Like many other aspects of our lives in 2020, Dana Hall’s beloved Revels tradition will be very different when it premieres on video for a world-wide audience on Friday, December 18. While much will necessarily change from the usual Bardwell performance, much will remain the same. The Class of 2022’s Revels will have the same royal and rabbler characters, the same basic plot, the same solstice themes, and, of course, much joyful singing, dancing, jesting, and revelry. The talents and resilience of the Junior Class will be on display, as they play their parts without the traditional costumes. The skills of their classmates offscreen, who will perform technical wizardry in production and editing, will also be exceptional. It will forever be a Revels to remember.
The long history of Revels is a striking example of how a tradition can remain strong and reverential to its antecedents, while also introducing new material, and updating scenes and characters for a contemporary audience. Of course, the Dana Hall community nearly a century ago could not have imagined an all-video remotely performed show, and this is more than just a “tweak” to the tradition.
The Revels tradition was born on December 10, 1921, when the annual pre-Christmas Party was replaced by a pageant written by English teacher Constance Alexander. She titled her play “Saint Francis Keeps Christmas at Greccio, 1223,” and it was first performed in the Dana Main gymnasium. The setting is a medieval banquet hall with the lord and lady of the manor entertaining family and guests. Outside a group of cold and hungry villagers gathers to lament their absence from the merriment and feasting within.
For almost 80 years the scenes and characters in this part of the play, also including a Lame Boy, a Well Boy, a Jester, a Lord of Misrule, minstrels, foresters, and a procession of cooks remained nearly the same. We believe the entire script was used for several decades. Even today the dialogue in the opening scene is still exactly as written by Miss Alexander, and the presentation of the cooks’ feast to Sir John also typically follows the 1921 script. But the later part, introducing Saint Francis, a monk, and Jesus as a baby in a manger, was dropped at an unknown date. We do know from photographs that as early as 1935 Revels included a mummers play with a brave knight and a fearsome dragon.
Many other changes to Revels have occurred over the years. For example, the performance was not always a class tradition. The 1921 production included faculty and friends, and many students from all three of Helen Temple Cooke’s Schools – Pine Manor, Dana Hall and Tenacre. For decades the Senior Class President was the Lord of Misrule, and other seniors had key roles. Archives research leads us to believe that it was sometime in the 1960s that Revels became the special tradition of the 11th grade.
Major thematic modifications came more recently. In December 1993, in a preface to the program, Head of School Blair Jenkins explained the new emphasis on Winter Solstice themes. It was an effort to be more inclusive of a diversity of cultures by de-emphasizing Christian references. Songs from other faith traditions were introduced, and a staff recitation of the poem “The Shortest Day” by Susan Cooper became a highly anticipated part of the Revels performance.
Over the years there were character changes too. The original script had few female characters and none with important roles. (Of course, the actors from the start were almost all female.) Gradually more female characters were added, and some male characters were made female. In December 2012 the program officially listed a “Lady of Misrule.” A few years earlier the “Lame Boy” lost his crutch and he and the “Well Boy” were given the names Timmy and Harry in the script.
Also evolving was the menu the cooks prepared for the feast. Early on it seems that a medieval menu was served. Later, the fare was roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, and the traditional Revels dessert was plum pudding. That changed for several decades to Baked Alaska. At some point the feast occurred after the show and had a more modern menu. The banquet itself was discontinued in 2010. For the last 10 years Revels has ended with the favorite “Tradition Cake,” and sparkling cider, heralding the start of Winter Break.
With these and many other changes over the years, archivists and student researchers are still uncovering facts and details on the history of Dana Hall’s December celebrations. But one aspect of Revels has remained constant: the Dana Hall community comes together to celebrate the spirit of good fellowship and the turning of the year. A quote from the 1925 Class Book page says it best: “[And] so another link …[is] wrought in the chain of memories that binds our hearts to Dana for all time.”
We look forward next week to the Class of 2022’s interpretation of Revels, and we are grateful to them for helping us end a difficult year on a joyful note.