Terra Mysterium’s A Midwinter’s Mummers Tale

I have just returned from another marvelous show by my friends at Terra Mysterium. I have written before about how much I love this company, which makes theatre based on Earth mysteries, often with a Steampunk edge.

The play, which only ran this weekend, is a retelling of A Christmas Carol, with a number of transformations. This is not a historical version of Victorian England. The names have been changed and some genders have been switched. Women own successful businesses and same-sex couples don’t merit any particular comment. And Christianity is not the dominant religion of the land. English folk traditions and pre-Christian religion is more the norm in this version of the 19th century.

This kind of revision is perfectly in keeping with my thoughts about Paganism and Steampunk – we don’t need to “follow the book” and we are free to take the parts of history that create a new culture and reject the prejudices and close-mindedness of the past.

Esmerelda Pennywise is our transformed Scrooge, and Deb Miller plays this complex character wonderfully. She is the anchor to the show. Miller is an accomplished actor, who plays 19th century women including Mary Todd Lincoln, Jane Austen, and Louisa May Alcott to groups at libraries, schools and historical societies throughout the year. She has an imposing stage presence and voice, perfect for portraying both the bitter and miserly character at the beginning and the expansive, transformed version of Esmerelda at the end.

Keith Green, a founder, writer and regular on the Terra Mysterium stage, plays the cunning man Thomas Owen Morgan, who seems to set the ghostly visitations in motion after Pennywise’s hard-hearted response to a plea for help to those in need. Following the model of Dickens’ original, the first visitor is her former business partner, bound by the chains of his missed opportunities to help others. The next three have a flavor of pagan divinity.

The Trickster reveals Pennywise’s past – showing times when money was scarce, but joy abounded. We also glimpse a love match that ultimately couldn’t compete with her business ambitions. The ebullient Holly King shows Pennywise a peek inside the vivid lives that are going on around her – the happiness and the sorrow – that she may reach out and experience. The Dark Mother shows a grim future – a gravestone and an unmourned passing of a difficult woman.

Of course, Esmerelda awakens a transformed woman, and rushes to make right some of her wrongs and connect to those who would welcome her into their fold. The story is full of charming and heartfelt moments. The breakup scene from her past and her clerk’s family struggling with a child’s illness should bring a tear to the eye of nearly every audience member.

Woven into the storytelling are music and wonderful folk traditions based on wassailing and mumming traditions from the British Isles, including the appearance of the Mari Lwyd. Some songs were familiar (like the Gloucestershire Wassail) and others less so. The set was minimal, with projections and a few pieces of furniture helping to establish the scenes, but the costumes brought a reality flavored with history and a bit of magic.

You may wonder why I am writing up a full review of a show that just closed. Well, there’s some good news there. The company plans to mount the show again in future years, making it a kind of Yuletide tradition.  It is well worth a re-staging, and deserves a larger audience. My friends at Terra Mysterium have succeeded again at creating entertainment laced with Pagan content, but accessible to a general audience.

 

Nostalgia and the Problems of the Past

I don’t recall where I first heard it, but there is an idea that all nostalgia is basically racism. As someone who indulges in various forms of what may be called nostalgia, I took this personally and had to ask myself some serious questions. I dress in neo-Victorian/Steampunk style with several groups of friends. I read a lot of “classics” – set in the 18th and 19th century. I am endlessly fascinated with ancient Rome and love to read about Roman religion and daily life. I listen mostly to classical music and opera, much of which was written over 100 years ago. And yes, I love “period dramas” in film and television with gorgeous costumes and sets from another era.

So yes, I was a bit touchy when many of my interests were all called racist.

A recent poll sparked some particularly topical versions of this question about nostalgia. This piece in the Washington Post by Janell Ross hit some of the themes that I am talking about. Another piece by Kali Holloway of Alternet hit many of the same themes.

The nostalgia part is a poll question asking if American culture had changed for the better or for the worse since the 1950’s. Around half of Americans, and 57% of white Americans believe that American culture has changed for the worse since the 1950’s.

