HEADLINES

Monday, June 25, 2007

How to sidestep the Thought Police

In today's Telegraph, AN Wilson writes about the cycle of Corpus Christi Plays from York, 'the product of generations of human thinking and imagination about the central story of our culture' and how their performance is now being threatened by politicised box-ticking.

The NCF fully supports Wilson's call for individual patronage of the arts - the only way to free us from the suffocating grip of the thought police.

In York, these plays were performed by the town guilds from the time of Chaucer and Langland until Shakespeare's lifetime, and one of the joys of living in modern Britain is that they were revived.

First, they were put on at the Festival of Britain in 1951. Then, as often as could be afforded, they have been performed at the York Festival. There have been performances at the National Theatre in London, and in Edinburgh, and there have been inspired amateur renderings at the University of Leeds.

But enter stage left Christian Vassie, a Liberal Democrat councillor in York. He is hoping to get National Lottery money for a scheme which sounds in principle excellent: namely, to stage the York Plays in 2008, 2010 and 2012 using local students from the ages of 16 to 25.

Alas, to get the money, the council have to assure the Lottery Fund people that the event is "multicultural". Vassie is putting his mind to the question of how the event can be made "multicultural".

Those Muslims of Yorkshire who fostered the London bombers of July 2005 will rejoice at this, since they need not go through the farce of claiming to be deeply offended by the Roman soldiers in the York plays swearing, as they do, "for Mahound".

And Lord Janner won't have to bore anyone who would listen with the claim that the Jewish community is deeply hurt by the Harrowing of Hell play, in which we learn that his co-religionists were in league with Satan.

And Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens can sleep easy that their sensitive ears need not echo to the great opening of the play, declaimed originally by the Barkers' Guild: "I am gracious and great, God without beginning."

But the rest of us who inhabit a real world, where we are not constantly feeling hurt by cultures and ideas different from our own, think the York Cycle is a magnificent testimony to our shared Christian past. It also happens to contain, in the Passion Plays, some truly great writing, the only really great drama, as theatre, of the English Middle Ages.

It is the story of the Creation of the world, its near destruction by Flood (performed by the fishers' and mariners' guilds), the coming of Christ, and the redemption of the human race.

It is a proud, English thing, easily worthy to be spoken of beside the great mosaics of Monreale outside Palermo which depict the saving story from Fall to redemption of Man.

Would it really do the 16- to 25-year-olds of York such harm to be exposed to this story, to swim about in it, to experience the depth of wit, pathos, bawdry and awe that their Yorkshire forebears brought to the story?

The churches have made a poor show of presenting the tale to the past few generations. Many people have all but forgotten it. Is it now to be confined altogether to oblivion because it fails to meet the specifications of some idiotic committee in London?

If the thought police are really calling the shots in this way, should not some Yorkshire millionaire step forward and finance the York Plays with a no-strings-attached cheque?

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