Down on the South side a
tube ride away,
out in the Borough
where some people stay and
some people say,
it’s a nice place, a
well-lit place, a somewhere
to sit and deep think place.
there’s another side, a ride back in time
when the streets were caked in
horse shit and grime and the urchins
searching for somewhere to stay,
some nicer place
on a much nicer day.
And the Stew houses
but no stew inside,
known to children and
no place to hide,
Goose, oh goose
let my children go loose,
cries far away from
the Borough today.
The following is copied from ‘Goodreads’ reviews of John Constable’s ‘The Southwark Mysteries.
‘For tonight in Hell, they are tolling the bell
For the Whore that lay at The Tabard
And well we know how the carrion crow
Doth feast in our Cross Bones Graveyard.’
In 1107, the Bishop of Winchester was granted a stretch of land on Southwark Bankside, which lay outside the law of the City of London. The Bishop controlled the numerous brothels, or ‘stews’in the area, but the prostitutes, known as ‘Winchester Geese’, who paid the Bishop licence fees, were nevertheless condemned to be buried in unhallowed ground. For some 500 years, the Bishop of Winchester exercised sole authority within Bankside’s ‘Liberty of The Clink’, including the right to licence prostitutes under a Royal Ordinance until Cromwell and the Puritans shut down the bear-pits, theatres and stews of Bankside’s pleasure quarter.
In 1996, those working on an extension to the Jubilee line of London’s underground, unwittingly began to dig up the bones of the outcast dead of Southwark, extimated to number 15,000, and John Constable began writing the Southwark Mysteries and later became part of a campaign to preserve part of the cemetery as a memorial garden.
I can’t resist pasting in an article from the Daily Telegraph that appeared after the performance of the Southwark Mysteries at Shakespeare’s Globe and Southwark Cathedral on Easter Sunday and Shakespeare’s birthday, 23rd April 2000:
The Sunday Telegraph, May 14th 2000
“DEAN REJECTS CRITICS OF ‘SWEARING JESUS’ MYSTERY PLAY
A religious play staged in an Anglican cathedral has provoked fury after it featured a swearing Jesus and Satan wearing a phallus.
The Southwark Mysteries was produced by Southwark Cathedral and Shakespeare’s Globe in south London as part of the capital’s ‘String of Pearls’ Millennium celebrations. It mixed bawdy medieval scenes with modern imagery and referred to bishops engaging in homosexual sex with altar boys and priests visiting prostitutes. The character of Jesus, who rode onto stage on a bicycle, was shown apparently condoning a range of sexual activities, while Satan told scatological jokes and ordered Jesus to ‘kiss my a***’. At one point Jesus was admonished by St Peter for his swearing and responded: ‘In the house of the harlot, man must master the language.’ At another, Satan, played by a female actor, strapped on ‘a huge red phallus’ before using it to beat his sidekick, Beelzebub.
The play was written by John Constable, who said that he had deliberately wanted to challenge Christians. ‘Profanity is a theme of the play’, he said. ‘The point of it was to explore the sacred through the profane. ‘ Mr Constable said he had worked closely with Mark Rylance, the Globe’s artistic director, and the Dean of Southwark, the Very Rev Colin Slee, who conceived the idea of a joint production to mark William Shakespeare’s birthday falling on Easter Day. He said the clergy had made a number of suggestions about the content, but he had not acted on all of them. ‘They did ask me to make sure that Satan did not wear the phallus in the presence of Jesus, which I did’, he said.
The first section of the play, which contained much of the bawdy material, was staged at the Globe, and the final part, ‘The Harrowing of Hell’ in the cathedral. ‘Colin Slee was very robust in keeping me on the straight and narrow’, Constable said. ‘The play is a new version of the traditional medieval Mystery plays, which were religious in nature but accepted human imperfections and took place in a carnival atmosphere. It seemed to be well received by most people who saw it.’
But one member of the audience, Simon Fairnington, has condemned the play as ‘disgustingly offensive’, saying that it ‘revelled in the glorification of vice’. In a letter to the Dean he complained: ‘Had the play been a purely secular production, one might not have been surprised at its treatment of Christian belief. What was dismaying was that it was sponsored and performed in part within a Christian cathedral. The cynical part of me wonders whether this is simply a sign of the times, and the way the Church of England cares about its Gospel and its God.’ Anthony Kilmister, chairman of the Prayer Book Society, said: ‘This is not the sort of play that should be performed in God’s house. It is quite disgraceful.’
But the Dean, who was the centre of controversy a few years ago when he allowed the cathedral to be used for a Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement celebration, defended the play. The performance was in keeping with traditional Mystery plays and ‘portrayed graphically the life and history of the area’ which was ‘where the seamier side of life was to be found’, he said. ‘The message was that even the worst sins are not beyond redemption’, he added.
Most of the audience responded positively to the underlying message of mutual forgiveness. Like the Dean, many accepted Satan’s bawdy, blasphemous words and deeds as part of the Mystery Tradition. The theologian Jeffrey John was of the opinion that, despite some obvious heretical tendencies, Constable was presenting ‘remarkably orthodox Christian teachings going back to the first century AD’. Constable’s Harrowing of Hell is closely modelled on a play from the medieval York Cycle. His version shows Jesus’ spirit of forgiveness triumphing over the letter of The Law. Jesus’ ultimate ‘Judgement’ is a verse paraphrase of Matthew 26: 35-45.
My blessed children, I shall say
When your good deed was to me done.
When man or woman, night or day,
Asked for your help, your heart not stone,
Did not pass by or turn away,
You saw that, in me, they too are One.
But you that cursed them, said them nay,
Your curse did cut me to the bone.
When I had need of meat and drink,
You offered me an empty plate.
When I was clasped and chained in Clink,
You frowned, and left me to my fate.
Where I was teetering on the brink,
Did bolt and bar your iron gate.
When I was drowning, you let me sink.
When I cried for help, you came too late.
When had you, Lord, who all things has
Hunger or thirst, or helplessness?
Had we but known God a prisoner was
We would surely have sought to ease His distress.
How could God be sick or dying? Alas!
When was He hungry, thirsty, or homeless?
How could such things come to pass?
When did we to thee such wickedness?
Dead souls! When any bid
You pity them, you did but blame.
You heard them not, your heart you hid.
Your guilt told you they should be shamed.
Your thought was but the earth to rid
Of them I am now come to claim.
To the poorest wretch, whate’er you did,
To me you did the self and same.
© 2015, John Smallshaw.