Thursday, July 09, 2009

Notre Dame: Get off the stage, you bum!

The Heckler is the noblest and bravest among us, however lowly and despised he may appear. He is shunned – booed at music festivals, mocked in comedy clubs, shushed during poetry readings. We shift away from him in concerts, putting as much physical space between us and him, as if afraid of contamination from his boorishness. But he is the Unfettered Id of us all: crying out against pompousness, tedium, unfunniness. As children, we recognize this – the Class Clown was the hero of the playground, the one who knew how to speak Truth against the Tyranny of the Teacher. As adults, no matter how we purse our lips with disapproval, our souls sing with his cry for emancipation: “Why should you have our attention, and not I?”

Notre Dame heard our cry, and she answered. And so, the voice of the congregation was given its fullest expression in the Cathedral’s magnificent organ.

I don’t mean the organ itself – though it is an impressive thing, its pipes stretching up to disappear into the gloom of the arched ceiling. The music is directed to heaven, but the organ case dripped down to the floor, reaching like a stalactites to the sweating, stinking singing congregants below.

On the lowest part of the pendament is a carving of Daniel and the Lion. Higher up, behind Daniel and on our left is a town Herald, his bugle almost at his lips. To the right of Daniel is a figure called Rohraffe, dressed as a town merchant from 1385, the year the figures were carved.

These are not lifeless carvings, but puppets, designed to move via a series of levers in the organ casing. And so, when the organ would play one of its rumbling low chords, Daniel would open the mouth of the lion, as if it were roaring. For a high, triumphal “hallelujah” the herald would appear to blow on his trumpet.

And Rohraffe? His job was the most important of all. For he was us: the heckler, the “Screaming Monkey.” If a sermon went on too long, or the puppeteer didn’t like what was being said, Rohraffe would hurl abuse at the pulpit, or even at the congregation itself. In the years prior to the Reformation, when the Church banned such tomfoolery, Rohraffe the Angry Puppet was at least as popular an attraction in Notre Dame as the prospect of eternal salvation.

Next! The man who killed Rohraffe!

1 comment:

JC Martin and the Ecumenicals said...

Wish I had them puppets when I worked for a church: I wouldn't have had to do all the heckling by myself.