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Death and the Ploughman (review)

From: Theatre Journal
Volume 57, Number 3, October 2005
pp. 512-514 | 10.1353/tj.2005.0123

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Theatre Journal 57.3 (2005) 512-514

Death And The Ploughman. From an original work by Johannes von Saaz. Directed by Anne Bogart. Created and Performed by SITI Company, Classic Stage Company, New York City. 10 November 2004.

"I encountered Death and the Ploughman at the tiny Gate Theatre in London two years ago and it stopped me in my tracks." So reads Anne Bogart's director's notes to theMiddle High German poetic dialogue written by Johannes von Saaz in 1400 on the day after his wife died in childbirth. Given its origin, the play's profundity and continued relevance startled Bogart. The piece vividly presents a personal struggle to understand loss in relation to faith; Michael West's English translation, originally used in the 2002 Gate Theatre production, captures the percussive rhythms of its emotionally charged debate between Death and Humankind. Bogart's note identifies the dialogue as representing the beginning of Renaissance concerns, but its characteristics actually express medieval preoccupations. Medieval authors often meditated on spiritual conflicts by presenting them in remarkably human terms, an attempt to bring private experience into harmony with core religious beliefs. Bogart's evocative style enables her to explore Death and the Ploughman's spiritual questions in an intimate way, thereby surfacing the dialogue's medieval character and creating a rich theatrical experience for contemporary audiences.

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Figure 1
From left: Death (Stephen Webber), Woman (Ellen Lauren), and Ploughman (Will Bond) in a scene from Death and the Ploughman. Courtesy of Classic Stage Company.

The extremely physical nature of SITI Company's work with Bogart, founded in Viewpoint training and the Suzuki method, offers a compelling dramatic entry-point into this piece. The actors begin onstage, slowly changing positions to a series of tones, as the audience enters. The play's dialogue commences with the Ploughman cursing Death for what he believes is the unjust death of his young wife. This opening monologue explodes with energy; its delivery communicates the Ploughman's deep, gut-wrenching anger, presented with great physical and emotional skill by Will Bond. The embodied style of SITI Company's work skillfully suggests the Ploughman's internal turmoil. The character's monologues seem gymnastic as Bond powerfully attacks the space with forcefully erratic gestures. Bond controls the Ploughman's fury, but like grief, it teeters just at the edge of restraint. He uses every mode of defense at his disposal: he spits slurs, coaxes, contradicts, rhetorically challenges, insults, and constructs sophisticated arguments. By contrast, Death (Stephen Webber) remains cool— even chilling—and dismissive. Confident in his rhetorical stance, Death rarely loses his temper while continually berating the Ploughman for being short-sighted. At times Death playfully toys with the Ploughman; Darron L. West's sound design incorporates bright melodies to transform these moments into comic, sitcom-like interludes.

Intellectual debates in the Middle Ages were framed in theological terms, and von Saaz follows that tradition. As a university-educated cleric, von Saaz's familiarity with classical learning additionally informs the arguments presented. The piece is typically medieval in its dialogue structure and the use of the ploughman, a character who appears in mid- to late-medieval literature as a sage Everyman. This character became a medieval trope used to encapsulate moral values in the midst of corruption, perhaps most famously explored in William Langland's fourteenth-century Piers Plowman. The figure of Piers Plowman was even employed as a folk hero by revolutionary preachers in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. At times in Langland's poem, the ploughman can be understood as representing the human aspect of Christ. If this reading were applied to von Saaz's very human Ploughman, it could yield interesting interpretations of the rhetorical positions taken by Death (perhaps God the Father) and the Ploughman (God the Son).

Von Saaz's Ploughman fits into this literary tradition, but Bogart's production chooses to foreground the extremely personal aspects of the dialogue, transforming it into a grueling meditation on grief and loss. Death and the Ploughman argue about abstract ideas—justice, truth, virtue, the inevitability of suffering and death, the function of grief—but these are made concrete by the example of the...

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