Taken on its own, the ways in which American culture has changed are myriad, and some of these are definitely not for the better. I don’t personally think of the 1950’s as an ideal time by any means, but I can think of a number of ways in which our culture is worse.

Since the 1980’s, news sources no longer have a legal obligation to tell the truth, which has caused a proliferation of opinion sold as news and downright lies in the mass media. Our food culture is dependent on fast food, packaged food, and junk food – packed with sugar and sodium and lacking in many healthy nutrients. Americans cook very little and are not well informed about nutrition. Compared to the 1950’s, the last few decades have shown increasing violence in much of America. It has varied – spiking in the 1980’s, declining somewhat in the 1990’s, and increasing again in recent years.

And this doesn’t even touch on cultural things like taste in music, film or television, where some people’s preferences may run toward those popular in the 1950’s. That is largely personal taste, though.

But there has been obvious and huge improvements in American culture – racial and ethnic discrimination and segregation that was the rule of the land in the 1950’s changed, through the Civil Rights movement, the legal changes of the 1960’s and the gradual, but significant moves of African Americans, Asian Americans and Latin Americans into greater visibility and power in our cultural life. I am not saying that there is true equality – certainly there isn’t – but as an example, African American visibility in politics, media, sports, and many other areas has increased dramatically for the better. There is greater gender equality in employment and in many areas of culture. There has been a dramatic improvement in the legal status and cultural attitudes around LGBTQ people.

So, how the question is answered really depends on what aspects of culture are foremost in the minds of the person answering the question.

Janell Ross links this question to another question on the poll and uses this link to indict white American’s nostalgia. The other question whether discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against other blacks and other minorities. Around 60% of white Americans said yes.

I wholeheartedly disagree with this one. There is no widespread discrimination against white Americans. I think that the American middle and working classes have seen a disintegration of opportunity overall in the past couple decades. Well paid manufacturing jobs are very difficult to come by due to a combination of products being manufactured in other countries and the erosion of the power of labor unions. Median household income has slid downward in the last decade, even as the politicians and media are touting the economic recovery. The stock markets are high and unemployment is down, but the quality and pay of jobs is lower. The recovery has been for the rich and not for the middle or working class. So the pie, so to speak, has been shrinking, and yes the proportion of opportunities for African Americans and other minority groups have improved. But this doesn’t add up to discrimination against whites. It means white Americans are getting a more equitable share of a shrinking set of opportunities.

I have seen this nostalgic link that Janell Ross is making. Even in the mid-1990’s, when I was newly graduated from college and it seemed like 90% of my friends were working at temp jobs with no benefits and no security, I had older people tell me “there was a time when a bright young man like you could write his own ticket, but not anymore.” Implied was that I was a young WHITE man, and that I had to compete with women and people of different racial and ethnic minorities. But I do not long for a time when things would be given to me simply because of my race and sex. That is just discrimination.

So yes, I agree that there’s a kind of racist nostalgia that happens among white Americans. I also see that certain troubling populist politicians are using themes like “make America great again!” play into this and have a racist undercurrent. When Donald Trump is talking about making America great, he’s also calling for a registry of Muslims and calling Mexican immigrants rapists. He is not appealing to some ideal of American pluralism. He’s appealing playing on white American fears of those different from them and linking it to the real experience of loss of economic opportunity.

But I don’t think that nostalgia necessarily comes with that baggage. Janell Ross states something that points to where nostalgia and racism can split and don’t necessarily mean the same thing. She states:

Yes, nearly 60 percent of white Americans believe that life in America before the advent of the cassette tape, the ATM, IVF, the hand-held calculator and the bar code was better than it is today. Apparently life was very good for these Americans, when segregated public facilities were a legal requirement in the South and Southeast and a social norm in many other places. Most people of color could not obtain credit or a loan from most “mainstream” banks.

And here we have a link being made between the technology or fashions of an era and its moral failings. This is a common habit, and it’s completely nonsensical. Somehow cassette tapes and bar codes furthered the cause of racial equality? Of course not. Are poodle skirts and cars with tail fins necessarily linked to segregated drinking fountains? The question is absurd.

