Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Christmas Pantomime: Handel and the 'Baby King'

It was interesting for me to read my First Atheist Christmas blogpost from last year while getting ready to celebrate Atheist Christmas number two.  One year ago I was tentative, not quite knowing the ropes. I almost wondered if I had any right to celebrate at all. Even as I listened to my old favourites then, I was wondering if I should be belting out 'O Come all Ye Faithful' or shyly withdrawing into a 'Silent Night.' This year was quite different, even though I can't by any means call myself a veteran. This Christmas I allowed myself to go back into the music I grew up on. I listened to the entire Handel's Messiah, one of my all time favourites. It was as pleasing to the ear as ever and I even found myself  singing out loud to "Worthy is the Lamb" as I listened to the triumphant trumpets blasting accompanied by the thundering timpanis.

Myth Music- 'The Baby King'

How did I do it? I allowed myself to embrace the music for what it is; myth music. It is a new category I have designated to place all of the religious music that is still beautiful but whose story, I have to admit these days, has nothing to do with reality. I fully embraced the story of the 'Baby King' on Christmas day including  the proclamation of the theme song in the video clip above," For unto us a child is born." In fact, as I listened to those lovely runs for which Handel is so famous and followed the story that is told in that iconic work, I thought of those pantomimes I used to enjoy as a child.  The ones where the evil witch, dressed in black, would come and create some kind of turmoil with some magic spell or portion. Then, when all seemed lost, in would come the good fairy to clean up the mess and make everything right.

Christmas Pantomime

For those not so familiar, Handel's 'Messiah' sets many passages from the bible that relate to Christ to music. From the initial 'Fall' in Genesis, through the prophecies of Isaiah, to the ' Coming' in the New Testament. Perhaps the best known excerpt of all is the timeless " Hallelujah Chorus." To listen to the unabridged  "Messiah" is to take yourself on a magical, dramatic journey. Indeed, this is what I pictured in my mind starting with the haunting melodic minor strains telling me how in "Adam all die" and " Behold Darkness Shall Cover the Earth." I could almost see the ' fade to black' on the stage with smoke emanating from a cauldron. Then, "Lo and Behold!" In the final act, emerges triumph from the midst of despair, in the person of ' The Baby King' , the prophesied one, the one who will one day free us from  sin through his death. I did think to myself that the wave of a magic wand to make sin disappear would be more elegant and certainly a more palatable ending for the children. Anyway, there is still enough there in the Christmas story to at least make you smile, with all the wisemen, shepherds and angels.  So, there I was on the morning of December 25th, enjoying my Christmas Pantomime just like in the days of my childhood.
Just like those days, I tried not to analyse the plot of the story too much. I could never understand, back in those pantomimes, why the witch in casting an evil spell, would always create some kind of loophole through which the spell could be broken. Why was there always some magic word, flower or wish upon a star that when discovered could just make the evil go away? Why leave the door open for your plan to be foiled? Now I understand. It was all part of the script to give you the desired ending.  The formula is simple; everyone's happy at the beginning then something goes terribly awry as we approach intermission. In the second half comes the wonderful denouement where everything just sorts itself out and all live happily ever after.

So, my 'Christmas with Handel' morning was every bit as sweet as a 'Gretel with  Hansel.' Yes, of course the holes in the plot were there. The difference here being that  it is the good saviour rather than the evil witch that seems to be giving the opposition a lifeline.The 'devil' in  Handel's masterpiece cannot  be faulted for making things too easy for our hero. The question is how the powerful God of Goodness allowed evil into the picture in the first place. In the pantomimes I have watched, good fairy godmothers may have special powers but certainly nothing like the omnipotence our God father has. Fairies going up against witches are relatively even contests. In contrast, in Handel's work, the protagonist has infinite power, yet inexplicably never uses it to eliminate bad for good. Well, it's all part of the  story mystery and it doesn't matter. The implausibility of  pantomime storylines is what makes them humorous and fun. Handel's 'Baby king' is no different. The absurdity is all part of the entertainment.Yet, undeniably you can still leave the performance with real feelings of love or disgust for the actors.  You may even see yourself in one or more of the characters and try to take away some lesson from their experience. However, when you leave the theater humming, laughing or contemplating what you have witnessed you know that the show is over.

Unfortunately for many of our friends, the pageantry does not end when the curtain is drawn for the last scene of 'Baby King.' They identify with the characters so much that they become part of an ongoing production with them and join  an ever expanding cast of 'extras.' They are  quick to  tell us  that the drama is not really over and that we have come back to see  the actors perform once more when  'The Cross' opens in March or April. They tell us that tickets  for 'The Cross'  are ridiculously expensive but some generous soul has paid the entrance fee for all of us already and that we would be both stupid and ungrateful not to take up this incredible offer. I am sorry, I am very familiar with the script of ' The Cross,' and I respectfully have to decline it.  Bloody pantomimes are just not my passion these days. I'd rather wait for December next year and enjoy my favourite  ' Baby King'  all over again.

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