The Faerie Queene Fable and Drama Project

This project is led by Simon Palfrey who will work in conjunction with the academic and dramaturg Elisabeth Dutton.

First Schools workshop: Bishop David Brown School, Woking

Bishop David Brown School was selected for participation because of its particular focus on the performing arts. The students involved in the workshops are year 10 (aged 14) and have been selected by their drama teacher as those most able and willing to contribute to workshops involving imagination and theatrical improvisation. The group is ethnically diverse and half boys, half girls.

Simon had prepared a range of material for use in this and subsequent workshops: scene-setting prose which seeks to create the world of The Faerie Queene, particularly book III; descriptions of Faerie Queene characters; scenarios inspired by scenes in Spenser’s poems; tasks.

Our assumptions were:
1) schoolchildren would be familiar, through video games, with activities involving the adoption of given characters which function as avatars on given quests.
2) schoolchildren would possibly be unfamiliar with the functioning of allegory, but the allegorical knights etc of the Faerie Queene could be made accessible to them through the idea of video games and avatars.

For the first workshop, our aims were:
1) to engage the children imaginatively with Spenser’s poem
2) to explore the children’s response to key allegorical concepts, particularly Holiness (the allegorical quality of Redcrosse) and Chastity (the allegorical quality of Britomart.

Workshop activities:
1) We began the workshop by reading together some of the scene-setting material, and then discussing different ‘vices’ and ‘virtues’ with the children.
2) We then put the children into small groups and asked them to choose a virtue or vice which they could illustrate in a small improvised scene.
3) The children performed the scenes for each other twice, once straight through and once providing their own commentary on what was happening. The groups asked each other follow-up questions.

What we observed:
• The children’s world view seemed, perhaps unsurprisingly, quite black and white.
• The children were uncomfortable with abstractions and quickly sought concrete, small-scale and personal ways of defining things eg envy is when your friend has an X-box and you want one.
• The children were, again perhaps unsurprisingly, very hazy about what Chastity might mean; they had strongly simple, moral views about lust (‘that’s like when your friend has a boyfriend that you really fancy’).
• The view of holiness was perhaps the most intriguing: they seemed not to differentiate between ‘holiness’ and ‘religiousness’ at all, so that the two Moslem girls in the class were identified as ‘holy’, and this was seen as something to be respected, but on the other hand when Holiness was personified in a scene he was intensely irritating and smug, walking around with folded hands and a self-absorbed hum. Everyone agreed that he was annoying, and nobody seemed troubled by the inconsistency between their positive view of the ‘holy’ people in the class and the negative view of ‘holiness’ as a quality.

Dramaturgical points:
Although we had not briefed them to do this, the children instinctively chose to show virtues by dramatizing them in opposition to appropriate vices; Chastity can only be fully recognized and realized in the presence of lust, etc. (Interestingly, the actress playing Chastity embodied the virtue by trying not to look at lust, though she was drawn towards it.)

In spite of their resistance, in conversation, to abstraction, the children seemed quite comfortable with more abstract styles of presenting vices and virtues as theatre. The most successful scenes were those which sought almost arbitrary actions to demonstrate the effect of virtues or vices – eg in the scene illustrating ‘love’ and ‘anger’, the virtue was represented by rhythmical clapping, while the vice was represented by stamping. The clapping actors gradually persuaded the stamping actors to stop stamping and join them in clapping. This was performed without spoken lines.

Intriguingly, the blocking of ‘love’ was almost identical to the blocking of ‘lust’. Lust was represented by three girls dancing, who persuaded others to join them. The principle difference between ‘lust’ and ‘love’ was that lust remained in one place and sucked others in (the dancers looked like a monster with tentacles) while love went to meet others and persuade them to join the clapping.
The Mary Whitehouse bit:
We were concerned that the children might find some aspects of the material difficult or disturbing, particularly the sexual content, some of the violence, and the theme of incest. In fact the children displayed remarkably little concern.

What we learnt:
Perhaps the most important thing we learnt was that the video-game idea was not the best way of approaching this material with children. It seemed to dampen, rather then engage, their imaginations. Perhaps this is because video games in fact make few imaginative demands on their players, who are rather passive consumers of something too much prepared. The children actually responded best to being forced to struggle with abstraction.