There are hundreds of films which depict the Middle Ages.
There are also a fair few operas set during a that period— especially a mythological version of it as well (Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Tristan und Isolde spring immediately to mind). In spite of this, so far as I am aware there are only, depending on how you count, four to six Broadway/West End musicals set during an actual or fantastical version of the Middle Ages. In 1947, Brigadoon was brought to the stage, though its relationship to the medieval is very fuzzy indeed (and the subject of another article). Similarly, whether you want to class 1965’s Man of La Mancha (based, of course, on Cervantes’ Don Quixote) as a medieval musical depends on your perspective of whether its references to a chivalric past constitute the label ‘medieval’.* Camelot in 1960 is more obviously medieval, and gave rise—sort of— to Spamalot in 2004. In 2006 The Lord of the Rings was adapted into a West End musical (surely following on the heels of the successful film franchise).
The final musical on the list is unique, in that it is the only one of these which actually purports to depict real historical figures. And perhaps that alone goes some way toward explaining why there have been so few. Inherent in the genre of musical theatre is a touch of absurdity—the fact that characters regularly and, often without warning or much provocation, burst into song and dance—lends a bit of incredulity to the proceedings. And that brand of jazz-handed artifice seems not to have lent itself very well to the depiction of history, particularly the distant past. I know of only one Roman Musical (A Funny thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) a, unless you wish to count Jesus Christ Superstar (and I don’t).**
The sole exception is the 1972 musical Pippin, written by Roger O. Hirson, with music by Stephen Schwartz (who has since gone on to write Wicked) and first directed by legendary director/choreographer Bob Fosse.
Pippin tells a historical story that is not very well known outside Carolingian history circles, the story of the first son of Charlemagne: Pippin the Hunchback.
The story of the real Pippin can be summed up as follows. Pippin was the first-born son of Charles the Great, however, the question of inheritance was always fuzzy, for two reasons: he developed a hunchback which left him disabled, and the circumstances of his birth were questionable. Some chroniclers say he was born of a concubine, others say his mother was married to Charles but not within the normal bounds of the Church. Either way, his birthright was questionable when it comes to royal succession. As Charles married other women and sired other sons, Pippin’s star fell as he was overshadowed by his younger, more able siblings. Pippin then plotted a revolt against his father, but it was crushed before it could begin, and Pippin was banished to a monastery for the rest of his life. It is almost the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy—a son passed over due to his disability and mother who believes the throne should be his, and strikes out against his father but ultimately fails is thus consigned to exile.
But that is not the story told in the musical. Instead, the musical presents the story of Pippin as a bildungsroman—a coming of age story (which may one reason why it is a very popular production for high schools in America). Pippin has returned from university, unsure what he wants to do with his life. He tries going on campaign with his father against the Visigoths, but is disillusioned by the horrors of war (made worse by everyone else, who revels in its “glory”). He then tries a life of debauchery, drugs and sex, which he finds ultimately unsatisfying; he tries politics—and successfully assassinates his father and takes the throne—but finds himself turning into the same tyrant he fought to overthrow. After relinquishing the throne, he then tries life as an artist and life in the church, but finds them unsatisfying as well. He meets a woman who owns a farm and invites him to live with her there, but he leaves—believing himself to have an extraordinary destiny which would not be satisfied working on a farm. Finally, he considers suicide, but relents at the last minute, and seems willing to give up the “extraordinary” for the “ordinary”.
That is all a very able plot summary, and points out how far the story deviates from the historical record. But, as anyone who knows the show would say, it is missing the most crucially interesting part of the show and the one that I feel is most interesting to audiences and medievalists alike.
Pippin is Terrible History. Obviously.
Certainly, many of the characters are historical (Pippin, Charlemagne, Louis the Pious and his mother Fastrada are all characters), but history does not play out on stage. However that is not all that is potentially interesting to a medievalist. The show uses a fascinating framing device which gives it far more complexity and nuance than its basic plot offers—and more, creates an interesting connection between medieval and modern modes of storytelling.
Pippin’s coming-of-age story is actually told as a play within a play; at the opening of the show, we are introduced to a group of “players” who will be performing the play “Pippin: His Life and Times”. These players—and particularly The Leading Player, who seems eerily in control of every aspect of the show— ignore the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience.*** They call attention to the theatricality of the production by asking for more light, castigate each other for missed cues and misread lines. The only person outside this paradigm is the actor who plays Pippin himself. “He may be a little nervous. This is his first time playing the role…” we are told.
Pippin thus seems out of place on two different levels—at those moments when the play breaks down, it is often because this new actor did something unexpected and, unlike everyone else, does not accede to the will of the Leading Player—as if he is not really part of the troupe. His demeanour and costume reflect this too. While the rest of the players sport a vibrant pastiche of medieval, carnivalesqe and popular clothes of 1972, Pippin wears grey trousers and a gray knit top.**** He is meant, both in the world of the play and the world of the players, to represent an everyman.
