Rahere – a play

In 1931, Irene Mawer wrote an article in the Ginner-Mawer School magazine about a play that she had been to see.  The play was called Rahere and was performed in a magnificent Mediaeval church in the Smithfield district of London.  Officially the church is called The Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great.  It was founded by a courtier/monk called Rahere in 1123 and for the next 400 years the monks in the priory provided medical treatment for the people of London.  After that, the now-famous St Barts Hospital was built next door to it and took over the work of giving care to the sick.

The play that moved Irene Mawer so much told a story from the court of King Henry I.  The King’s son drowned and Rahere was blamed for not having journeyed with the Prince on that fateful ship which sank (though to be fair, I don’t see that Rahere could necessarily have saved the Prince’s life, indeed, surely the pair of them would have drowned.  Or perhaps that is why the King was angry, perhaps he felt that Rahere should have drowned as well?) 

Anyway, Rahere was mortified that he had left the Prince to take the journey alone.  As a penance, Rahere undertook a pilgrimage to Rome.  While in Rome he fell very ill but survived and on his return to London he explained to the King that he had been saved by a vision of Saint Bartholomew (the patron saint of doctors and healers).

In the vision, St Bartholomew had told Rahere that he should build a church in London where care and healing could be given to the sick.  On Rahere’s return to England, the King was so impressed that he paid for the church/priory to be built.  Much of it still stands today, in its original form and must indeed have been a superb setting for the enactment of the atmospheric play.

Even in modern times, there is still a link with St Bartholomew’s hospital which was built next door to the church.  Thus, in 1931, it was the Journal of Nursing which gave a review of the performance that Irene Mawer wrote about so movingly in the School magazine.  Here is a shortened version of the Journal of Nursing review:

“The pageant play ‘Rahere,’ by Jean Scott-Rogers…is being acted daily for a minimum of four weeks in St. Bartholomew’s Priory Church, Smithfield.  Funds are greatly needed for the reconstruction of the roof…The opportunity of seeing this lovely historical play in ideal surroundings is something that should not be missed.  Soft, golden lights illuminate the old grey walls and pillars, the notes of the organ vibrate through the arches, and the colours worn by the players are warm and glowing…From the shadows come the actors – King, courtiers and the minstrel Rahere,…the Kings’s son…is drowned and the King in his grief curses Rahere.

Sobered by these tragic happenings Rahere starts…a pilgrimage to Rome.

Next comes the chanting of monks in the Augustinian Monastery on the banks of the Tiber.  Rahere, sick of a fever, is supported in by two Brothers of the Order.  This is a very beautiful scene in which Rahere repeats the XX I Psalm.  He fears to die…The light grows more brilliant, and the voice of St. Bartholomew is heard…The Apostle then instructs Rahere to return and build a Church.  The remainder of the tale lives for us as ‘The Wonderful Monument of Stone’ which has come down to us through the centuries, a perpetual inspiration and joy.

At the end of the play, candle in hand, Rahere the actor stands alone by the tomb of Rahere the saint.” (The British Journal of Nursing, November 1931, p.303)

And this (below) is what Miss Mawer wrote about it:

‘We have been in danger of overlooking the important fact that the Church is the cradle of the Drama.  We have looked for the New Drama in the scenic designer’s studio, in the amateur clubs, in the electrician’s switchboard, but we have forgotten the Church.  If for no other reason than as proof that a Church is a perfect setting for a certain type of play, and that that type is true Drama, we must be grateful to the promoters of the production of Rahere in the exquisite old city Church of St. Bartholomew.

The performance was an experience that no lover of the beautiful will readily forget.  Modern theatrical conditions were made use of, for the adaptation of lighting was perfect, and the arrangement and whole schemes of production were almost faultless.  But modern drama was in no way responsible for the atmosphere and wonder of proportion of the building.  Figures that come and go among shadowy aisles take on a new significance.  Pictures made before a simple screen veiling the altar, above which rise the miracle of the rounded arches and the dim height of the roof, are more than human.  What wonder that the players, whether well-known professionals or choir boys gathered from the poorest parts of Smithfield, were inspired by a unity of purpose which gave a rare dignity to the telling of the story of the founding of the Church upon the ground that had been used for hangings.

The beautiful poem “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills” took on a new glory as the young pilgrim, Rahere, looked out over the hills to Rome, whence came the vision of the Church which he returned to London to build. 

Rahere in the ancient Church in Smithfield was an experience in Drama equal to Prometheus in the theatre in the mountains at Delphi.  A message from the past, gathered revently by players of the present, and given with a grave gesture as a message for the future.  

Irene Mawer.’ (The Link, January 1932, p.85)

I am afraid that the message for the future  is lost on me.  What was it that Miss Mawer felt was being given – I would be glad to hear from anyone who may have thoughts on this.  Please leave a message in the comments, or in Messenger, or by email (fizzycloud@hotmail.com), thanks.

The play very obviously had a profound impact on Irene and she certainly felt that the exquisite setting inside the church was well warranted and more than acceptable, and that the almost faultless direction allowed for the use of modern technology which only added to the beauty, and in no way detracted from it.

Whatever one’s religious views, or lack of them, I think this production would have been an amazing event to behold. 

Other sources:  Mike Stuchbery, www.greatstbarts.com; Wikipedia

Author: Janet Fizz Curtis

Janet Fizz Curtis is trained in the Irene Mawer Method of Mime and Movement and is now writing a book about the life of Irene Mawer.

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