Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Mystery Theatre

- by Richard Chomko

This past August, some 300 people from all around the English-speaking world gathered in Spring Valley New York to watch Rudolf Steiner’s mystery dramas presented in English.

The Canadian contingent included folks from BC, Nova Scotia, Quebec, Alberta and Ontario. There were ten people from Hesperus alone. Also represented were England, Ireland, New Zealand and Australia. I was impressed that twelve people had come all the way from Australia.

Of course there were a lot of good reasons to stay home and not go. The tick-borne Lyme disease, known to be prevalent in these parts, scary reports of police-state America, and then the cost. Tickets, meals plan and hotel came to about $2,000 each for the 10 days. 

Some people saved by staying with friends, or at Holder House, improvising meals from groceries bought at the co-op or receiving their ticket as a gift from a generous friend. Still, cost may been a factor in why so few young people were in the audience. We did hear, however, that locals got to see the dress rehearsals.

Of course the food was great, and organic, the conference was well organized, and as for the plays themselves, well you would have had to be there. In some respects the experience was like a school reunion. Like a high school reunion, one met friends from long ago who were now older and wiser. And like a Michael School reunion, practically every person there was deeply involved in anthroposophical work.

Preparing the Sixth Epoch
Lori Scotchko, a Eurythmy student from Thornhill, who’s been studying in Spring Valley this year, and who played the role of usher and bell ringer, told me that just about everybody in the Spring Valley anthroposophical community was involved in one way or another in putting on these mystery dramas. 

Early on in the conference, the role of the audience in theatre generally, and in the mystery dramas in particular, was noted by presenters, as part of the community dimension of stage art. One had the feeling that this particular audience was able to enter deeply into communion with the actors and the plays although, unlike in Dornach, they did laugh at a number of lines that Rudolf Steiner probably never intended to be funny.

The lead roles of Johannes and Maria were capably performed by Glen Williamson and Laurie Portocarrero. Many of us know and appreciate Glen from the many one and two person presentations he’s been involved with here in Toronto over the years. Laurie has sometimes been part of these shows and also leads a part-time theatre training in Spring Valley. Another professional actor, Matthew Dexter, came from England for the role of Capesius.

Many impressive Eurythmists and speech artists were also involved in the production. Seeing the results on stage it was hard to imagine how it could have worked had Lucifer, Ahriman and the three soul forces Philia, Astrid and Luna, just stood there and spoke their lines, rather than doing Eurythmy and having their lines spoken for them from the balcony by speech artists. Incidental music added to the experience and featured lyres, bells, gongs, and a small string ensemble.

It’s hard to put into words the experience of seeing the mystery dramas performed. One has the feeling that one is being affected in ways that go beyond the scope of conventional theatre. So while the acting of many of the lead actors was brilliant and the acting of some of the amateur players was more limited, the cumulative artistic effect went far beyond the sum of its parts.

Of course with nine days of conference and only four dramas, even though each drama ran for the better part of a day, there was a lot of other activity going on. Large and small group speech sessions, small group Eurythmy, conversation and free-space group meetings all provided a welcome counterpoint to the long hours spent sitting in a darkened theatre.

The free space discussion offered time slots for participants to come up with their own themes for presentation, discussion or conversation. I was pleasantly surprised that four people came out to the free space discussion I had proposed on Strader and the future of occult technology.

Understanding Steiner
Of course lectures on the dramas and the characters were also a big feature of the conference. When I saw Marke Levene’s production of The Soul’s Awakening back in the mid 90s when it toured North America, a lot of the  significance of what went down on stage passed me by because I didn’t have the kind of background understanding that these lectures helped provide.

Daniel Hafner, a Christian Community priest now based in Nuremberg, gave lectures introducing each the of the four plays. I know Daniel from his time as a priest here in Toronto, and have come to appreciate his style of anthroposophical scholarship. In the week before the mystery dramas, Daniel also gave two lectures and a workshop in Toronto, which I made a point of attending. 

One thing Daniel explained is that Steiner based the leading characters in the mystery dramas on actual people he had known in person and or researched in the spirit. Capesius, for instance, was based on Karl Julius Schroer, one of Steiner’s teachers, and the man who collected the Oberufer Christmas plays.

There were also fascinating and informative talks by other lecturers on some of the main characters in the mystery dramas, such as Capesius, Maria and Strader.

Extracurricular Activities
We did skip one of Daniel’s evening lectures to visit our sons in New York city on Friday night. At Jonathan’s apartment in Brooklyn, we met Jon’s friend from Edinborough who told us that the generation that came of age post-911 is called the Homeland generation and he talked about how Edinborough  was a place where the veil between the worlds was very thin. And how his girlfriend was taken aback at the sort of conversation that goes on at his family home. Seems his siblings are all philosophers or media theorists and they like to throw big words around. Of course he knew about Waldorf and what we had to say about the conference and the mystery dramas didn’t seem at all strange to him.

Work Arising
Director Barbara Renold said more than once at the conference that she would consider it a failure if no future mystery drama work arises out of this conference. I’m sure she will be pleased to learn that Tim Nadelle felt inspired to start a group here in Toronto to work towards presenting at first some scenes and eventually in two or three years, the whole of the first Mystery Drama here on stage. First meeting for this group will be September 20th from 2-5 pm at Hesperus. Barbara will also be doing an online workshop, on the mystery dramas, starting this fall, and will be traveling to various centres to support the work.

Glen Williamson and Laurie Portocarrero will be touring with a two-person stage show titled The Mystery Journey of Johannes and Maria -- Highlights from Rudolf Steiner's Four Mystery Dramas beginning this fall. They'll be at Novalis Hall near Barrie on November 2nd at 2:30pm.. 

Marke Levene — who brought us The Soul’s Awakening back in the 90s — announced plans to stage and tour a sequel to the four mystery dramas that is now being written. Marke wants to form a new theatre company in a place yet to be determined to produce and tour not only the mystery drama sequel but also an orchestral Eurythmy performance and a classic Shakespeare drama. More on this project can be found at

As requested by the organizers, we made a point of staying for all the closing ceremonies, and so didn’t get off til about 2:30 on Sunday afternoon. We were still hoping to make it home by midnight. But an hour wait at the border, and another hour and a half of construction delays on the QEW made for an arrival time more like 3 am. As they say, in Canada we have two seasons, winter, and road construction.

The next day I wasn’t feeling so great and went down to see Dr. McAlister wondering if perhaps I had contracted Lyme disease. When I told him where I had been, Kenneth told how he himself had played the roles of Simon the Jew and Strader in one of Hans Pusch’s early productions of the mystery dramas in Spring Valley back in the 70s. 

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