It seems to me that the clouds are gathering again and we're in for a long patch of nasty weather. I don't mean that in the sense that the rains are soon to return. Here on the west coast that won't likely happen for a couple more months and will be a welcome event. I'm thinking about the climate of American political life, where the horizons seem to be shrinking and the sky darkening in an ominous way.
If weather is the product of opposing pressure fronts, what we are currently witnessing is a storm in the making. One side seems to have jettisoned its core values as it retreats in the face of cynical rhetoric and obdurate opposition, while the other side contrives to seize control by framing a fear-based narrative that dismisses both science and economics. Throw in the thunder and lightning of religion and conflicting social values, stir with the cyclonic force of a declining economy, and you have a perfect storm. I don't think the next thirteen months will witness much in the way of civility and reasoned discourse in the American dialogue. I feel a strong urge to head for the storm cellar and keep my head down until this thing passes.
It would be nice to keep Revels - and the arts generally - out of, or above, politics. Certainly that is the premise of what little public arts funding exists, and there is a common perception that aside from a few organizations (e.g. The S.F. Mime Troupe) who take a polemic approach in their performances, art is supposed to be softer, gentler, more exultant, or at least more abstract in dealing with social and political issues.
But humans are political animals by nature. Ever since primitive family groups began to band together for the common good, systems were required to allow big decisions to be made. These systems developed in many ways. Some reflected individual dominance- the ideal of the benevolent tyrant, and some collective decision-making- one man, one vote democracy. No matter the form, every society has had to deal with the allocation and use of power- what we think of as "politics".
In researching Arthurian literature and history in preparation for this year's Christmas Revels, I am struck by how dramatically the accounts of the legends in different eras trace the larger social sensibilities of the culture in which the story is presented. He is by turns, the valiant and battle-hardened liberator of his people, the elegant and gentle shepherd of chivalry, or even a psychologically complex and conflicted inventor of proto- democracy. Whatever his characterization, he is always somehow emblematic of the people to whom his story is being told. But while Arthur may appeal to our appetite for heroism or our taste for grace, nonetheless his stature is based upon his being a figure of governance.
As king, it is Arthur's role to make decisions about war and peace, application of justice, distribution of wealth and maintenance of the welfare of his subjects. While the conceit may be that all power resides in his throne, nevertheless his ability to rule is tempered by the need to enlist and preserve the support both of his own knights and others who surround him whose stature is sustained by a discreet constituency: the courtiers and minor kings and warlords. Arthur is a politician, and the Arthurian legend is fueled by his attempts to retain power in order to identify and act in behalf of the common weal.
It would be tempting, in creating this year's Christmas Revels, to use this inherent sense of political action to make clear statements about the contemporary scene, or at least to add intrigue and tension to the narrative. At the very least I could map onto the creation of the round table some fanciful projection of constitutional democracy, or I could use the time-honored device of demonizing contemporary public figures by portraying them recognizably as jackasses.
I'm not planning to do that. It's not that I don't have political opinions. I do, lots of them. Just ask my kids.
What stays my hand is my belief that Revels works on a deeper level than strict political allegory. Revels, as we so often assert, is about community. And while the political, decision-making and public policy level of activity is certainly an expression of community on a national scale, I think that Revels functions on a scale that is paradoxically both more intimate and more comprehensive than that.
The whole point of a modern political campaign is to amass enough adherents to pass a particular agenda; to create a community of the committed. Subtlety and nuance must be discarded in the interests of consensus. Supporters must ignore foreground detail and context and instead sign on with a group focused on a simplified objective. Vague agendas and sloganeering usually win. Complex analysis and thoughtful discourse usually do not.
The way that Revels approaches community is, it seems to me, the antithesis of modern politics. Rather than seek a simple doctrine, we tease out the simple threads in the complex tapestry of traditional art and custom. We regale in the unresolved and the contradictory, even the nonsensical. Where politics puts forward a construct, Revels deconstructs, always with the objective of releasing the power and touching the joy of the songs, dances and stories that we present.
And so again this December, when the winds of political discord begin to swirl, we invite you to shelter with us in a place where we celebrate mystery, beauty and fun. Where community is defined, not by polls and media, not by aversion and common fears, but by the family and friends seated down your row, and by those all around the hall. A community made up of those whose voices blend with yours in song, and of those whose hands you touch as you rise to join the endless chain of the dance of life. We send you these words of a traditional Irish blessing:
May the sun make your days bright,
may the stars illuminate your nights,
may the flowers bloom along your path,
your house stand firm against the storm.