sites gave the pageants a charm in themselves. The Winchester festival in 1908 owed at least part of its triumph to its surroundings, the ruins of Wolvesey Castle. It would be impossible to imagine a more picturesque setting than was found for the Scarborough pageant in 1912, a level plateau or scarp rising 300 feet from the sea and crowned by an ancient keep. Here a series of dramatic episodes, full of life and colour, was given especially associated with the sea life of the coast people from the days of the Iberians and Gaels and so through the centuries to the time of the press gang and the smugglers.

The pageant at Colchester had a rich field, from the struggle between Boadicea and the Romans, through the battle with Tudor kings for Colchester's fishing rights onwards. The Cheltenham pageant in Pittfield Park had, as its great feature, the depicting of the siege of Gloucester, when, on August 10, 1663, King Charles summoned it to surrender, and when its citizens refused and were eventually relieved by the Earl of Essex.

Two very notable pageants in pre-war days were held in the grounds of Fulham Palace, one dealing with the Church and one with the Army. The Church pageant displayed some of the greatest dramatic scenes in English ecclesiastical history, closing with the trial and acquittal of the seven bishops in 1688. The Army pageant made the ambitious attempt to display the history of the British Army, from the sixth to the nineteenth century, in a series of episodes. Battles like Hastings, Crecy, Agincourt, Flushing, Naseby, Corunna and Badajos were staged. Some of the scenes, such as those that showed Queen Elizabeth and the London Trained Bands, the battle of Naseby with the stand of the Blue Regiment and the charge of the Parliamentary Horse, and the battles of the eighteenth century, from Malplaquet to Minden, were especially effective.

The coming of the Great War naturally put a stop for the time to pageantry. But the war over, the idea was quickly revived. Specially noteworthy was the pageant of Sussex, at Arundel Castle, in 1923, staged in the beautiful private grounds of the castle, the Duchess of Norfolk presiding. Over 1,500 persons participated in the eight episodes, which started with the arrival of the Normans at Arundel and concluded with an historic procession of English earls from the days of Alfred the Great, all on horseback, each in the costume of his age.

Warwick rivalled its first success in a "Merrie England" pageant in 1926, telling of Elizabethan days. There was a Tudor pageant in Sandwich, one at Chelmsford, and one at Walmer Castle in the same year. The city of Norwich gave itself up, under the direction of Mr. Nugent Monck, to a living reproduction of its own history, when over a thousand people presented episode after episode, showing the fight for freedom, the establishment of local industries, the founding of the cathedral, and all of Norwich's rich story. Music, it should be mentioned, here played a leading part.

The year 1927 saw great activity and afforded abundant proof of the permanent place pageantry is taking in the life of English country towns. Lady Salisbury organized the picturesque Tudor Revels at Hatfield, where, contrary to the usual rule, no word was spoken by the players, thus allowing the entire attention of the spectators to be concentrated on the scenic display. Bexhill, a very modern town, resolved to have its historic pageant, and at first found some difficulty in obtaining the necessary historic connexion. This, however, was done, and over 600 townspeople joined in the display.

The centenary of the completion of the suspension bridge over the river Conway was celebrated by a pageant, which was performed under the walls of the castle, an ideal spot, and dealt with outstanding events in Welsh history. Harlech Castle admirably lent itself to another pageant of Welsh history. A very large pageant, in which 1,500 people took part, was presented in the ruins of the old Carthusian Priory at Northallerton, Yorks, the players being drawn from all parts of the North Riding, and Miss Edith Craig acting as pageant mistress. The great military tattoos at Aldershot and elsewhere, which are now a regular feature of the English season, are, of course, pageants in the truest sense of the word.

One of the most impressive pageants was the Scots National Pageant at Edinburgh, carried out under the direction of Sir Frank Benson in 1927. Members of many noble families, whose ancestors had played a leading part in Scottish history, took part. There was no anonymity here. The Marquess of Huntly appeared as the Earl of Huntly, Chancellor to James IV. The Countess of Stair impersonated Mary Queen of Scots; the Duke of Norfolk appeared as Earl of Surrey, High Treasurer of England; and the Marquess of Queensberry as King James IV.

The pageant was shown amid the ruins of Craigmillar Castle, near Edinburgh, nearly 3,000 people taking part. It comprised five episodes, dealing with the period between the reigns of James IV of Scotland and Mary Queen of Scots, and such scenes as the betrothal of Mary to Darnley, the death of Rizzio and Darnley, and the sad end of the queen's reign. The King and Queen were present with 10,000 spectators at the opening performance, and from first to last the thing was a triumph.

We have in the pageant a form of popular drama which is bound to live. It gives the ordinary citizen, often for the first time, a real sense of the historic past of his own people. It adds to local dignity and local friendship.

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Pictures for The Past Re-Created in Pageantry

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