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3. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Juggler

© 2018 Jan M. Ziolkowski, CC BY 4.0

The cathedrals belong to France, and Manhattan is American. What a good opportunity to consider this fresh, twenty-year-old city against the background of one’s awareness of the skyscrapers of God. This new place in the world, New York, examined by a heart full of the sap of the Middle Ages. Middle Ages? That is where we are today: the world to be put in order, to be put in order on piles of debris, as was done once before on the debris of antiquity, when the cathedrals were white.

Le Corbusier

During the Second World War and the two decades following it, Our Lady’s Tumbler became ever more solidly entrenched as a Christmas entertainment, thanks to broadcasts of plays and readings on both radio and television. Unlike France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, the United States underwent no German annexation, nor indeed any other military incursion that affected its reception of the juggler story. The sole exception would be when the Japanese pounced upon Pearl Harbor. Eventually, the attacks of September 11, 2001 may well leave their mark somehow on the tale, if enough works of literature and art are made through retelling it in our not-so-brave not-so-new century—but that has not happened yet. For the time being, the story continues to radiate a cheery and cozy optimism that made it a December darling for a quarter century.

Many versions created through the 1960s are straightforwardly sentimental and sanctimonious, for family audiences especially in the then-thriving middle class. They may seem deliberately stodgy and sugary, intended to divert and reassure a home front during a decades-long war that ran first hot against the Axis and then cold against the Soviets. The narrative lends itself to such platitude and piety—which is not to say that it is doomed inescapably to manifest those qualities and nothing else. At the opposite end of the artistic spectrum from the more jejune of the commercialized versions, the miracle has demonstrated again and again a potential to transfix great talents. In equal measure, its emphasis on aboveboard simplicity and its capability for displays of virtuosity have sparked the interest of gifted writers and composers.

Prose writers, poets, and illustrators in America have not waged their skirmish with clenched fists or clutched weapons, to maintain their morale in the face of invasion and occupation by a foe. On the contrary, they have fought the good fight on a different battleground, to attain recognition in a society that often prioritizes individual industry, personal productivity, and financial viability over adventurous artistry. They have now and again made the agony and the ecstasy of the jongleur the opener for conveying their own floundering as creators. They have aligned the story with the present day much less through blunt allusions to current events than through drawing subtle parallels between the plight of the earlier artist and their own.

The disaffected minstrel of our story lives in a comprehensively “other” period and place. The narrative of his vicissitudes is set in the long-ago medieval days. The chronological remoteness of that earlier era differentiates it from our own times. The tale takes place in Europe, until recently a far-off place that lies an ocean away from the New World. Analogies to the here and now can be elicited from accounts of what the jongleur or juggler experiences, but they oblige the audience to become involved in the thoughtfulness of at least basic “compare and contrast.”

The performer depicted in the tale from the Middle Ages has had the facility to represent everything his modern counterpart has been fearful to have lost. The medieval character renounced materialism and achieved immediate contact with the divine through his senses. The entertainer felt himself an outsider, both in broader society and in the closed confines of the cloister, and his alienation has attracted the notice of creative agents who themselves feel marginalized and estranged, although often within an anomie that is more modern or postmodern than medieval. As a lay brother who seems siloed among the choir monks, he passes his life in a situation that could have great relevance to writers, musicians, and others. He is naïve, guileless, unshackled by materialism, and happy-go-lucky about having an audience or receiving a handout. He angles for no acknowledgment, certainly not from human beings. As a free spirit existing in a state that is supposed to be artless and unsullied, he is an authentic primitive.

In an odd way, modern artists and poets have turned full circle. Instinctively, they have normalized the story to its medieval roots. The poem and exemplum from the Middle Ages enacted on a narrative level the precept of right or proper reason. In the Christian sense of this concept, an action is good if it conforms to rational dictates. God, in this case through his deputy Mary, is nothing if not reasonable. By capturing the Virgin as she lavishes her favor upon the juggler and intervenes to save his soul, the authors of the treatments that will be examined in this chapter imply that the person who wishes to display artistry can be redeemed by making a sincere effort. Both art for God’s sake, which was the common medieval situation, and art for art’s sake, the cliché today, can lead to deliverance. Does this mean then that the protagonists of both are rationalists, even though at first sight they may appear to be anything but that?

