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A Feast in Time of Plague: a Morality Tale

by on 28 August 2020

Eating Up Life

A Feast in Time of Plague: a Morality Tale

Reflection by Mark Aspen

Throw open the bunker lid and step cautiously out!   Being of a certain age, it is only over the last couple of weeks that your theatre critic has ventured into the real world as lockdown has been eased.   Does one see a world of fearful caution?  Does one heck!   Few trips around the Richmond area and further afield, plus two intrepid safaris into central London have shown caution is being thrown to the wind.  Many seem to think that the worldwide pandemic has flown off across the Atlantic, whilst others just have an inshallah mentality.

My straw poll locally estimates that only about 4% wear facemasks outdoors.  The one-way pedestrian system over Richmond Bridge is largely ignored, and the pre-lockdown take-over of the pavements by cyclists has itself become an epidemic, now augmented by electric scooters.   On warm evenings, Twickenham Green has become an alcohol and urine soaked rave location.  These are a few examples.

However, not wishing to cultivate a GOM image, we must throw aside the Grumpy bit and say that there have been moments of welcome kindness: those young people who smilingly step aside to maintain the two metres, the lady at Waterloo Station proffering hand sanitiser, the restaurant staff going out of their way to make sure that your table is far from the coughing crowd’s ignoble strife (whilst still having a riverside view). 

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Which brings me to Pushkin.  In the early days of lockdown, I reflected that his play Mozart and Salieri could be an allegory for the way that these unusual times distort people’s views and actions.  I left hanging the thought for reflection that another of his short plays, A Feast in Time of Plague, is a play pointedly prescient in 2020. 

These short plays come from a set of four, published in 1832, which Pushkin called The Little Tragedies.  Amazingly, all four plays were written within a single fortnight in 1830 when Pushkin’s wedding, to society beauty Natalia Goncharova, was delayed due to a cholera epidemic raging in the countryside around Boldino, where quarantine measures left him stranded throughout October and November.  The Little Tragedies comprise The Stone Guest (based on Don Juan), Mozart and Salieri, The Miserly Knight (which references Pushkin’s own tumultuous personal life), and A Feast in Time of Plague.  The completion date of each play is written on its manuscript, so we know that the last one A Feast in Time of Plague was finished on 8th November 1830.  Interestingly, all four of these plays were variously set as one act operas by Russian composers, Dargomyzhsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov, and César Cui respectively.   Now there’s a great challenge to an opera company, to rep all four operas as a feature season.   Count me in for reviewing it.

Pushkin’s inspiration for Пир во время чумы, A Feast in Time of Plague, was the first act of The City of Plague, a play by Scottish dramatist John Wilson, which had been newly published the previous year (1829), a copy of which Pushkin took to Boldino with him.  However, when Pushkin had travelled to the Caucasus in that year, he witnessed the effects of an epidemic of the plague in the capital of Armenia, Erzrum.  The plague in 1829, cholera in 1830; it was all happening for Pushkin pestilence-wise when he should have been preparing for his wedding, poor chap.

The Feast in Time of Plague is the shortest of the four at only 242 lines set in verse.  (César Cui’s opera adaptation is much longer.)  The setting is a trestle table at the roadside, think Twickenham Green, where a rowdy group of men and women are eating and drinking,  feasting no less.  They have made themselves oblivious of the plague raging all around them.  We discover that a popular member of their friends, Jackson, has just died from the plague.  Walsingham, the Master of Revels, proposes a toast in honour of Jackson.  One of the group, Mary sings a maudlin song about two lovers who contemplate their doom during the plague.  Another woman, Louisa is sceptical about the song, but when a creaking cart goes by overladen with dead plague victims, she faints.  

Notwithstanding this, Walsingham sings an anthem to the plague, lauding it as a promise of eternal life.  However, a priest comes along, who berates the revellers for their “godless feast, befitting godless madmen” in time of the plague, which “mock at and profane the gloomy peace spread everywhere by death and desolation”.   He reminds Walsingham that just three weeks ago his mother and wife both fatally succumbed to the plague.   The priest cannot persuade him to quit the party, and he leaves.   The feast continues, but Walsingham is lost in thought.

