December 2021 marks the 100th anniversary of Revels. This beloved tradition was born on December 10, 1921, when the annual pre-Christmas Party was replaced by a pageant written by English teacher Constance Grosvenor Alexander. She titled her play “Saint Francis Keeps Christmas at Greccio, 1223,” and it was first performed in the 1912 Dana Main gymnasium. The setting is a medieval banquet hall with the lord and lady of the manor entertaining family and guests. Outside a group of cold and hungry villagers gathers to lament their absence from the merriment and feasting within.
For close to a half century, the scenes and characters in this part of the play, also including a Lame Boy, a Well Boy, a Jester, a Lord of Misrule, minstrels, foresters, and a procession of cooks remained the same. Even today, the dialogue in the opening scene is exactly as written by Miss Alexander, and the presentation of the cooks’ feast to Sir John also typically follows the 1921 script. At some unknown point in time the second half of the play, introducing Saint Francis, a monk, and Jesus, as a baby in a manger, was eliminated—perhaps as early as the 1930’s. We do know that by 1929 a mummers’ play with a brave knight and a fearsome dragon was “added to the usual pageant.”
Over the years, new elements from other traditions were added to Revels. For example, the Sword Dance had, as late as the 1960’s, been a May Day or Class Day performance. And, of course, every year the Juniors surprise us by incorporating themes inspired by popular culture into the “play within the play.” The combination of lines from the century-old script, with current day music, choreography, and references is what makes Revels such a creative experience for the Junior Class, and a joyful and renewing gift to the community.
The Revels performance was not always a class tradition. The first performance included faculty and friends, and many students from all three of Principal Helen Temple Cooke’s Schools – Pine Manor, Dana Hall and Tenacre. For decades the Senior Class President was the Lord of Misrule, and other seniors had key roles. Miss Cooke represented the Lady of the Manor at the feast that preceded the play. Research in the Dana Hall Archives leads us to believe that it was sometime in the 1960’s that Revels became the special tradition of the 11th grade.
Venue changes took place as well. Bardwell Auditorium wasn’t built until 1929, and was sometimes unavailable, so Revels returned to the old gym, or Mudd Gym, or even Common Ground on occasion. Originally the feast occurred in the Dana Main Dining Room before the show, and included an elaborate parade of courses by the cooks, songs by roving minstrels, and antics by the jester. Costumed faculty, staff, students, and guests were led in procession by bagpiper to open the show. Afterwards the community returned to the Dana Main Living Room where the foresters brought in the Yule Log, and the Lord of Misrule set it ablaze in the grand fireplace (with kerosene, and a bucket of sand nearby). Carols were then sung by the light of a Christmas tree.
Major thematic modifications came more recently. In December 1993, in a preface to the program, Head of School Blair Jenkins explained the new emphasis on the themes of the Winter Solstice. It was an effort to de-emphasize Christian references in order to be more inclusive of a diversity of cultures. Songs from other faith traditions were introduced, and a recitation of the poem “The Shortest Day” by Susan Cooper became a highly anticipated part of the Revels performance. Since 1994 the poem has been performed by a faculty or staff “narrator”‘ whose identity was kept a secret until revealed on stage.
Over the years there were character changes as well. The original script had few female characters and none with important roles. Gradually more were added, and some male characters were made female. In December 2012 the program officially listed a “Lady of Misrule.” A few years earlier the “Lame Boy” lost his crutch and he and the “Well Boy” were given the names Timmy and Harry in the script.
Also evolving was the menu the cooks prepared for the feast. Early on it seems that a medieval menu was served. Later, the fare was roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, and the traditional Revels dessert was plum pudding with rum-flavored hard sauce. That changed, for several decades, to Baked Alaska (more flames!). At some point the feast became post-show, and had a more modern menu. The banquet itself was replaced in 2010 by the less costly but still celebratory “Tradition Cake” and sparkling cider, heralding the start of Winter Break.
Like many other aspects of our lives in 2020, Dana Hall’s famed Revels tradition was very different when it premiered on video for a world-wide audience on Friday, December 18. While much was necessarily changed from the usual annual Bardwell performance, much actually remained the same. The Class of 2022’s Revels had the same royal and rabbler characters and kitchen procession, the same basic plot, the same solstice themes, and, of course, much joyful singing, dancing, jesting, mumming, and revelry. The talents and resilience of the Junior Class was on full display, as they played their parts from home without the traditional costumes. The talents of their classmates offscreen, who performed technical wizardry in production and editing, was also exceptional. It will forever be a Revels to remember.
While it was disappointing to lose many aspects of this special celebration, the long history of Revels is a striking example of how a tradition can remain strong and reverential to its antecedents, while also introducing new material, and updating scenes and characters for a contemporary audience. Of course, the Dana Hall community nearly a century ago could not have imagined an all-video remotely performed show, and this is without a doubt more than just a “tweak” to the tradition. In 2021, for the 100th anniversary we will be congregating again, although some will likely be watching a streamed performance.
With so many changes over the years, archivists and student researchers are still uncovering facts and details of Dana Hall’s December celebrations. But one aspect of Revels has remained constant: the Dana Hall community comes together to celebrate the spirit of good fellowship and the turning of the year. To quote from the 1925 Class Book page on Revels: “[And] so another link …[is] wrought in the chain of memories that binds our hearts to Dana for all time.”
A shorter version was published in
Dec. 9, 2020