Special Promotional Content by Mike Fischer for Forward Theater Company
It began in Sicily in late 1347, as ships arrived from the Black Sea with dead and dying sailors, covered in strange and frightening black swellings in the armpits and groin.
By early 1348, it had spread throughout Italy and entered France, reaching Paris and then England by summer. Within two years, it had killed one quarter of Europe’s population. By century’s end, it had killed nearly half.
At the time, Europeans called it the Great Mortality. We call it the Black Death, and it’s where Jordan Harrison’s The Amateurs, on stage in a Forward Theater production from November 4-21, begins.
Forward Theater’s production of The Amateurs had seemingly ended before it started, when the coronavirus pandemic forced cancellation of a planned March 2020 run less than one week before the scheduled opening. As production dramaturg, I’d been preparing to return to Madison for final rehearsals when I got the call telling me we weren’t going to make it.
Talk about dramatic irony: Harrison’s play features a troupe of fourteenth-century actors trying to outrun the Black Death, much as Forward’s own production tries to outrun a plague that continues to cancel theater performances and even entire productions throughout the United States.
As we again began rehearsals on The Amateurs in Fall 2021, the coronavirus had killed more than 700,000 Americans, surpassing the 1918-19 influenza pandemic to become the deadliest pandemic in American history. Nearly five million people have died worldwide.
Then as now, our response as humans hasn’t always been inspiring; ignorance and want as well as fear and hate have frequently driven us further apart. What 18th-century novelist Daniel Defoe once said of yet another outbreak of plague has frequently applied to ours: “The danger of immediate death to ourselves took away all bonds of love, all concern for one another.”
But the past two years have also repeatedly made clear that Defoe overstates the case. To steal the title of Rebecca Solnit’s outstanding book on this topic, we’ve also seen numerous examples of people building paradise out of hell. Or, at least, building back better.
Which makes Harrison’s play even more relevant now than it was 18 months ago.
Making Art; Finding Ourselves
In a panic-stricken world shutting down all around them, Harrison’s actors are doing what theater does so well: offering people a chance to come together as a community and share its dreams for a better world – as well as its fears involving this one.
The play within Harrison’s play that his medieval actors perform is a mystery play. Taking their cue from the Greeks, mystery plays draw on religious stories to help people make sense of their place in the world – and discover as well as celebrate the spark of divinity in each of us.
Like so many Europeans in the plague-ridden 14th century, Harrison’s actors are trying to stay ahead of a disease they don’t understand, while wondering whether its visitation is a divine punishment striking down sinners in the hands of an angry God.
“To the people at large,” writes historian Barbara Tuchman in A Distant Mirror, “there could be but one explanation” for the Black Death: “the wrath of God . . . the general acceptance of this view created an expanded sense of guilt, for if the plague were punishment there had to be terrible sin to have occasioned it.”
In an era during which nearly all plays involved biblical stories, the play we see Harrison’s troupe rehearsing and performing is that frightening account of Noah confronting God’s all-consuming, world-ending flood.
Written in an era that can often feel equally apocalyptic, Harrison’s play offers an inspiring account of how and why we might stay afloat – and how the stories we tell help make it possible. Or as Harrison said in an interview, The Amateurs is “a play about how art responds to crisis.”
What Harrison suggests is that 14th-century Europe responded by discovering and then affirming what it means to be an individual – with unique desires, hopes and dreams – in an age when people were more likely to be cast as cardboard cutouts performing preordained roles: Husband and wife. Lord and serf. Butcher and baker.
When Shakespeare’s Jaques tells us 250 years later that “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” with predefined parts, he’s repeating a very old idea. In the medieval world of Harrison’s play, people were taught to see themselves as mere instruments: types illuminating universally shared moral and philosophical patterns. Interiorized self-recognition didn’t exist.
But even as the Black Death raged, this old idea began to change.
It’s present in Chaucer’s pilgrims on the road to Canterbury. We find it in 14th-century courtly romances and lyrics. In hagiographic writings. And in dissident confessions, defying the Church’s authority to intervene in a person’s spiritual quest to find God.
It’s also present in our play, in ways our intrepid band of traveling actors will reveal. Suffice it to say that some of them will look upon the mayhem around them and ask – really ask, for the very first time – why they must be defined by the roles they’ve been assigned instead of who they imagine themselves to be.
Maybe, they’ll think to themselves, they can do more than just recite an old script. Maybe they can write and become something new, creating stories that more fully express how they feel. And maybe – just maybe – those stories might offer us a way forward.
Like Forward Theater itself, Harrison’s play makes us a promise as good as any covenant between God and Noah: there’s always the possibility of new and better stories, as long as we have the courage to imagine a future that’s different from the past.
Yes: we must live within the history we inherit. But we also get to make our own. That’s what it means to be human.
For more information regarding and tickets to The Amateurs, visit https://forwardtheater.com/.