In a 1948 study by Wallace Fowlie, Our Lady’s Tumbler and Le jongleur de Notre Dame do not greet the eye in the table of contents. Yet the juggler or jongleur in fact occupies a nodal place in the book (see Fig. 3.1). In codifying types of poets, the professor of literature presents as one subset the voyou, a subcategory that comprehends both the fifteenth-century François Villon and the nineteenth-century Arthur Rimbaud and Guillaume Apollinaire. The critic sees such hell-raising derelicts as shunted aside in a bourgeois world; this peripheralization sharpens their edginess. In any event, such outsiders have a close sibling: “This brother is called at times clown or acrobat or fool. Once he was called a juggler. He has even been called by the polite name of Harlequin. And from time to time fate lends him the pretentious name of poet.”

Fig. 3.1 Wallace Fowlie, age 60. Photograph, 1968. Photographer unknown. Durham, NC, Duke University Archives Photograph Collection. Image courtesy of Duke University Libraries. All rights reserved.

Fowlie posits that the clown bears all the stronger resemblance to the verse-maker for being speechless. He goes further to put this sort of entertainer in the catbird seat as a companion to the voyou and as a characteristically medieval character, in the sense of being “both solemn and naïve.” In this way the literary historian, while easing the juggler or jongleur even further into the modernity of the second half of the twentieth century, retains the nineteenth-century conviction that the Middle Ages are wide-eyed and insouciant. He sees the naïve and clownish voyou of Our Lady’s Tumbler as the “founder of a long race of weak men who live outside of their real life and whose sole vigour is their poetry.”

The pages to follow will touch upon four examples, none of them Fowlie’s. One dates from the 1940s, another from the 1950s, and the final two from the 1960s. Only the first is overtly religious, but all of them have touchingly spiritual dimensions. Each gives prominence to the parallel between the medieval tumbler and the modern literary artist. The final two offer evidence of both the interplay between Christmas-related commercialism and artistry and their creators’ conflicting efforts to get at the essence of the medieval story, which in today’s terms may be framed as through and through non- or even anticonsumerist.

Richard Sullivan, Notre Dame Professor

They need to apply that lovely old fable of Our Lady’s Tumbler, and to remember that the artist normally honors God, not by preaching or teaching, but by practicing his art!

For reasons that barely call for glossing, the jongleur carries special connotations at the University of Notre Dame. The name of the entire Catholic institution is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, as designated by her most common French appellation. As we have seen, a college literary magazine that has been active in start-and-stop fashion there since December of 1919 has borne the title The Juggler of Notre Dame, or the later truncation The Juggler. Beyond the vagaries of nomenclature, the university fosters devotion to the Mother of God. The cult of the Virgin stood out centrally in French Catholicism after the Revolution in France. That being the case, Marianism held a general importance in the cultural formations of the transplanted Francophone founders of Notre Dame. The French priest Edward Sorin and his fellow Brothers of Saint Joseph, who later came to be known as the Holy Cross Brothers, made their way to Indiana as missionaries and arrived at the site of the future educational establishment on November 26, 1842. Sorin’s own commitment to the Virgin was lifelong, being evident from the first sermon he wrote in 1837 through later years. He kept her, or at least an image of her, near to him at all times (see Fig. 3.2). He believed that the Mother of God had extended her exceptional protection to the mission of the Holy Cross Brothers in America. He took pride in having started the weekly journal The Ave Maria (the “Hail, Mary”) in 1865 (see Fig. 3.3). For all these reasons, no one should wonder that from the outset he and the Brothers called the institution they had created “The University of Our Lady of the Lake.”

