History of Drama

By Rob Carney

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Old Roads, New Stories: A Literary Series

Am I the only one who thinks about Medieval Drama?


But however boring you imagine it to be, it isn’t all that bad, especially not the cardiac interlude: The Parade of the Seven Deadly Sins. This was everyone’s favorite part, the reason they came out and endured all the moralizing weather. They came to see the sins storm in and barge through the middle of the allegory. They came to hear the actors in personified costumes rage and belch. They liked the preening and thieving, the feathery lust, and if you think that sounds kind of cool now after all, you’re right, which is why we still have plenty of it around today.

What’s Mardi Gras, for instance? It’s the old parade freed from the heard-it-before story line. It’s the jack-in-the-box without the dogma box. It’s jazz without the dirge.

And it isn’t alone. Take The Breakfast Club. That dancing scene in the library is a an ’80s approximation of the Parade of the Seven Deadlies set to Karla DeVito singing “We Are Not Alone”; check it out again.

Or more recently (and so brilliant), there’s The Brothers Bloom, specifically the scene in the middle where Bloom is on his own. No dialogue. No plot advancement. Just idling the day away in Prague, while the audience hears “Miles From Nowhere” by Cat Stevens. What a song. Anyway, Bloom gets this impulse to pocket an apple—the single red one on a stack of greens—only the vendor’s kid spies it, and Bloom gives him a look like Maybe we can keep this between us. Please, but the kid points at Bloom and yells to his father, and here we go: Bloom is off and running, high-step-flying down the hillside, joy on his face, ecstatic, totally thrilled. He’s the rhythm and melody of the soundtrack embodied, and suddenly Wham! he trips, and we jump cut edit to his older brother bailing him out of jail:

STEPHEN: An apple?

BLOOM: Yeah. It was part of an epiphany.

Then they hug, exit, and the song resumes, and holy crap it’s awesome. Bring on more detour carnivals like that one.

The most famous of these instances, of course, is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid. Yes, the bicycle scene: Newman and Katherine Ross. Unforgettable. Who doesn’t want to learn how to do those tricks? Who’s shaken out of historical context by that Burt Bacharach tune? Not me. I know the song’s wrong for the early 1900s. Heck, it was wrong for 1969, the year the film was released. London had Led Zeppelin, screaming and guitaring. San Francisco had Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company… concerts peeling the paint off the Golden Gate Bridge. So what’s going on with “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”? I don’t know, but it works.

There’s just something about these interludes. There always has been. And it isn’t just a theater thing either; poets do it too. Take Robert Frost, for example, specifically his great poem “Birches.” It’s a lyric narrative. Syncopated or straight iambics. Pentameter goes without saying. And there’s voice. And a straight up beginning, middle, and end. Good ideas when your real project is presenting a philosophy of life… asking and answering the ancient questions. But there’s more, and it happens just a few lines in:

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice storms do. Often you must have seen them.
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by a load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

Did you spot that invisible stage direction: Cue the Parade? Frost did: decked out in costumes made of ice and sunlit simile. He gets back to his poem in the next lines, explaining, “But I was going to say when Truth broke in / With all her matter of fact about the ice storm,” but that’s afterward. What came first was a train of imagery and figurative language too damn good to resist. So he didn’t.

And neither should we. We need more than forward progression; ask a river. And while you’re there on the bank, start looking for a rock to skip. If there’s wind, let yourself notice it. What does it smell like? It smells like cold. Listen to the crunch of leaves if you want to. If something makes you curious, go ahead and wonder about it. This isn’t sloth. And it isn’t deadly.

Not even one-seventh.



Rob CarneyRob Carney’s fourth book, 88 Maps, was published by Lost Horse Press (distribution by University of Washington Press). Previous books and chapbooks include Story Problems and Weather Report, both from Somondoco Press.
Read poetry by Rob Carney appearing in Terrain.org: 6th Annual Contest Finalist, 4th Annual Contest Winner, and Issue 30. And listen to a new radio interview with Rob Carney, and here’s an older radio interview.

Header image, The Seven Deadly Sins (c. 1500-1516), by Hieronymus Bosch, courtesy Wikipedia.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.