The Drama of the Mass

To achieve a 90% capacity attendance throughout a season of performances, as we did for the Drama of the Mass, is a remarkable achievement for any promotion. In part, this was certainly due to the interest which was already focussed on the Cathedral itself, an interest which would naturally be transferred to any event taking place in the Cathedral. But the concept and realisation of the Choreographed Mass also captured, in a remarkable way, a wide range of public interest and attention, on its own terms.

A considerable range of feature, news and photo coverage was given by the press locally and nationally to the build-up to the performances (and internationally-we’ve received cuttings and photographs from papers in Jamaica, Portugal, France, Malta, Australia, Latin America, Malaysia and America). Press reception to the performances themselves was mixed. ‘The Times’ gave a long and appreciative account of the production: other reviews ranged from ‘mystical and moving’ to ‘quite awful’. Music and drama critics who reviewed the performances liked the work. The dance critics were not so keen.

The audiences themselves-who frequently brought to the performances a certain degree of apprehension as to what they were in for-almost all (in so far as generalities like this can be established) liked what they saw, and a good number returned for a second or third time. The audiences were certainly not ‘dance’ or ‘ballet’ audiences or even predominantly the usual ‘serious theatre’ or ‘concert’ audiences: they included a large number of people who would not normally go to a concert or the theatre, as well as the theatre and concert going audiences of Merseyside (plus visitors from London, Northern England, Scotland and abroad). A gratifying number of people including priests and members of religious orders and a large number of worshipping Christians (certainly not all Catholics) found the work a moving experience. A number of artists, including sculptors, musicians, architects and writers also found the work significant and moving. The dance world in general (with one very notable exception) was not so excited.

A good number of people have enquired when the work is to be shown on television, and we’ve also had a request for the film of the production to be sent to San Francisco for a showing in October prior to further possible American distribution. Unfortunately the performances were not recorded for television, and the very considerable expenses of filming the production could not be met. However the work was notated in dance notation (Labanotation) by a notator who worked throughout the period of rehearsal and production; the notation will make any future productions of the Drama of the Mass much easier to achieve. In addition the costumes (and possibly even the staging) would be available for future performances. The most obvious bet would seem to be America (as a Catholic country, and also as a centre for contemporary as well as for religious dance). To date enquiries have also been received for details of the Liverpool production from Malaysia and from Latin America.

Dance productions are normally of interest only to the professional dance world. The significant achievement of the Drama of the Mass was that as a production and concept it captured the interest of both press and public in a remarkable way, locally, nationally and internationally. Locally, the production of the Drama of the Mass should make it possible for serious work in contemporary dance (whether explicitly religious or not) to find support in Merseyside. Merseyside might yet provide the first centre in this country (which has remained very much orientated on a centre of classical ballet) for 20th Century dance.

Other Events

The Brass Band Concerts-though obviously basically of considerable appeal-proved once again that you can’t rely on the English weather.

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Concert, as well as the Two Cathedrals’ Choirs Concert and the Choral and Dramatic Presentation were almost complete sell-outs.

The Organ Recitals were very well received. Though a solo recital might ordinarily expect to receive something less in the way of support than a large-scale event, this series of recitals was very well attended and achieved something just over 70% average capacity attendance. The recitals by Fernando Germani, Noel Rawsthorne and Jeanne Demessieux were recorded and will be issued as a gramophone record.

The Opening Celebrations programme in the Cathedral (covering the Drama of the Mass and the Other Events) was attended by 30,000 people. The expected cost of the Opening Celebrations remains unchanged from the estimates of the original budget (with, in addition to box office income, guarantees and grants coming from the Liverpool City Council, The Archdiocese of Liverpool and business and commercial interests both local and national).

