Earlier this month, I had a chance to see the Gotham Early Music Scene’s production of The Play of Daniel, a medieval Christmas pageant, performed as part of the annual Twelfth Night Festival at New York’s Trinity Church. The festival, which the church started several years ago, revives the idea of Christmas as a twelve-day holiday beginning on December 25 and running until Epiphany, January 6. It includes concerts and plays at Trinity and nearby St. Paul’s. I hope the organizers include this production of Daniel every year.
Students at Beauvais Cathedral in the north of France wrote Daniel, a drama based on episodes in the Old Testament book, around the year 1200. The text is a mix of Latin and Old French. The music, without rhythmical notation, survives in a manuscript at the British Library; the Trinity production rendered many of the numbers as dances. Interpolated within the biblical story are non-biblical texts, including songs that foretell the coming of Christ and even a Christmas carol of sorts, Congaudemus celebremus natalis sollempnia—“Let us together joyfully celebrate the Feast of the Nativity.” The presence of these songs, as well as some other internal evidence, suggests Daniel is meant to be performed at Christmastime.
The Trinity production was a lot of fun—the music; the costumes, inspired by pictures at the Cloisters in upper Manhattan; the acting, everything. Trinity’s Gothic Revival setting worked perfectly. Early music isn’t everyone’s thing, I know, but I think everyone would enjoy this production, including kids. There are even some laughs.
For people interested in church and state, the play has additional meaning. In the Old Testament book, King Darius’s courtiers urge him to issue an order providing that “whoever prays to anyone, divine or human, for thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be thrown into a den of lions.” Darius issues the order, but Daniel refuses to comply. “He continued to go to his house, which had windows in its upper room open toward Jerusalem, and to get down on his knees three times a day to pray to his God and praise him, just as he had done previously.” The courtiers find out and haul Daniel before Darius, who cannot take back his order, as the laws of the Medes and Persians, once proclaimed, are irrevocable. Daniel goes off to the lions, but God sends an angel to protect him. Moved, Darius frees Daniel and orders the courtiers thrown to the lions instead. They don’t fare as well.
The story of Daniel in the lion’s den is pretty well known, even in our age of biblical illiteracy. But there is another church and state allusion in Daniel, more obscure today, but which contemporary audiences would surely have recognized. Daniel was written at the height of the investiture crisis, a centuries-long struggle for control of the Catholic Church that pitted the Holy Roman Emperor and other sovereigns against the papacy. Harold Berman famously dated the origins of the Western legal system, particularly legal pluralism, to the investiture crisis and what he called “the papal revolution” of the late Middle Ages. When Daniel was written, Becket’s murder was still in living memory, and the outcome of the investiture crisis was far from certain. Surely those students of Beauvais had current events in mind when they staged a drama showing what happens to courtiers who try to impose the power of the state against believers.
If you can, go and see Daniel next Christmas. Meanwhile, to tide you over, here is a video of this year’s performance from Trinity’s website.