John Michael Greer, one of my favorite bloggers addressed this sort of question recently in a couple blog posts here and here where he brings up how inflamed people become when someone chooses to opt out of some currently popular technology.

Then there are the people whose response to the technology of an older time is to yammer endlessly about whatever bad things happened in those days, even when the bad things in question had nothing to do with the technology and vice versa. People like the couple I discussed in last week’s post, who prefer Victorian furnishings and clothing to their modern equivalents, get this sort of bizarre non sequitur all the time, but variants of it turned up in my inbox last week as well. Here again, there’s some heavy-duty illogic involved. If a technology that was invented and used in the 1850s, say, is permanently tarred with the various social evils of that era, and ought to be rejected because those evils happened, wouldn’t that also mean that the internet is just as indelibly tarred with the social evils of the modern era, and ought to be discarded because bad things are happening in the world today?

John Michael Greer advocates specifically for all of us to step back from our dependence on every new and energy intensive gadget and to learn skills and habits that will help us in a coming period of energy scarcity. I agree with this thinking and I am trying to move my life in this direction (which I am finding a challenge in many ways).

But I also am a fan of taking inspirations from the past and recognizing in a clear-eyed way that we don’t need to adopt the social attitudes and blind spots of prior eras along with their technology or styles. I wrote about that with regard to Steampunk a couple years ago and I firmly believe it today. If we want to learn to bake like our great grandmother or retell grandpa’s stories, that doesn’t mean that we need to agree with the social attitudes of their day. Racism, sexism, anti-LGBTQ attitudes, intolerance of those who have different languages or religions – these are all things that don’t deserve our nostalgia and we can leave them in the past.

Steampunk and the Spiritual

I am still basking in the afterglow of my first trip to Teslacon, a wonderful annual Steampunk convention in Madison, Wisconsin. It was an immersive experience, with nearly all 1,200 guests dressing and participating for the entire time and following along with the story of the convention. People showed off their gorgeous and creative costumes, contraptions, accessories, makeup, music, and literature. I attended panel discussions on subject ranging from Victorian shaving and cosmetics to inclusion of trans-gendered, intersex, gender-queer, and other non-traditional sexual identities in the Steampunk community.

My friends at Terra Mysterium also performed a new show called The Clockwork Prince, weaving together the legends of King Arthur with the courtship of Victoria and Albert with our favorite time-traveling mage Professor Marius Mandagore as a guide. The show was delightful, as all their shows are.

Now that I have been involved with Steampunk for a couple years and have a greater sense it, I must confess that I had once had a doubt (commonly expressed by casual observers). I wondered if Steampunk is ultimately about a gorgeous aesthetic and doesn’t have a deeper meaning. One friend recently referred to Teslacon as a triumph of style over substance, and an impenetrable LARP.

With time and experience, I have grown to understand what lies deeper in Steampunk, and it resonates with a spirit of independence and creativity that I love.

Terra Mysterium and The Owen Society make a link that is explicit between the Steampunk aesthetic and its relevance. At every meeting of the The Owen Society, Professor Mandragore gives an introduction about Steampunk and the Society’s particular interpretation. We are inspired by the Victorian geniuses that came before us, but we re-tool the stories and trappings to a modern age and find something that’s an antidote to the soulless modern mechanical age.

Since I have also been thinking about my own spiritual path, I realized the great intersection of Steampunk and modern Paganism is that they allow us to create our own story to shape our lives. We are informed and inspired by the past, but we don’t need to follow “follow the book”. We don’t need to understand ourselves as Sinners and one of the Sheep of the Flock as in Christianity. We don’t need to understand ourselves as Consumers as defined by our current version of mass market capitalism.

We don’t need to slavishly follow stylistic limitations based on specific historical periods like historical re-enactors. We won’t be judged by how closely we imitate characters from a particular film, TV show or comic book. As Lord Bobbins, the guiding star of Teslacon, said “Steampunks don’t owe Lucasfilm anything, because we made our fandom.” (as quoted by Lisa Walker England)

We are the Makers. We are the Storytellers. We can dress as high priests today and rogues tomorrow. We can shape our own gender identities. We can wear ridiculous hats and jet packs. I may not sew my own clothes or weld metal gadgets (yet), but I am daring to wear a different style of clothes and act a little differently. I can make friends with a variety of unique and interesting people and go to unusual events. I am beginning to write my own story.