Fig. 3.2 Edward Sorin, with Madonna. Photograph, before 1890. Photographer unknown. Image courtesy of the University of Notre Dame Archives. All rights reserved.

Fig. 3.3 The Ave Maria 10.9, August 30, 1919. Image courtesy of Ave Maria Press. All rights reserved.

The location near South Bend in Indiana where the alma mater was founded prides itself on two lakes; one named in honor of Mary, the other of Joseph. The campuses of Notre Dame and its sister college, St. Mary’s, were remarkably invested with reminders of places where, sometimes through a Madonna but at other times through independent apparitions, the Virgin had exercised a powerful sway over the hearts and imaginations of humble folk in locales in faraway Europe. The Joseph-and-Mary topography contained simulacra of key Marian pilgrimage sites in the old country.

In April of 1843, Sorin masterminded a plan for honoring the Virgin in May, the month of Mary. He consecrated a provisional altar to her, which he raised on an islet blessed as “the Isle of Mary of the Lake.” In November of the same year, he informed a correspondent that the Mother of God had signified her precious patronage to his community by saving first a nun and then one of the brothers from untreatable illness. She had interceded after he and the others vowed to build a chapel to the holy Virgin on the island named after her. The university’s devotion to Our Lady only grew when on December 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX endorsed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the doctrine that Mary had been preserved from the smirch of original sin.

Already in 1859, a copy of the Chapel of Loreto had been constructed at Saint Mary’s College (see Fig. 3.4). Its altar stands before a sculpture of the Madonna and Child (see Fig. 3.5). The ensemble constitutes a facsimile of the Holy House in the town in Italy. Legend held this to be the girlhood home of Mary, where the angel Gabriel announced to her the coming birth of Jesus and her role in it. In the legendary account, heavenly couriers ferried the structure from Nazareth to different stops across the Mediterranean before relocating it in a shepherd’s field in the village near Ancona after which it is now known.

Fig. 3.4 Replica of the Chapel of Loreto, Saint Mary’s, Notre Dame, IN. Photograph, before the Church of Loretto (sic) was built in front of it in 1886. Photographer unknown. Image courtesy of Sisters of the Holy Cross Archives and Records, Notre Dame, Indiana. All rights reserved.

Fig. 3.5 Altar (with Madonna in center and cap i pota-style replica at left) in the replica of the Chapel of Loreto. Photograph, before 1886. Photographer unknown. Image courtesy of Sisters of the Holy Cross Archives and Records, Notre Dame, Indiana. All rights reserved.

In 1861, the first replica of a Marian shrine was raised up under the aegis of Notre Dame itself, when the Portiuncula Chapel of Our Lady of the Angels replaced the island shrine dedicated to Mary that had been erected there in 1844 (see Fig. 3.6). It imitated a church in the plain below Assisi where Saint Francis received his vocation, founded and headquartered his first order, and died (see Fig. 3.7). The equivalent was built at Notre Dame when the Holy Cross Brothers obtained the canonical establishment there of the Portiuncula indulgence. The likeness, until dismantled in 1898, attracted pilgrims on August 2, the Feast Day of Our Lady of the Valley of Josaphat or Angels.

Fig. 3.6 Our Lady of the Angels, Notre Dame, IN, replica of the Porziuncola, Santa Maria degli Angeli, near Assisi, Italy. Photographer unknown. Image courtesy of the University of Notre Dame Archives. All rights reserved.

Fig. 3.7 The Porziuncola, in the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, Assisi. Photograph by Ludmiła Pilecka, 2007, CC BY 3.0,

These duplicates afford evidence of conscious striving ab ovo (if that turn of phrase is not inapt for a virgin) to invest the site of Notre Dame with a Marian geography and history. At first these endeavors could seem both out of place and out of time. In days gone by, nothing could have looked much farther from the Marian sites of medieval Christianity than the consummately exotic New World state of Indiana. Think about the very name of the territory, which means land “of Indians.” South Bend, the city adjacent to the university, stood thousands of miles from Lourdes, Loreto, Assisi, and other such stopping places for pilgrims. Yet this very remoteness constituted a formidable reason for bringing likenesses of distant holy places to Notre Dame itself, where they could serve as focal points for Marian devotion.

