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|Written by Brendan Blom|
|Monday, 13 April 2009 08:21|
Hildegard von Bingen was a twelfth-century German abbess who founded her own Benedictine convent at Rupertsberg, now called Bingen. Her name is known to us today because, throughout her life, she had mystical visions during which she believed God communicated with her; and she wrote of these experiences from 1141 to 1150, when she was in her forties. She also wrote a morality play, Ordo Virtitum, numerous musical compositions, and texts on the natural world and healing.
She was a uniquely powerful and creative woman, at a time in history when women were not given the opportunity to exercise much influence.
But how can Hildegard's experience and the society in which she lived be made relevant to today's world? Female power and expression (or lack thereof) are issues that are just as important now as they were in the 1100s - in fact, more so. But the writing styles prevalent in the Middle Ages are so foreign to our way of reading and learning as to be almost incomprehensible to any but dedicated historical and literary scholars. People generally thought - and wrote - not of their relationships with family, friends, and community, but of their relationship with God, and the worldly manifestations of what they saw as God's power - both in nature and in human structures, institutions, and practices.
This was one of the challenges that was explored by the playwright Paula Wing in her work Vox Lumina, a play inspired by the life and writing of Hildegard von Bingen - which was evaluated by an audience at the National Arts Centre last week at a full-length reading of the play. The reading was followed by a discussion between the audience and Wing, NAC dramaturg Paula Danckert, and NAC English Theatre Artistic Director Peter Hinton.
Wing noted that one of the options open to her was to write a sort of traditional "biopic" - a chronological dramatization of the high and low points in Hildegard's life. But this approach, she said, though feasible due to the large amount of research she'd done into Hildegard's life, was unlikely to be very rewarding for a mainstream theatre audience.
The way she approached the problem was by taking one single, momentous event in Hildegard's life, and constructing a 105-minute drama around it. Late in Hildegard's life, she was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic church for a period of eight months because she buried the body of a young man from the nearby town, known for his dissolute behaviour, in the consecrated ground of her convent. Wing constructed characters, incidents, and conversations around this one critical event, and turned it into a story with dramatic thrust and a thorough examination of many of the issues that were relevant both in Hildegard's society and ours: power, individual and institutional; friendship, loyalty, and love; and the tension between personal desire and obedience to religious faith and its accompanying institutions and hierarchies.
The actors had had six days to work out their characters: Hildegard, her mute secretary Volmar, a couple of acolytes, the authoritarian priest, and various rustic townspeople.
There were a few surprises. The first was humour. For a play about a lot of serious religious folk, there was a large amount of laughter, at what Wing later referred to as "cheap jokes." (Some of them I found a little bit too cheap - for example, one of the three village washer-women repeatedly calling another one "stupid" got a bit repetitive. The rest of the audience laughed every time, though, so maybe I'm missing something. I found that the actors did a fine job of making me buy into the scenarios they depicted, even without the use of props and costumes; but the writing, particularly during the humorous passages, reminded me a little too much that I was watching a contemporary reconstruction of history.)
The second surprise was how well the story brought in characters and gave them stories that demonstrated the parallels between Hildegard's society in the twelfth century, and ours in the twenty-first. Wing noted during the discussion that many of the characters are "outsiders," trying to find themselves through useful work and meaningful relationships in a world where they don't perfectly fit in. There is a young monk who travels from Flanders to find Hildegard, because he is sick of the agricultural duties his abbott imposes on him in his home monastery; there is a young man, Berti, from the town outside the convent who spends his nights carousing in the tavern, but then seeks out the enlightened conversation of the insomniac Hildegard, because he is unsatisfied with the rustic, provincial existence he's been born into; and there is Hildegard herself, an intelligent, wilful woman who finds her behaviour straitened by the regulations of the very church authorities she relies on to maintain what limited status and freedoms she has.
Overall, it was an enlightening evening; both in terms of learning about a unique historical figure who is not often mentioned in textbooks, and exploring the ideas of what makes a good and entertaining story.
The reading of the play was a part of the NAC's new Atelier program, a project whose goal is to help explore and explain the development of plays, for the benefit of audiences, playwrights, and other professionals in the industry. (Vox Lumina, Wing noted, has been in the works for about 20 years; she seemed pleased with the opportunity to see it read by professional actors and to receive feedback from the audience.) It was an intriguing and engaging event, and one that will definitely bear repeating with other works.