Cupid, Death, and The Art of the Comic

by Thomas More College on May 1, 2013

JWannLast Tuesday saw the third and final performance of Cupid and Death, the spring semester’s theatrical performance at Thomas More College. Theater forms a longstanding part of student life at Thomas More. In past years the annual Shakespeare play was greeted with much excitement, and more recently students have collaborated to put together such classic dramas as Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. As part of the community life of the campus, drama serves as a way to artfully express the spirit of communitas that animates the College’s pursuit of truth. It offers, as Aristotle says in his Poetics, an imitation of human action for the consideration of the audience, and does so through words and gesture, song and spectacle. 

This semester’s production, however, was quite different from past years.

InnFor one thing, the genre of Cupid and Death is unusual. It is a comedic masque, a narrative that alternates between song, dance, and dialogue. The form of the play is taken from the tradition of the Renaissance pageant, and is based largely on a work of the same name written by the Restoration-era dramatist James Shirley. This semester’s production followed an adaptation of the original by junior Jonathan Wanner, a native of North Dakota. Jonathan employed both classical and original pieces in Cupid and Death‘s musical arrangements, including John Bennet’s Weep O Mine Eyes.

CupidFor another thing, the spectacle of the play is extremely varied. Allegorical and comedic characters flit, flop, and traipse across the stage. A brawny Cupid—complete with long golden locks—played by sophomore Vincent Deardurff is complemented by the grimaces of Death, played by junior Devin King. At one point, a jester and her trained monkey caper onto stage; at another, an elderly couple hobble down onto a bench, where they promptly begin warbling about love. Despair downs a bottle of wine, Nature is distraught, and a conniving Innkeeper exchanges Death and Cupid’s quivers, resulting in what becomes a disastrous—and hilarious—escapade.

DaOldFolksjpgFinally, the most unusual feature about Cupid and Death is its profundity, despite all its silliness. The exaggerations of many of its characters, the allegory involved, the use of intermittent polyphonic songs: all these elements seem to weigh against the show’s success, simply because they are not what one would expect of a comedy. On Sunday night’s performance, however, the actors received a standing ovation from their audience. Why?

AugustinePerhaps it was because the resolution of the play ended on a beautiful note with the performance of William Byrd’s Turn Unto God. Perhaps it was because the student actors, producers, and technicians involved put so much art, work, and effort into making it a successful, unified play. Or, perhaps, it was because Cupid and Death, like the education offered at Thomas More College, appeals to the whole person. It is both humorous and serious, appealing to the higher faculties of the human person, and expressing the profundity and festivity of a life lived with a view to the pursuit and attainment of truth. Whatever the case, it is certain that what this performance of Cupid and Death offered its audience was in accord with the spirit of the College’s patron: an expression of the Christian humanism exemplified by Saint Thomas More, a life lived joyfully in the truth.

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