In Italy, a faithful Christian who vowed to go on a religious excursion could fulfill the pledge by making an expedition to a nearby shrine to Mary, often a place where Our Lady had been sighted, heard, or somehow touched or felt. For example, the Italian regions of Piedmont and Lombardy contained no fewer than nine “sacred mountains,” where chapels and other architectural features were created during the early modern period as an embodiment of the Counterreformation. Two of these hilltops were dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, with sanctuaries that contained the obligatory Madonnas (see Fig. 3.8). But such ready proximity of long-established pilgrimage sites was not the case in North America.

Fig. 3.8 Postcard of the Santuario di Oropa, Biella, Italy (Turin: S.A.C.R.O., 1943).

The commitment to the Virgin by the papal endorsement of the Immaculate Conception was paralleled on a popular level in France. We have only to remember the public reaction to the eighteen apparitions of Mary that Bernadette Soubirous experienced in 1858. Those sightings were declared authentic in 1862, and they elevated Lourdes as first a national and then one of the world’s foremost international destinations for pious journeys. Sorin made more than two dozen crossings of the Atlantic and traveled several times to the Pyrenean village. Yet only late in his life did he scheme to lead an inaugural peregrination from America to Rome, with a first stop in Lourdes. Until then, the most practical means for conducting such an expedition was to make the campus itself a theme park for Marianism, through its simulation of sanctified topography across the Atlantic.

The centrality of Mary in the revival of pilgrimage in the nineteenth century and after ought not to be underrecognized, and it relates cogently to the reintroduction of Marian images. Early on, copies began to be made of the Grotto and statue of Our Lady of Lourdes. For instance, in 1875, construction of a reproduction was begun at what became by and by the National Shrine Grotto of Lourdes, and in 1891 a facsimile of the statue was installed at what is now Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland (see Fig. 3.9). At the University of Notre Dame, the devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes was concretized in miniature only five years later, in 1896, in the famous Grotto on the campus (see Figs. 3.10 and 3.11), replicating in downscaled form the site of the miracles in France. The sanctuary, one-seventh the size of the original, is situated in the shadow of the Golden Dome, another earlier monument to the Virgin on the campus in Indiana.

Fig. 3.9 Postcard of the National Shrine Grotto of Lourdes, Mount St. Mary’s University, Emmitsburg, MD (Gettysburg, PA: L. E. Smith Wholesale Distributors, date unknown).

Fig. 3.10 The Grotto, University of Notre Dame, IN. Photograph, ca. 1896. Photographer unknown. Image courtesy of the University of Notre Dame Archives. All rights reserved.

Fig. 3.11 Postcard of the Grotto, University of Notre Dame, IN (South Bend, IN: City News Agency, early twentieth century).

The Main Building and the Madonna that tops it are emblematic of the whole university. They stand at the heart of the campus, not far from the lancets of the church (see Fig. 3.12). The gilded image was affixed atop the rounded vault in 1888, the same year in which it and the dome were outfitted with electric lighting (see Fig. 3.13). At that point Mary’s head was circled by a halo of twelve incandescent lights, while below her feet another bank of bulbs was positioned in the shape of a crescent moon. The effigy was modeled after a sculpture that Pope Pius IX erected in Rome to commemorate the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (see Fig. 3.14).

Fig. 3.12 Postcard of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart and Main Building of the University of Notre Dame, IN (early twentieth century).

Fig. 3.13 Workers maintaining the electric lights on the Main Building dome, University of Notre Dame, IN. Photograph, ca. 1922. Photographer unknown. Image courtesy of the University of Notre Dame Archives. All rights reserved.

