The winter solstice approaches. You and your fellow citizens take a break from the hard labors of the day and gather in the village square, a bit apprehensive about what the future holds, as the days grow shorter and the weather grows cold. In the square, a troupe of performers wearing fantastic costumes offers up a little dramatic tale. It’s a tale involving some sort of personal quest, partly serious and partly rhyming fun. There’s singing. There’s dancing. The main character is a Fool. There’s fellowship and an awareness of the precious fragility of life. When the performance ends, you and your fellow citizens are united in celebration, and the spirits of the season have been honored.
Now, back to reality. It’s 2005, it’s New Hampshire, the village square has been replaced by a Store 24 and you’re not even certain of your neighbor’s name.
What to do?
Well, without a functioning time machine, there’s only one way to experience the medieval magic and colorful community of that long-ago solstice season: The Revels.
Other Celebrations in Song and Dance
Revels North is the Hanover-based offshoot of the original Revels group formed in the 1970s. Shows offered twice yearly might make you think you’ve been transported back to the 1500s (though with modern-day niceties like plumbing and heat!).
Indeed, their Christmas Revels are based on the old village square ritual performances known as “mummers plays.” No one seems to know quite where that curious name comes from, except that “mummers” sounds a bit like the rhyming nonsense sounds the troupe would sometimes make while performing. What we do know is that the mummers play brought townsfolk out of their homes and away from their fires to celebrate the mysteries and verities of life with stories that mixed the awe of religion with the d’oh of ordinary existence.
This month, Revels North offers its 31st annual Christmas Revels (see details page 32), featuring a cast of 90. The mix of local amateurs and professional performers will tell an adapted Russian folk tale, “The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship,” in which the hero (who, as is so often true in real life, is also The Fool) must overcome a series of challenges. He flies in a magic machine across Europe in order to win the hand of the one he loves. Just like the mummers plays of old, it’s a story of a personal quest, with lots of singing and audience participation. To spice things up this year there’s even the Syzolkryli Dance Ensemble of the Ukraine.
Revels North Associate Producer Maureen Burford still vividly recalls her first time seeing a Revels show. She says she was exhilarated. “The feeling of engagement, of joy — was stunning,” says Burford. “I walked away that first time telling myself I had to experience it all again. And I did. Again and again.” She soon moved from Revels fan to Revels employee.
The Revels promote a sense of timelessness as well as a return to a period in history when community and nature were often all that townsfolk had to celebrate. Now, when people have so many distractions, Revels North performs regular outreach programs to bring the lost art of storytelling and community performance to local schools and groups. Twice yearly they perform solstice-based shows. Summer solstice features a parade through downtown Hanover.
In this way, the Revels are really something more akin to a movement than a performing troupe. The idea was born in New York in 1957 when a young singer named John Langstaff dipped into ancient ritual and traditional storytelling to put together a unique, non-denominational celebration of the winter solstice. Langstaff found inspiration in the tradition of the mummer’s play, lacing the performance with ritual storytelling, song, dance and audience participation.
That vivid concept then settled, seedlike, into the soil of his creativity until 1971. Langstaff was living in Cambridge at the time and, at the urging of his daughter Carol, he revisited his 1957 performance. Once uncovered, the seed soon blossomed into full flower as the first-ever Christmas Revels.
The show sparked a Revels movement, becoming a regular event in Cambridge. Soon, offshoot groups formed throughout the country. Revels North, based in Hanover, was formed in 1974 by Langstaff’s daughter.
“The Revels fill an important niche — we offer a combination that’s just hard to find of storytelling and audience participation. It’s an old-fashioned sense of community,” says Burford. “It’s half-tomfoolery and half-poignancy.”
They strive to be completely family friendly; songs and stories are kid-appropriate, and there’s enough going on — with bright costumes, dancers or rhyming songs — to keep the interest of everybody in the family. “We end up with multi-generations dancing and on stage — from toddlers to much older folks,” says Burford. “It’s a true celebration of spirit and energy. And life.”
Each Christmas Revels show includes a reading of Susan Cooper’s classic solstice poem “The Shortest Day.” The Revels name comes from Cooper’s line: “And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake/they shouted, reveling.”
Cooper’s vision provides a potent vision for both the Revels and, well, the world:
They carol, fest, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends
And hope for peace
And so do we, here …
“With the Revels, you get permission to go back to another time, just for a little while,” says Burford. “The troupe isn’t much separated from the audience — we’re all just community. That’s the amazing magic.”
Perhaps it’s just the magic required to lure New Hampshire townsfolk away from their homes and homefires to celebrate the mysteries and verities of life. NH
This article appears in the December 2005 issue of New Hampshire Magazine