Pippin and Everyman
And I mean that rather more literally than usual. Pippin, at its heart, is not about the Carolingians but is instead a morality play in the style of the fifteenth-century play The Somonyng of Everyman. But despite its medieval setting, and medieval style, Pippin is not really about the Middle Ages but rather is about a search for meaning and morality amid the cultural and political strife of 1972 America.
The Somonyng of Everyman is one of the best examples we have of secular drama from the Middle Ages– though there aren’t many to choose from.***** It is classed as a morality play, and so, while it is ostensibly secular in that it does not tell biblical stories like the miracle plays, God does play a role. The morality it represents is one with which the church could be happy (which is perhaps why it was preserved). Also, by modern standards Everyman is ham-fistedly allegorical in a way rarely seen outside other medieval literature like Piers Plowman. The play is about a character called Everyman preparing to face death. As he does, he attempts to gather allies (like his friends Kindred and Cousin, Knowledge, and Strength) to accompany him on his journey to judgment. But ultimately, they each fall away and the only one who will make the full journey is Good Deeds.
Pippin is also a morality play, but one for 1972; but in it, Pippin attempts to learn how to face life rather than death. And the musical makes specific allusion to the medieval play in “Corner of the Sky” where Pippin declares his intention to find an extraordinary life:
“Every man has his daydreams
Every man has his goals
People like the way dreams
Have of sticking to the soul
Thunderclouds have their lightning
Nightingales have their song
Don’t you see in want my life
To be something more than long… “
The allegories on display in Pippin are not quite as obvious as in Everyman, but there all the same.
Battles, Barbarous and Bloody
For example, in perhaps the most impressive sequence in the play, Pippin goes to war. He demands his father Charlemagne to take him along on his campaign against the Visigoths, and is caught up wholesale in the “sounds of glory in the air”. But when the battle begins, the show uses the expectations and artifice of musical theatre to drive home the horrors of war for both Pippin and the audience.
The song, “Glory” which accompanies the war sequence lurches between hymn and ragtime. The enthusiasm with which the players enact graphic rapes and murders on one another blessed by the shadow of Charles’ cross is clearly meant to be a pacifistic pean to a country shocked by the horrors of the Vietnam War. The Leading Player’s radio broadcast in particular connects medieval war and modern war, showing in very plain terms that this is not really about the Carolingian wars, but about Vietnam, and by proxy all wars.
“Hey! Let’s hear it for a couple of those old-time favourites, still on the charts: Holy Wars, 285,000 killed or wounded, War of the Roses 22,000 killed or wounded, and that sentimental favourite: World War I, 8,528,821 killed, 37,476,904 wounded. And let’s not forget that all time favourite: World War II! Between 35 and 60 million killed or wounded!”
In the face of a literal shower of body parts thrown into the stage, Pippin flees.
Sex, Presented Pastorally
He goes into the countryside. He finds his grandmother encourages him: “You look terrible Pippin. You need some fresh air. Some sun. Some good food. Some… frolicking. Some hanky-panky maybe?” He joins a group of hedonists and experiments with sex and drugs of all varieties, but the party careens out of control and Pippin finds it difficult to stop.
This clearly relates to the growing disillusionment in the 1970s with the hedonistic hippie lifestyle, which, to the authors of the musical, offered no more direction and meaning to young people than the war and mainstream culture that they rejected.
There is only one further logical option. If he is to reject warmongering, and to reject the passive alternative of just getting stoned and having sex, the only option left seems to be to become political himself. Pippin makes speeches and gains followers, and his transformation is complete when a communist cap is thrust on his head. But when his revolución succeeds and he assassinates Charles, he finds ruling is harder than revolution. He begins by making reforms, but has to repeal them all in the face of the attacking Huns—against which he declares “a limited police action”. Ultimately he can change nothing, and finds himself acting as tyranically as his father. He wishes to the Leading Player that it all go back go the way it was, and the player obliges; Charles rises from the dead and Pippin gives back the crown. Pippin begs forgiveness, to which Charles replies: “It’s all right son, just don’t let it happen again!” This frustration is quite clearly related to the politics of its day; 1972 saw the landslide re-election of Richard Nixon, which saw little hope for meaningful change within the political sphere.
This trifecta—war, hedonism and politics, shows clearly how the moral options of 1972 presented only a catch-22 to the dissatisfied young people of its day. In war there is no glory, only death. In hedonism there is no escape, only emptiness. And in politics, there is no justice, only tyranny. All of the answers are wrong.
Nothing Has Meaning
Pippin is then presented with the option to live an entirely ordinary life tending the farm of a widow named Catherine, and her young son, and the ordinary pleasures of marriage, fatherhood and pastoral life. But things go wrong—and not in the way expected. The player who plays Catherine goes a bit rogue—missing her cues on stage, and sharing an unscripted moment of tenderness with Pippin. The Leading Player suddenly appears and castigates her:
“HOLD IT! Hold it! Jesus! [Aside] Actresses. Look, you’re supposed to read the line naggingly.”
