The Return of the Pilgrim

by Oliver M. Sayler | August 10, 1921

These are the days of commemorations and centenaries, first, second, third and fourth. Columbus so far has had a monopoly of the last digit, but we are in the thick of the threes and it is only natural that 1920—or 1921, in the tardy manner of such ponderous occasions—has been used as tercentennial pretext to summon the Pilgrim from his venerably documented past and to make him live again as symbol for today of his courageous and questing spirit. It is only natural, too, that Plymouth, rambling and immaculate after the manner of New England, should be the scene of the most ambitious of the numerous celebrations in which the nation the Pilgrims fostered is indulging.    

Maybe it isn't so congruous that the ritual by Rock of Plymouth has taken one of the forms of drama, the pageant. The Pilgrims, at least in their role of Puritans, put a ban on the drama along with all other display and pastime. But it wasn't for the sake of the Forefathers that George Pierce Baker wrote and directed The Pilgrim Spirit and that the State of Massachusetts and the Towns of Plymouth, Duxbury and Marshfield have cooperated to bring it to life in a series of midsummer performances in the new state reservation beside the Rock. The pageant master, his various directors, the collaborating poets and composers and their assisting and interpreting hundreds have all addressed themselves to the men and minds of today, and the readiest path to those minds is through the eye and ear by way of drama.

Then, too, contrary to the practice of too many of the contemporary celebrants of Mayflower memories, Plymouth has chosen to extol its forbears as Pilgrims rather than as Puritans. Puritans they were, to their greater honor as sincere and dauntless defenders of their inborn faith, but that faith, though impelling their voyage, was incidental to it. Puritans like themselves were their comrades who remained irresolute in England and Holland. But Plymouth has preferred to remember its founders simply as Pilgrims to a strange and difficult shore who had the pluck and self-denial to risk everything for their faith, whatever that faith might be.

And so it is that Edwin Arlington Robinson has put these lines in The Pilgrims' Chorus, sung on the eve of departure for America:      

"We have seen the fire of God as once it fell for men
                                  before us,
And we follow, knowing only that old things have
                                passed away.
                                      • • •
"And though God may leave our reaping unto others
                                 who come after,
He has called us, and we follow, to the new and the
                                 unknown."

Likewise these lines from Professor Baker's own pen, spoken by the Voice from the Rock:     

"These artisan-farmers, these Pilgrims…
Taught the newcomer
Gain must be theirs
At the price of their labor;
Punished the traitor,
Yet pitied the culprit.
This is your heritage,
All you Americans.
Do ye maintain it?" 

And in the finale, The Return of the Pilgrims, by Robert Frost, inheres the spirit of Plymouth's present venture as well as the meaning it sees in its own past: 

"Your hope of landing was your gift to men.
As freely of it as was yours to give
You gave it to us to be ours to hope again,
And hope forever to be free and live. 

"No ship at all that under sail or steam
Have gathered races to us more and more
But, Pilgrim-manned, the Mayflower in a dream
Has been their anxious convoy to the shore." 

Aside from these implications of The Pilgrim Spirit, which as usual will be admitted or ignored or distorted in accordance with the preconceptions and prejudices of those who sit looking out to see toward the Gurnet, Plymouth's spectacle is interesting for the opportunity it affords for reappraisal of the form and function of the pageant as modern illuminating engineering has enlarged its scope. Its twenty-four diversified scenes—ranging from the landing of the Vikings to a prophetic finale, and building up to climax and unity by choice of pertinent episodes from the Pilgrim narrative and emphasis on the outstanding figures of Robinson and Brewster, Carver and Bradford and Standish—are further diversified and yet compellingly unified by Munroe R. Pevear's lighting of the field, the most powerful and at the same time the most sensitive and flexible electrical equipment that has ever been used for a dramatic performance out-of-doors.