This a very Russian way to end a play: leave it in the air to float, and to my mind a rewarding way to end.  There is then something to think about, or in ordinary times chat about in the bar afterwards (ah, those were the days!).   So a penny for Walsingham’s thoughts.  We get a clue from the closing lines, “My mother’s shade will not call me away/ From here—it’s too late—I hear your voice / Calling me—I recognize your striving/ To save me….Old man, go in peace”.  So is it guilt?    Or is he partying to forget the “horror of that dead emptiness / Which greets me now in my own house”?   Or is “the novelty of these furious revels / And by the blessed poison of this cup” merely an escape in booze?

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Pushkin though is a past-master in juxtaposing opposites.  The Priest strives to save Walsingham’s soul, while Walsingham destroys his own body in dissolute despair.   Mary contrasts pre-plague days when “People then on days of rest / Filled the church to pray./ Children’s voices full of cheer / Through the schoolyard rang”; with post-plague “Now the church deserted stands;/ School is locked and dark./ Overgrown are all our lands;/ Empty groves are stark.”

This all seems very familiar in 2020.  Schools locked, churches empty, work in abeyance; and the revellers fill open spaces with scant regard to others.  With a bank holiday coming this weekend, will we see Brighton and Bournemouth beaches crowded with revellers packed like pilchards, oiled and ready to grill?  And it will be a bold clergyman who remonstrates with anyone for a “godless feast” nowadays.  If local events are anything to go by, he will be chased away at knifepoint.

When I wrote in passing about Pushkin’s A Feast in Time of Plague back at the end of April, I had not realised that others had also made that connection and most pleasing to a theatre critic are mounting staged productions!

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Clod Ensemble is a cross-discipline performance company, which was formed twenty-five years ago.  Its first production was A Feast during the Plague, and this astounding co-incidence has triggered an ambitious project to assemble performers from around the world to take part in a digital reworking a quarter century on, called The Feast during the Plague (Redux 2020).   Composer Paul Clark arranged the show’s original score and contributions from musicians, dancers, singers and mime artists are being collated into the new work, which promises to be an innovative, intricate and intriguing experience.

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Meanwhile a real opera is coming and newly commissioned at that.  It is to be filmed in performance at the Theatre in the Woods in West Horsley.  At the beginning of lockdown, Grange Park Opera commissioned a new opera version of Pushkin’s A Feast in Time of Plague, choosing an emerging young composer Alex Woolf, a twenty-five year old BBC Young Composer of the Year, with Sir David Pountney, the former Artistic Director of Welsh National Opera, as the librettist. 

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Grange Park Opera never does things slowly.  When it decamped from the Grange near Winchester three years ago, following a spat with the Grange Festival, taking the theatre seats and the name, it built its own opera house in under a year on land at West Horsley Place gifted by Bamber Gascoigne, which he had serendipitously just inherited from his aunt the Duchess of Roxburghe.   Following this example of speed, Pountney finished his libretto early in June and Woolf completed the score by mid-July.  Pountney has padded out Pushkin’s rather sparse plot with a reference to the Last Supper, bringing in twelve additional characters, each inspired by one of the twelve Apostles.  Well … er, yes; all will soon be revealed as a live streaming takes place on 12th and 13th September.

In Boccaccio’s Decameron, set in Italy in 1348 during an outbreak of the Black Death, seven women and three men meet for ten days during lockdown, the δέκα ἡμέρη (ten days) of the title.  They feast sumptuously and every one tells a story a day, giving themselves up to revelry as a means of forgetting the danger of the omnipresent pestilence, a hundred tales to forget their woes.   However, the revellers in A Feast in Time of Plague are effectively debating whether it is right to turn ones back selfishly on the community, take the risk, and live for the moment, or to act humanely as one with the community for the common good, for many others are doomed by their own vulnerability and should be protected. 

With the twelve Apostles evil was about to be expiated through Christ, but in 1348 there is no redemption.  In A Feast in Time of Plague, Pushkin’s symbolism is that one can take the choice offered by the Priest, the felix culpa of Adam, save yourself and others; or you can eat to satisfy the present needs of the self, even if you are eating up life itself.

Whew, time to get back in the bunker!

Mark Aspen, August 2020

Photography by Orest Kiprensky,  Pieter Bruegel, Paul Brylidge, Ino Riga and Grange Park Opera

From → Drama, Opera

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