Friday, October 21, 2005

Dance of Death

Dance of Death

Dance of Death (2001)

Well, I can tell I'm already feeling the burn for an upbeat weekend...

From the Catholic Encyclopedia:

The "Dance of Death" was originally a species of spectacular plays akin to the English moralities. It has been traced back to the middle of the fourteenth century. The epidemics so frequent and so destructive at that time, such as the Black Death, brought before popular imagination the subject of death and its universal sway. The dramatic movement then developing led to its treatment in the dramatic form. In these plays Death appeared not as the destroyer, but as the messenger of God summoning men to the world beyond the grave, a conception familiar both to the Holy Bible and to the ancient poets. The dancing movement of the characters was a somewhat later development, as at first Death and his victims moved at a slow and dignified gait. But Death, acting the part of a messenger, naturally took the attitude and movement of the day, namely the fiddlers and other musicians, and the dance of death was the result.

The purpose of these plays was to teach the truth that all men must die and should therefore prepare themselves to appear before their Judge. The scene of the play was usually the cemetery or churchyard, though sometimes it may have been the church itself. The spectacle was opened by a sermon on the certainty of death delivered by a monk. At the close of the sermon there came forth from the charnel-house, usually found in the churchyard, a series of figures decked out in the traditional mask of death, a close-fitting, yellowish linen suit painted so as to resemble a skeleton. One of them addresses the intended victim, who is invited to accompany him beyond the grave. The first victim was usually the pope or the emperor. The invitation is not regarded with favour and various reasons are given for declining it, but these are found insufficient and finally death leads away his victim. A second messenger then seizes the hand of a new victim, a prince or a cardinal , who is followed by others representing the various classes of society, the usual number being twenty-four. The play was followed by a second sermon reinforcing the lesson of the representation.

The oldest traces of these plays are found in Germany, but we have the Spanish text for a similar dramatic performance dating back to the year 1360, La Danza General de la Muerte. We read of similar dramatic representations elsewhere: in Bruges before Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy in 1449; in 1453 at Besançon, and in France in the Cimetière des Innocents near Paris in 1424. That similar spectacles were known in England we infer from John Lydgate's Dance of Death written in the first half of the fifteenth century. In Italy besides the traditional dance of death we find spectacular representations of death as the all-conqueror in the so-called Trionfo della Morte. The earliest traces of this conception may be found in Dante and Petrarch. In Florence (1559) the "triumph of death" formed a part of the carnival celebration. We may describe it as follows: After dark a huge wagon, draped in black and drawn by oxen, drove through the streets of the city. At the end of the shaft was seen the Angel of Death blowing the trumpet. On the top of the wagon stood a great figure of Death carrying a scythe and surrounded by coffins. Around the wagons were covered graves which opened whenever the procession halted. Men dressed in black garments on which were painted skulls and bones came forth and, seated on the edge of the graves, sang dirges on the shortness of human life. Before and behind the wagon appeared men in black and white bearing torches and death masks, followed by banners displaying skulls and bones and skeletons riding on scrawny nags. While they marched the entire company sang the Miserere with trembling voices.

Sounds not unlike a Rob Zombie concert or a goth coffeehouse -- minus the sermons, of course.

Dance of Death is also the title of a play by August Strindberg. He was thinking of pre-skeleton people locked in a feverish embrace of sexual tension and feral emotions until death mercifully intervenes. From TheaterScene.net:

Dance of Death should offer a terrifying glimpse of Strindberg's mind, a wild place that projected life as a sexual war ending only with death. He spent huge energies on the theme in fiction and drama, always less interested in persons than in eruptions of violent passion that he understood too well from his own struggles with paranoia and schizophrenia. To the extent his life and art interweave, it follows that his characters owe little to realism. They might be incidental embodiments of a vision, in Dance of Death of man and woman trapped in a condition wherein hate matters more than love and sex matters more than either.

Were it possible, Strindberg would have staged depersonalized emotions, say fragments or splinters of his tormented consciousness–he once suggested his characters should be understood as "characterless." His was a sufficiently bizarre agenda when he was writing in the 1890s and is only a little less so now, long after critics named his innovations expressionism, the theatrical projection of an inner life.

Hmmm. This sounds like the main premise for nearly every show currently on the WB -- only with younger and buffer people. Here's a still from a recent episode of 7th Heaven:

You're the worst babysitter I ever had...

You want a piece of me? I brought seven kids into this world, I can take one out.
[Illustration by Arthur Kampf]

Or was it taken from Beowulf? I get those two shows confused. Anyway, to reinforce the point, here's a still of Holly and Vince on a date from What I Like About You:

Does this mean we're going dutch?

Please, not another show about an eating disorder.
[Image seen on Barista]

Or was it an outtake from Army of Darkness? No matter. This danse macabre thing has gone totally designer. I'm telling you. It's more retro than Iron Maiden -- seen below in a recent performance:

He's walking like a dead man...

...but I feel drawn towards the evil chanting hordes...
[The Bones of All Men (1538) by Hans Holbein]

~/~

UPDATE:

Friday Faves
Blogs and Sites I've enjoyed this week:

Fractal Art:
Have a close encounter with Jock Cooper. Complex, intricate art that's precise and breathtaking. I especially like his "Squaries" galleries filled with amazing fractal motherboards and circuitry.

Political Blog:
Boost your intellect and visit Billmon daily. One of the blogosphere's finest writers. He knows the right words and says what you're feeling and thinking.

Cultural Blog:
Just in time for Halloween, go trick or treat at The Groovy Age of Horror. Peel out in your Ed "Big Daddy" Roth beachwagon to cruise in and enjoy horror books, comics, and movies from the 60s and 70s. And, far out, it's Frankenmonth. For adults only.

6 comments:

The Heretik said...

Thanks, T.

Neil Shakespeare said...

Just followed a link over here from H.'s place. Great stuff! Fun post here. I was about to do a piece on our new 'Afterlife Correspondent', Rudolf Valentino, so this should come in handy. Nice to find your blog. Best,...

Tim said...

Stop me if you think I'm a crazy freak, but I think this is a great idea.

Many churches are uncomfortable "celebrating" Halloween or allowing their children to, and this would be an excellent substitute and much more meaningful.

"Better to go to a house of mourning than a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of all men, the living should take this to heart." -Proverbs, something:something.

Dress up like some horrifying creature...scare everybody...give a short lecture on salvation while sitting in a coffin...Halloween could be fun again!

cruelanimal said...

Alway glad to have you visit, Joe.

And excited to see Neil drop by. Follow his profile to visit his site for sharp commentary and incredible collages.

And Tim's prepped for an engaging Halloween -- and will likely spike funeral home profits with his antics.

Thanks to all for visiting and leaving a note.

Anonymous said...

Unscroll the velour
From the vellum

Gothics molt
In wild abandon

Dr. Mike

pk said...

That's a great post!
I'm quite interested in the angle about the plague influencing the rise of this macabre outlook. It comes across as less pessimistic somehow under those circumstances. (but such depictions are twistedly good in their own right nonetheless)

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