Finding Voices, and Looking Devotional: Reflections on Rehearsing the Musical Aspects of ‘The Play of Adam’

Three months ago the choir for ‘The Play of Adam’ met and began an exploration of Gregorian chant, and how it fits within the drama. Coming from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds from the Schools of History and English and MEMS but not music theory, it’s exciting to explore an important and fresh (to us!) part of the medieval soundscape in relation to drama, performance, liturgy, and audience.

The way we approach chant is through practice, informed by our performance experience and historical grounding. As such I lead rehearsals with a few questions in mind:

  1. How does Gregorian chant function in ‘The Play of Adam’?
  2. How can we go about performing it?
  3. What is authenticity, and is it possible to attain it?
  4. How does chant fit with the soundscape of the modern world?
  5. How does it interact with the environment(s) in which it is/was practiced and performed?

There isn’t space to address all of the issues raised by these questions; issues we are still battling with, particularly when it comes to imagining how the medieval clergy would have performed it and how (or if indeed we want to) capture that. Instead I’ll talk a bit about how I’ve seen the choir grow into the music, and perhaps how we’ve begun to imagine it whilst singing.

Essentially, the chants seem, from our polyphonic, emotive, harmonic, post-punk perspective to favour words over melody: the rhythms are steady and meditative, and at times the lines lead to places unfamiliar to our modern ears. At first I found everyone approaching the lines tentatively in fear of being exposed for singing the wrong note because everyone keeps the same line. Breathing is also difficult, it has to be staggered to create a sense of an unbroken line of melody, and if this melody isn’t supported the pitch also has the tendency to drop. Gradually, we have found speeding up the chants to a steady pace the best way of keeping pitch, and also the easiest way to remember the melodies.

At one rehearsal Kate mentioned how chant was akin to rap in the way it has a kind of rhythmic reflective vibe, and this is an analogy which works in our connection with the subject matter of the chant. If we think of its purpose as a liturgical device to enforce biblical narratives and catholic concepts, but also within the minds of those feeling the chants as they sing them, it is akin to a piece of poetry read aloud or set to music. ‘Let’s look devotional’, is something I’ve said like a broken record every time we come to stand and perform a chant, and now as we get towards the work in progress performance there is a kind of energy coming from the choir, a wholeness, and an intention to the sound I hope will come through on Wednesday as contrast and relief to the pace of the spoken lines…

— Hannah Liley

Medieval and Modern: Acting in Paradise

Naturally, when tackling the process of putting on a medieval drama in the midst of fast-paced twenty-first century life, one ongoing question underlies the entire rehearsal and preparation process: how much of the “medieval” do we attempt to preserve, and to what degree is it necessary to impose our inherent modern perspectives on the text? This question has stimulated many a healthy debate amongst those involved in the preparation and production of The Play of Adam, and for the actors, it has meant making very intentional choices inspired by research.

After character parts were assigned following auditions, Francisca Stangel, our director, urged the actors to research medieval images (twelfth-century when possible) that would inspire movement and posture choices for various situations throughout the play. Each actor brought a small collection of images to the following rehearsal and paired a portion of the text (or a specific situation within the play) with movements that each image inspired. The exercise produced some fascinating results, and the experiment forced the cast to explore various possibilities, no matter how contrived or outdated the movements might feel. In this way, the cast fought together to establish a strong link between the present and the medieval past as a foundation for the weeks of rehearsals yet to come.

Excerpt from God and Lucifer British Library Royal 2 B VII ('The Queen Mary Psalter') England, between 1310 and 1320

Excerpt from God and Lucifer
British Library Royal 2 B VII
(‘The Queen Mary Psalter’)
England, between 1310 and 1320

Jon-Mark Grussenmeyer channeling his Lucifer/Satan inspiration

Jon-Mark Grussenmeyer channeling his Lucifer/Satan inspiration

On the other hand, the text itself is startlingly modern. Originally performed in medieval French vernacular—itself a unique trait for its time, with selected parts of the script in Latin (stage directions and biblical quotations or paraphrases), the fabulous translation by Carol Symes retains the strikingly innovative feel of the play as a whole. Sentences like “what’s up, Adam,” initially cause the reader to question the quality of the translation, but after examining the original French (the play is helpfully organized as a split-page translation), which reads, “Que fais, Adam,” one realizes that much of the text originally read as a casual conversation.

However, the story surrounding the heart-wrenching fall of man is anything but casual; similarly, the text alternates between rhyming octosyllabic couplets that make up the more conversational (and often quite humorous) dialogue between characters and ten-syllable lines organized into rhyming quatrains that communicate a far more serious, solemn, or stately intent. For instance, some of God’s monologues are organized in the latter fashion, as are Adam and Eve’s laments following the fall. These passages contain an inherently serious undertone that is not as evident in the rapid-fire dialogue between characters elsewhere in the text. For example, in contrast to many of the lengthy monologues, most of Satan’s dialogue—which is quite fast-paced and clever—is organized into rhyming octosyllabic couplets with both humorous and dark undertones.

This organization of the text is hardly surprising, as medieval thought in general reveled in contrast and dichotomy. Indeed, the play is both humorous and serious; does not (or should not) great humor always have a serious undertone or intent? This is the brilliance, among many other fascinating elements, of Ordo representacionis Ade (The Play of Adam). If actors, props, scenery, costumes, and music were stripped away, the text would still speak for itself: the medieval and modern mingle quite clearly on the page.

Thus, in keeping with the text itself, and with a work-in-progress performance a mere week away, the actors have come to terms with the fact that it is impossible to entirely choose one over the other; it is necessary that medieval and modern mingle in Paradise.

— Grace Grussenmeyer