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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Morality Plays, Past and Present

We somehow missed the annual rerun of Charlie Brown’s Christmas show, but we have watched it so often that we know almost every word about his sad little tree and his frustrating attempt to direct a Christmas pageant. We did see the Grinch again trying to steal holiday joy from Who Ville and then repenting of his meanness, and it made me think about literature’s roots as morality plays. Long before the Grinch tried to ruin life for Little Cindy Lou Who – indeed, dating all the way back to pre-Christian days -- the great Greek playwrights used the medium of drama to raise questions of right and wrong.

The onstage battle between good and evil is especially true of Aeschylus and his “Agamemnon,” Euripides’ “Electra” and “The Trojan Women,” as well as Sophocles’ “Antigone” and “Oedipus Rex.” If you haven’t thought about these plays since your school days, make it a New Years’ resolution to read them now. They contain eternal truths, and one could spend one’s time in many less meaningful ways. Note also the strong presence of female protagonists and a focused feminism that was more evident two-thousand-plus years ago than now. As I’ve said before, progress is not inevitable.

Indeed, we have no plays, morality ones or not, from the era known as the Dark Ages. Historians date this as beginning in 476, when the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed from the throne in Italy. They date the Middle Ages as beginning in 800, when France’s Charlemagne was crowned as the first ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, officially separating the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church. It also was the era that Christianity spread north of its roots in the Middle East – Israel, Syria, Macedonia, etc. – to the heart of Europe. Remember, too, that state and church would be the same for many centuries into the future, as most people believed that their ruler was semi-divine or at the very least, chosen by their deity. The Japanese believed that of their emperor until after World War II.

As the Catholic Church gained power in the Middle Ages and displaced Europe’s pagan religions, its clergy – including nuns -- became more literate, and morality plays reappeared. None came anywhere close to rivaling the classics of ancient Greece, but the church found this medium to be a useful way of teaching the Bible’s lessons to the multitudes of people who could not read. The oldest known such was written by Hildegard of Bingen, a German Benedictine, in 1151. She included both music and drama, and it is the only surviving morality play to have a score and a libretti. I’ve never seen it, but I expect her manuscript is in some museum near the Rhine. Translations of her “Ordo Virtutum, or “Order of the Virtues,” have been performed many times.

It and other of the era’s morality plays were simplistic, of course, as were the people who came to watch the traveling troupes who performed them. Characters often were called by the characteristic they were intended to convey – as in “Truth” or “Tyrant.” Morality plays had become more sophisticated by the 1400s -- and then came Shakespeare, born in 1564. All of his numerous works, in fact, boil down to morality plays with choices between good and evil. Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear -- as well as Desdemona, Portia, Ophelia, and others – face fundamental questions of morality and immorality, justice and injustice.

Holiday Morality Movies

As technology moved us from the stage to the screen, the subject of Christmas soon followed: the earliest silent film that I’ve found was “Santa Claus” in 1898. The second appears to be in 1901, with “Scrooge, Or Marley’s Ghost,” adapted from Charles Dickens’ “Christmas Carol.” (During the season, I place my Christmas books in front of other books, and the one that now is featured on the most prominent bookshelf is about Dickens; it’s titled “The Man Who Invented Christmas.”) Thomas Edison himself encouraged the silent film production of “The Night Before Christmas” in 1905.

World War I began a few years later and seems to have led to a dearth of Christmas themes, even after sound replaced silent films. The 1920s and 1930s were decades of anxiety, as it became clear that the Great War had not been so great after all, and especially as the Great Depression set in. Christmas movies not only were fewer, but also took a sinister turn, with titles such as “The Unholy Tree” in 1930. Even “Babes in Toyland” (1934) revolves around thieves, and it is incompetence more than innocence that makes everything right in the end.

The movies that we consider classics today did not appear until the 1940s – and most of them after World War II ended in 1945. “Holiday Inn” presaged them in 1940, but “Christmas in Connecticut” was in 1945, while “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street” were 1946 and 1947. Bing Crosby’s “Bells of St. Mary’s” was in 1945, but its featured song (see below) never attained the popularity of “White Christmas” in 1954. All were morality plays in which good triumphs over evil – and even the evil wasn’t that threatening. No wonder that, like children, we watch them again and again.

