It was a clever notion to draw a play from Chaucer's Clerk's Tale, for there is a nice dramatic development in the Lord Walter's successive trials of his peasant wife's patience and constancy; he smuggles away Griselda's daughter, then her son, leading her to believe them killed; at last he exiles her nearly naked from his household and asks her to witness his marriage to another woman. Her response to all four tests is to protest her love and obedience to his wishes; and Walter, believing at last in what Chaucer took to be an unreasonable stock of virtue, remarries Griselda and reunites her with their children.
Clearly this story has its gruesome elements, and Thomas Babe has appropriated them in order, it appears, to account for the behavior of Walter and Griselda. "On his lust present was al his thoght," Chaucer writes of the Lord (meaning his immediate pleasure or wish), and speaks of his "merveillous desir his wyf t'assaye." Babe, ingeniously, has translated this "lust" or "desir" into Walter's elaborate obsession with a pageant he is composing. We do not learn much about the pageant except that it presumably celebrates some ideal of constancy and that it involves the character of Herod, but we do know that it eventually becomes a vision of great power and dignity for Walter, ordering all this life and occupying "al his thoght." In the name of this vision, which other characters mistake for mere whim, he performs his abominable deceptions; in the name of some primitive conception of things that are done and not done Griselda submits to them. At the climax Babe departs completely from Chaucer; although Walter has planned the reunion carefully so that "everything will be just as it was," Griselda dies of shock in the middle. Walter, now completely overcome by his vision, acclaims the event as a perfect culmination, and the pageant (a dozen masked and caped men dancing to a frightening chorus of parallel fifths and thundering drums) becomes a celebration of death. Horrified, the son Richard shrinks from his father, who forgets his monomania in an attempt to regain Richard's affection; but the pageant sweeps him off, and Babe's lesson (for such it is) suffuses the Loeb: the vision Walter uses to order the world with wisdom and dignity ends by ordering him.
That is what I assume Babe is getting at, and unfortunately it all sounds much better than it is. The first act charmingly and subtly presages the fourth, but a prodigious deal of dross is stuffed to fill the gap between them. Characters pass the time mysteriously hiding information from each other in innumerable false suspenses, or alternatively describing over and over what has been going on. When these devices begin to wear thin, Babe returns to the stage a crew of tedious mystics who repeat each other's lines after the familiar pattern of the Western--you know: "It's quiet out here tonight." "Yeah, too quiet."
The middle acts, to be fair, are not consistently dismal. Babe, before he turned director and playwright, was the finest comic actor in the College, and the comic moments of his Councillors Eff and Gee are, (assisted by the talents of Timothy Mayer and Michael Ehrhardt), his smoothest drama. But there is too much mummery, too many blood red bubbles in the well and strange noises in the night, for the midsection to cohere; it collapses under a load of unnecessary mysticism and unnecessary explication which the Stranger (Philip Kerr) most represents.
I have no quarrel with George Hamlin's directing; its defects are those of a play that often drags. Unquestionably Babe has given most of his care to the role of Walter, and Richard Simons sees to it that his lines are not wasted; he knows how to be sufficiently kindly in his final derangement to make the switches of the pageant plausible, just as Griselda (Carol Schechtman) is sufficiently astute, generous, and conventional. The mystics, led by Kerr and Belle MacDonald, have nothing but ghosts of parts to feed on, which is a pity, for they are evidently capable players.
In Hamlin, in the cast, in the costumes and Peter Prangnell's excellence set, the Loeb has served The Pageans well, and so there is no point my asking anybody to miss it. The play is disappointing, but it is surely also one of those disappointments which invite respect.