She responds: “But he touched my hand, they don’t usually do that…”
“I don’t care where he puts his hand! Read the line naggingly!”
But she continues to disrupt the show with misread lines and missed cues; each time the Leading Player appears, each time more threateningly.
Pippin continues according to the script—like so many of us, he has been convinced of his extraordinary potential, and cannot accept that his life may not be completely fulfilling. So, again, he runs. But this time he is pursued by Catherine—or perhaps Catherine’s player: “I can’t remember my next line, what is it? Something’s going wrong— it’s not supposed to be like this. Pippin, I really want you to stay! I love you, Pippin!”
The players surround Pippin as he sits despondent on the stage. The leading player taunts him: “Well Pippin, I guess you’ve finally realised what we knew from the beginning… Nothing has been completely fulfilling, now has it, Pippin? Has it?”
But the Leading Player has one final trick up his sleeve. He says that there is something: “The only completely perfect act in our repertiore: The finale!” To demonstrate, one of the players leaps into a box where he is engulfed by flames. The unburnt player leaps out again unharmed.
Pippin is incredulous: “But that was just a trick!” The leading player replies: “Yeah. When he does it, it’s a trick. But when you do it, it’ll be for real.”
Suddenly the show takes a truly sinister turn; this is the actor’s first time playing the part because all the previous ones have killed themselves. Suddenly we realise that the structure of the musical has actually been like Everyman all along. Instead of journeying towards life, he has been journeying to his death–which, we suddenly realise, is who the Leading Player actually is. The dances they do are the dance of the dead, and the entire show has been carefully choreographed to lead Pippin to a fiery suicide.
Both Pippin and Everyman are expected to get into a box and die. But God is absent in 1972. There is no hint of judgement, salvation or paradise in Pippin, only the promise of “perfection, like the sun blazing in the sky”.
Pippin almost goes through with it. But in the end, he cannot bring himself to. And, with another resonance to Everyman, he is joined in confronting death. This time it is not by Good Deeds, but by the actress who plays Catherine and her young boy. Together, they face judgement as the leading player tears away all of the artifice, beauty and magic of the. The fourth wall is smashed as, at his command, the sets disappear, their costumes are torn off, the orchestra is told to go home, and the lights go out.
In the darkness, Catherine asks Pippin:
“Pippin, do you feel that you’ve compromised?
“Do you feel like a coward?”
“How do you feel?”
“Trapped. [To the audience] Which isn’t too bad for the end of a musical comedy. Ta daa!”
I have never been completely satisfied by that final line– which differs from the one in the script and is thus likely an invention of Bob Fosse. It seems to reveal the whole thing as a sham– even Pippin, the character who seems to be, and who is ultimately thrust, outside the theatrical world the players inhabit. But in the end it seems Pippin was also part of the act. This gives the show closure, but I would prefer to leave the audience uncomfortable at what they had just seen.
Having been in the show before (I played Louis the not-so Pious) I would love to direct Pippin. And I would love to find ways to incorporate my understanding of its similarities with Everyman and Brecht’s theatre of alienation into the direction of the show. However, when working on theatre I have always worked under the strict rule that theatre is a pact between audience and performer. If there is a message in the show, it ought to be communicated clearly in a way that the visitors can understand. This simple rule brought me into conflict on a number of occasions with some more “artistically minded” and “abstract” directors, designers and actors. But I stand by it.
But I am still thinking through how to communicate the complexities of Pippin to the audience in a meaningful way. What do you think? Have you ever been in it, or seen it? Do you think it would be improved by a sound engagement with its medieval ancestors, or do you think, like the 2013 Broadway revival, that it is better served by a simple focus on spectacle?
Leave your thoughts in the comments below!
** Correction– this article originally called A Funny thing Happened on the Way to the Forum an ancient Greek Musical. It is, in fact, based on the Roman comedies of Plautus. Thanks to Nils for the correction.
*** This is incidentally very similar to Berthold Brecht’s “Theatre of alienation”, which I also think was a major influence on Pippin. And the topic of another article entirely.
**** For the sake of clarity I am treating the 1982 video of the Toronto production of Pippin as canonical in those places where it conflicts with the script or subsequent versions. This is largely because it is the only video widely available, and the closest recording to Fosse’s original Broadway production. And I like it.
***** That’s not to say there weren’t more; I’m inclined to think a lot of poetry was meant to be performed. But this is the first that is explicitly a drama with characters and dialogue in the fashion we would expect to see today.
Paul B. Sturtevant is Editor-in-Chief of The Public Medievalist. He is a researcher and historian for the Smithsonian Institution, where he helps the institution better understand its visitors and itself. He is an author, a medievalist, and a consultant, and has completed research projects as diverse as exploring the Caliphates of Muslim Spain, the history of American health care reform, and the peculiarities of American-style barbecue. He is unabashedly passionate about the place history has in current conversations.