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‘Play of Daniel’ Brings Medieval Liturgical Drama To Berkeley Church By KEN BULLOCK

Special to the Planet
Tuesday December 07, 2004

Combining spectacle and intimate moments of dialogue and soliloquy in song with an extraordinary processional chorus of 40, The Play of Daniel is at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Bancroft Way this week in a joint production by Aurora Theatre Company and Pacific Mozart Ensemble. 

The production, originally staged in the 12th century at Beauvais Cathedral in France, is back in Berkeley by popular demand after a successful 6-day run last year.  

Staged by UC Emeritus Professor Dunbar H. Ogden, The Play of Daniel makes use of different voices at different locations as well as the great chorus, moving through—and sometimes heard from outside—the sanctuary. In other words, the church becomes an instrument, with wonderful vocal effects achieved through exploiting different local acoustics. 

This outstanding—and deeply affecting—performance is the result of decades of research by Ogden (some of it summarized in his UC Press book, The Staging of The Play of Daniel in the Twelfth Century). Uncovering manuscripts of medieval liturgical dramas, Ogden discovered some had stage directions—and the directions could occasionally be traced to the particular church where the play was performed. Visiting these sites (in particular, Beauvais Cathedral, site of The Play of Daniel), Ogden discovered how the plays moved through the church, among the congregation, and how music and singing were enhanced by acoustical effects specific to the church’s architecture. 

It’s a powerful experience to hear this enormous chorus, often only a few feet away, as they wind their way through the audience, the sound of the voices surrounding the listeners, punctuated by solos from characters in the play. 

The play features the different personae from the Old Testament account of Daniel interpreting the mysterious words written on the wall at Belshazzar’s Feast, the Fall of Babylon and “Daniel in the Lions’ Den,” elaborated on by the medieval dramatists. 

Daniel the prophet, because of his divine rescue from the lions’ den and other travails, was used as figure of Christ’s resurrection (and his Harrowing of Hell) in medieval sermons and visual arts (church sculpture and stained glass windows; illuminated manuscripts). The Play of Daniel is performed during the most celebratory time of Western Christianity. 

Not like opera, oratorio, or other kinds of musical theater, The Play of Daniel is a unique combination of the performing arts with its own unity and effectiveness. There has been a tradition (or counter-tradition) of medieval music or miracle plays (like The Second Shepherd’s Play) performed at Christmas in reaction to the commercialization of the modern holiday. But none of these convey the great overall effect of the Aurora/Pacific Mozart production. 

New York Pro Musica presented a reconstruction of The Tale of Daniel (I saw it performed at Zellerbach during the 70s) that became famous and was considered ground-breaking by some, but it was more of a professional pastiche of disparate elements from different medieval sources. The staging of that play never carried the full integral power and authenticity of Ogden’s mounting of the script. 

The show features Ogden’s collaborator Henk Verhoef, visiting from Europe, singing and playing. Richard Grant, Pacific Mozart’s artistic director, presides over the voices of this “rebirth of drama in the West after the Dark Ages.” 


The Play of Daniel will be performed at 8 p.m. through Dec. 11 at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 2300 Bancroft Way. Tickets are $22-$25. 843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org.Ã