I have a friend who has the habit of proclaiming every few months for the past couple years that “Steampunk is dead”, usually in reaction to some silly person wanting to paste a “Steampunk” style into their music video/TV show/iPhone app and, predictably, the result looks a bit stilted and weak. He isn’t attracted by the aesthetic (which is fine) and, in truth, he’s a grumpy and rather mean-spirited person most of the time (which is less fine, but I’m hardly going change that). What he is missing is that attempts at layering Steampunk style onto mainstream products will never really be Steampunk. Mass produced brass-painted plastic ray guns aren’t Steampunk. A pop star whose music and image is composed by a committee of corporate executives to appeal to a particular demographic will never be Steampunk.

Steampunk is alive and well, my misguided friend, and I am very thankful for it!

I am in love with Terra Mysterium

 

Terra Mysterium is a small theater group here in Chicago, a collective of actors, musicians and writers. I am so lucky to have encountered them, both because they are delightful and creative people, but also because they helped crack open something inside me and lead me along my spiritual path.

The group came together around the idea of Earth Mysteries, so essentially they are a Pagan theater company.  Their first show (which I saw in a later revival staging) was called “Betwixt and Between” and it was a modern fairy tale adventure with the actors switching identities to tell the story

The first Terra Mysterium show that I saw was “Professor Marius Mandragore’s Salon Symposium regarding Spirits, Spells, and Eldritch Craft”. It was a wonderful piece of theater.  The story framework was that the eccentric and mysterious Victorian-era Professor Mandragore has a Salon Symposium that transports through space and time.  He and his (equally eccentric and mysterious) guests materialized at an intimate theater in Chicago and each presented their work, and sometimes they summoned various spirits to assist.  From the Pooka to the White Lady, these spirits lent their magical presence to the proceedings.  The whole evening was full of wit and myth-making and I had a marvelous time.

That show launched the company in a different direction.  The audience loved the air of neo-Victorian mystery and the company began to embrace and be embraced by the local Steampunk community.  The two most recent shows “The Alembic” and “In the Observarium” incorporate both the Earth Mystery and Steampunk themes into deliciously entertaining shows.

The character of Professor Mandragore (Keith Green) himself even launched a group called The Owen Society for Hermetic and Spiritual Enlightenment, which combines Steampunk and pagan/occult scholarship.  The gatherings of the Owen Society on Sunday afternoons in the upper room of a local pub have become some of my favorite events.  The papers given by the Society members combine history, whimsy and spirituality.  Of course, they are also an excuse to dress up in glorious neo-Victorian attire.

Here’s where they have become a part of my own spiritual path.  Although the topics are sometimes fanciful, many of the contributors are genuine authorities presenting real scholarship.  They have presented on such fascinating subjects as stone circles in Britain and Ireland, ancient Roman curse tablets, and the Fairy Doctor tradition of magic. I have had a longtime interest in ancient understandings of the divine and traditional expressions of nature-based healing. The Owen Society presenters have also exposed me to subjects in astrology and the Kabbalah that I had known little about in the past.  Part of my journey into understanding Paganism recently has been to be more open-minded and open-hearted about different paths, beliefs and practices that I may not understand. Even when the talks don’t resonate with my current mindset, I can at least expose myself to these systems and have a glimpse into different ways of thinking, which is a value in itself.

The Owen Society has brought the theater collective into an intimate and interactive format (the groups are often less than 20 people and allow for questions and discussion after the talk).  Terra Mysterium is also branching out of the theater in another way.  They are recording their music and videos and they are marketing them for sale in such venues as Amazon and iTunes.  Their first track is the title song from “In the Observarium”.

So, yes I’m in love with Terra Mysterium.  It’s not a jealous love, though.  You can fall in love, too, dear reader.  Soon that may be possible even for those far from Chicago who are unable to appreciate them in person. I’m so glad to have discovered them and hope they continue their beautiful and enriching work for many years.