The pageant form as Professor Baker has utilized it is derived by lineal descent from the early English examples of seven and eight centuries ago. Its purpose is the reinterpretation of history by means of realistic spectacle. It is not to be confused with the conventional theatre, either indoors or out. It has meagre relation also with the symbolic pageant as practiced by Percy MacKaye, a kind of gigantic open-air mystery play. In its modern reincarnation, it has been most beholden to Louis N. Parker in England. Guided almost solely by its individual story, it has survived with a minimum of rule or technique, amounting often to little more than a procession of floats, but Parker with his training as a playwright and Baker with his experience in teaching playwriting in English 47 at Harvard are applying some of the elemental tests of the traditional indoor stage, with the result that such a spectacle as The Pilgrim Spirit has clash and contrast and climax. The new pageant master lets the story tell itself, in the words which documented history has handed down in so far as that is possible, but he watches his pattern and his continuity after the manner of the dramatist. 

Sometimes, as Professor Baker found out at Plymouth, the exigency of the material ties the pageant master down to intimate and unimpressive scenes. The Pilgrims were not an imposing group after their first winter on Cole's Hill! The social function of the pageant, dashing thus with the dramatic, must be assisted by the devising of contrastingly elaborate scenes, such as the Royal Progress of King James, motivated as the wall against which the Puritan petitioners broke their heads; the March of the Dutch Cities of Charity, marking the truce which gave them temporary haven in Holland; and the finale, a conventionalized assembling of all the participants. 

Besides helping himself in this way to minimize awkward but necessary moments, Professor Baker has called to his assistance nine of our composers and four of our poets. It might seem as if one of each, if the right man could have been found, would have better served the purposes of dramatic unity, but the pageant master thought differently and perhaps rightly, depending on his own scene sequence for unity and on his musical and poetic collaborators for the varying point and emphasis required at certain strategic intervals. His shrewd choice of assistants is evident, too, in the assignment of the costume designs to Rollo Peters, for none of our coterie of native scenic artists has a keener or surer feeling for color and color combinations than he, a gift which is particularly appropriate to the marked visual demands of the pageant. 

After all, though, it is Pevear with his fifteen-hundred-watt lamps and his projectors casting a beam of but seven degrees, who has not only come to the pageant master's rescue at times when these others would have been helpless, but who has also extended the potential boundaries of the pageant, of the entire open-air drama and even, by implication, of the indoor theatre. Pevear belongs to that rare type, the engineer who is also artist. Our new theatre has need for him and his like only less than for playwrights and actors and producers to answer the challenge of our designers. His logical place is with that group of pioneers in a new stagecraft which is gathering around Arthur Hopkins, including Robert Edmond Jones, Jacob Ben-Ami and Eugene G. O'Neill.   

To such a group, Pevear would not be merely servant but stimulus. The Plymouth production proves that. Professor Baker set for him a definite task. He has not only encompassed it, but has surpassed his specifications. It is as if his batteries of light were reaching out for yet more difficult and exacting employment. Whatever portion of the field the pageant master wishes illuminated, he is prepared to flood just that area with any desired degree or color of light. He saves the intimate scenes from the disaster which usually befalls them by cutting out of the night a small and sharply outlined rectangle of brilliance, for the world and all like a prison cell or a ship's cabin. At the other pole, he is ready for the spectacular scenes with a volume of light, held in controlled reserve, that recreates the impression of midday. And as expert in the use of color in illumination, a field in which his reputation has lain heretofore, he gives one brief but startling hint of ultimate possibilities in the weird, unearthly green which is the only occupant of the field in the scene of the pestilence following Thomas Hunt's ill-fated expedition. 

Pevear, therefore, beckons toward a new pageant, a new drama beneath the stars of night. He banishes many of the old restrictions; he introduces a new flexibility. The realistic pageant is released both to richer and more extravagant and at the same time to even more intimate effects than it has ever known. The symbolic pageant is admitted to unsuspected opportunities for appealing to the imagination. Even the indoor theatre on the vast scale that Reinhardt has conceived may find Pevear's devices applicable to its problems.    

All that is for the future, though. Plymouth's present lure lies in the sense of conviction of history reborn which its pageant provides. The impact of the past upon the present and the reaction of today in the presence of vivid memories of a far yesterday are doubly emphasized by recital on the very ground where that history was made. And there is something peculiarly fitting about this tercentenary that gives it dignity beyond the average. Commemorating the birth of Shakespeare or Goethe or anyone else is a half-hearted affair in comparison. For no man wills that he shall be born. But the chief glory of the Pilgrim adventure was the triumph of will over forbidding circumstance.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//article/books-and-arts/79413/the-return-the-pilgrim