These were black-and-white movies, and the decade of the 1940s was a special time: the proliferation of television in the 1950s would mean fewer Christmas movies in theaters and more made-for-TV color productions. But, personally, I fit in badly, as I don’t remember going to a single holiday-themed show in my youth: I was too young for the terrific black-and-white ones of the 1940s and too old for the color winners of the1960s. Hollywood had a string of successes aimed at children in that decade, with “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in 1964, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” in 1965,” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” the very next year. “Frosty the Snowman” was 1969. And every year now, these same things turn up on your TV, most of them several times.

The 1970s passed without a real hit, but I would very much like to again see the TV show called “The Gathering,” about a family whose holiday is torn apart by argument over the Vietnam War. Ditto re Archie Bunker’s inadvertent Christmas dinner invitation of a war deserter. Both are poignant pictures of that era, which – like all morality plays – should not be forgotten. And the answer to the question about Bing Crosby’s song in “The Bells of St. Mary’s?” The most salient part:

And so may I suggest

That the spirit of Christmas,

Is not the things you do

At Christmas,

But the Christmas things you do

The whole year through.

More From Charlie Brown

I got into all this because of a comic strip that ran on Christmas Day. You may know that Charles Schulz, the creator of “Peanuts” and Charlie Brown, was, like me, born Lutheran in Minnesota and grew up with a serious knowledge of the Bible. His cartoon characters, especially Linus, frequently quote from the King James Version, and that was the case again this year. It was a more complex quote that I ever remember, though, so I had to drag out my old King James and do a bit of reading.

First, though, the quote. Linus and Charlie Brown are dressed in warm clothes and talking next to a brick wall. Linus says, “First you must realize that Luke and Acts were in reality a two-volume work.” He continues in the next frame, “Note the role of Gabriel. He also appears in Revelations and Daniel. Ask yourself what ‘finding favor’ really meant to Mary. Check out Hosea.”

Third frame: “Read Chapter Two of First Samuel and the one hundred and third psalm. Do you know that ‘Bethlehem’ means ‘House of Bread?” Charlie Brown sighs and says, “All I ever knew about was the star and the sheep on the hillside.” Linus replies, “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!”

So, in reverse order, I read Psalm 103 first. I couldn’t find a clear message, although I was struck by Verse Five: “Thy youth is renewed like the eagle’s.” I didn’t know that eagles renewed themselves, but I’m in favor of renewing my youthful self, so I hope it’s true. In First Samuel’s second chapter, I found the very first verse to be the most compelling: “And Hannah prayed, and said, My heart rejoiceth in the Lord, mine horn is exalted in the Lord; my mouth is enlarged over mine enemies…” Chapter Three goes on to talk about Israel’s recent battle loss to the Philistines, and Eli’s death at that news. Although I’ve read the entire Bible at least twice, I had forgotten about his (unnamed) daughter-in-law. She was in the late stages of pregnancy when she was devastated to learn that the Ark of God had been taken by the Philistines; after delivering a boy, she named him Ichabod.

Then, as Linus advised, I then checked out Hosea. It’s only six pages of print in my Bible, so that was easy – and yet it was hard, as especially the first chapters contain a good deal of misogyny. There’s lots of condemnation of women who are seen as harlots and whores, and even, in Chapter Three, the seemingly excused purchase of a woman for fifteen pieces of silver, plus some barley. The most meaningful message is in Chapter 8, Verse Three: “For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.”

The books of Revelations and Daniel took the most time, as Linus offered no clue to chapter and verse. The Angel Gabriel that he spoke of appears Chapter Ten of Daniel, and Verse 19 seems the most significant, as Gabriel said to Daniel: “O man greatly beloved, fear not; peace be unto thee, be strong.” I especially like this because we have several Daniels in our current family, and the name goes back to at least 1788 on my father’s side. I perused Revelations twice, though, without finding Gabriel. That’s odd because there are lots and lots of angels in Revelations, but as far as I can tell, the only one with a specific name is Michael. You’ll find him in Chapter 12; please let me know if you locate Gabe.

Finally, the first of Linus’ proclamations, about Luke and Acts being a two-volume work. There was nothing about that in my head, so I googled it and several things popped up under “similarities between Acts and Luke.” This is getting long, however, so you can read them yourself if you choose. After pondering all this, I think that Charles Schulz’s message was encapsulated in Charlie Brown’s response that he knows little: most of us, Christians and Jews alike, actually know almost nothing about the scriptural texts on which we presume to base our beliefs. And lessons in morality indeed can come through many media.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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