Jul 182014

Elizabeth Elliot, University of Aberdeen 

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In 1912, the Synod Hall in Edinburgh’s Old Town became the stage for a remarkable revival of the medieval tradition of civic drama. Around 650 participants collaborated on a performance of the Masque of Learning in celebration of the foundation of University Hall as a community bringing students, lecturers, and artisans into a productive association of ‘town and gown’. Its success saw a revival in revised and expanded form as the twinned Masque of Ancient Learning and Masque of Medieval and Modern Learning, performed in Edinburgh and London. Like University Hall, the Masques were devised by Patrick Geddes, reflecting his conviction that ‘there is no subject of study into which dramatisation, historical and other, cannot brighteningly be introduced’. These elaborate ‘silent or almost wordless’ performances, whose content is outlined in Geddes’ Dramatisations of History (1923), present a series of ‘characteristic scenes illustrative of the progress of culture, and of the history of education’. Marking what Geddes provocatively terms ‘an attempt to shadow forth the long Mystery-Play of the Ascent of Man’, the Masques conclude with the present and future, as the University and the City unite in the Procession of the Torch of Learning. Again, Geddes conceives this scene in terms derived from early drama:

a veritable Mystery Play, presented by the University for the enlightenment of the citizen. But thereafter appears its complement, correspondingly a veritable Morality Play, presented by the City for the edification of the scholar. For whatever his superiority over the citizen in actual attainment, whatever his pride of past tradition, does he not need to be reminded, now as of old, that well-nigh each great step in the progress of culture arises with the growth of the City?

Geddes’ question reflects his conception of the city as ‘the organ of human evolution’, playing a creative role as the embodiment of a community’s history, ‘selecting and blending memories of the past with experiences of the present and hopes for the future’. The public drama of Geddes’ Masques is a logical extension of his claim that ‘a city is more than a place in space, it is a drama in time’. As the collective performance of a community, Geddes’ Masques are in sympathy with the tradition of civic drama associated with the feast of Corpus Christi. The medieval play cycles of towns such as York and Coventry gave expression to the identity of a community at the specific moment of their performance; the Edinburgh productions of Geddes’ Masques articulate and produce the particular community at University Hall. As self-conscious engagements with history, the Masques extend and reinforce Geddes’ work of urban regeneration in the Old Town: they are dramatic counterparts to the camera obscura housed in his Outlook Tower, which Geddes valued as a means to nurture the reflection on the past essential to human evolution. Like the Palimpsest project itself, Geddes’ work sought to provide multiple perspectives on the city, celebrating and contributing to the imaginative and physical strata of Edinburgh.

Records of the Masques are held amongst the Patrick Geddes papers at the University of Strathclyde.

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