The Future

There is no doubt that an audience exists for recitals and concerts in the Cathedral-an audience which would include people who do not customarily support what is called ‘serious music’ in the area. An audience would certainly also exist for the staging of further dramatic and visual productions in the Cathedral. (The beautiful stage used for the Drama of the Mass production, now belongs to the Cathedral Authorities, and may be used for future productions. However the fact that any production inevitably involves working within the very large Sanctuary area, close to the High Altar, cuts down the possibilities of conventional dramatic presentations, though the discipline and stimulus of working in such an area could lead towards further new and imaginative religious productions). The primary problem to the presentation of religious art in the Cathedral is likely to be that of finance. As far as visual and dramatic productions are concerned a great deal could be done relatively inexpensively with imaginative non-professional productions, but even here money is involved, and the problem of the presentation of the arts in any context is that they tend to cost (like education, or welfare) a lot of money.

It must also be remembered that any future presentations will not have the advantages of the Opening Celebrations programme, either by way of the money available for press advertising, or by way of general press interest. Future organ recitals in the Cathedral, for example, are not likely to have the backing (as the 4 recitals for the Opening Celebrations programme had) of 100,000 leaflets distributed throughout the area, posters in every church in the Archdiocese, and fairly ample press advertising, together with all the advantages of the very special interest which existed in the Opening of the Cathedral (when a visit to a performance was in many cases also a visit to see the Cathedral for the first time). Future events will almost certainly also have the disadvantage that no professional planning, administration or directional machinery will exist for their management and promotion (though this is a disadvantage which, when the programme is not a heavy one, can, with enthusiasm, be turned into an advantage).

I have no doubt that a continuing audience does exist for the sort of events which made up the Opening Celebrations programme, but a continuing future programme would need to be planned with enthusiasm and with flair and even then it would be wise to expect some drop in attendance figures in comparison to the Opening Celebrations level.

The solution (administrative and financial) may lie, in part, in the promotion of events in the Cathedral for which the Cathedral Authorities though retaining overall control are not directly responsible.

For example, Liverpool has not yet discovered a suitable site for an exhibition of open air sculpture. The Cathedral itself is a focus of awareness of 20th Century architectural possibilities, and the Cathedral Piazza might be an ideal and unique place for an exhibition (carefully chosen) of contemporary sculpture. Such an exhibition, would I’m sure be possible through the auspices of the Bluecoat Arts Forum, the Walker Art Gallery and the Arts Council- and without the involvement of the Cathedral Authorities in the thousands of pounds of expenditure which are necessary to put on an open-air exhibition, though this is a proposal in which the Cathedral Authorities would obviously require some form of overall control.

Imaginative visual and dramatic productions might be produced in the Cathedral, on behalf of the Cathedral Authorities, by non-professional performers (possibly under professional direction). It also seems certain that the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Society will wish to promote regular concerts within the Cathedral, following the four very successful concerts which they have already given. The University Music Department might also wish to contribute to the musical life of the Cathedral. As far as the Cathedral Authorities are concerned the only functions involving professional artists which they could be certain of promoting without running the risk of a deficit would probably be organ recitals. At the same time there can be no doubt that if money were available for a regular if modest annual budget for the presentation of religious art in the Cathedral then the Cathedral and the City would benefit.

It would however be improper to think of the Cathedral as a new house (however magnificent) for presenting our cultural assets. The significant fact of the Celebrations is that they really succeeded in their aim of interesting and moving a large cross-section of people. This is the basis from which it is possible to work towards a programme of events which would involve considerably more than the statistical 1% of the population prepared to attend cultural events today-and at the same time such a programme could help determine works of art and activity which (as the Drama of the Mass set out to do) communicate with this larger audience.

A programme of religious art activity including both audience and artist (and for some activities this distinction itself might be inappropriate) would need to be considered and planned as much in terms of community and social work, and youth and educational work, as of professional art. Such a programme would in fact be central to the concern of many community workers, educationalists, artists, and administrators of the arts working today. Such a programme of activity would be relevant to some of the needs with which a modern Cathedral is surely, in part, concerned. If the Celebrations proved anything they surely proved that such an undertaking is possible.

Bill Harpe, Artistic Director
152 Brownlow Hill, Opening Celebrations Office, Liverpool 3
21 July 1967