Fig. 3.14 La Colonna dell’Immacolata, Rome. Photograph by Monopoli91, 2014, CC BY-SA 4.0,

One half century later, as an undergraduate at Notre Dame from 1926 to 1930, Richard Sullivan would have experienced an institution that bore the pervasive impress of Gothic. The university’s buildings even included a dining hall (see Fig. 3.15) designed by the premier architect of the style, Ralph Adams Cram, with the help of others, including the architecture professor Vincent F. Fagan. While still an undergraduate, Fagan had been instrumental in the inception of The Juggler as illustrator of the cover for the inaugural issue. As for Sullivan (see Fig. 3.16), after a few years outside as a freelance writer, the fond alumnus wended his way back to his former college to teach English from 1936. In due course, he proved himself as a fiction writer, with dozens of short stories and a few novels to his name. He remains unforgotten at his university, although he never fulfilled his early ambitions for literary fame on a national level.

Fig. 3.15 Postcard of the South Dining Hall, University of Notre Dame, IN (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Bookstore, date unknown).

Fig. 3.16 Richard Sullivan. Image courtesy of the University of Notre Dame Archives. All rights reserved.

Sullivan composed a retrospective that he dedicated to Nostra Domina, the Latin for “Our Lady” and the equivalent of the French Notre Dame. In it he meditated upon the fulcral place within the campus and its life of the gilded representation of the Virgin on the Dome. The Madonna was even portrayed on the face of his best-known book when it came out in paperback (see Fig. 3.17). The professor and writer expresses a perspective on the masculinity of the University of Notre Dame that held particularly true until 1972 (less than a decade before he died), when the institution took up coeducation. Before the arrival of women, it could be argued that a special romance, or at least a special bond, tied the image of Mary to the men who taught and learned at the university. A postcard that displays the Basilica of the Sacred Heart with the Main Building beside it by moonlight brings home this nexus (see Fig. 3.18). The moon may be above the golden Madonna rather than at her feet, but the linkage is present all the same. We have here a distinctively Notre Dame form of moonstruck.

Fig. 3.17 Front cover of Richard Sullivan, Notre Dame: Reminiscences of an Era (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1951).

Fig. 3.18 Postcard of Sacred Heart Church and the Main Building by moonlight, University of Notre Dame, IN (Fort Wayne, IN: Fort Wayne Printing Co., early twentieth century).

The institution’s endemic Marianism helps to explain why an alumnus and professor with a passion for writing should have gravitated toward the tale of Our Lady’s Tumbler. The same observation could be made later of the Catholic poet Samuel John Hazo. After graduating from Notre Dame, he spent his professorial career at Duquesne University, in Pennsylvania. In 1975, he collected under the title Inscripts extended interior monologues that he called “scripts.” One, entitled “Windscript: The Oslo Solo,” takes as its starting and starring metaphor the figure of the tumbler. The speaker aspires to imitate the performer as he worships God by enacting his craft. Like the protagonist in the tale from the Middle Ages, the persona of the poem is at once a mischief-maker and a melancholic: “I am God’s clown. From glee to grief I go.”

Sullivan and Hazo resembled each other in being Catholic writers on campuses of the same denomination. They also took similar approaches to the story of the juggler or jongleur. The Notre Dame academic and author, when drawn to the medieval narrative, took the less obvious course of not focusing on the protagonist who had been made familiar by Anatole France and Jules Massenet. Instead, he directed his energies toward the leading light of the verse miracle from the early thirteenth century. In 1940 he published Our Lady’s Tumbler, a play in one act that he identified as deriving from a French legend of the Middle Ages. The script is minimalist, only eleven pages. From a quick peek, the production notes give rise to the impression that their four sides are incommensurate with the length of the piece itself. Then one realizes that the playwright envisages as his target audience inexperienced neophytes who need to be walked through such basics as stage positions. The unprepossessing venue he has in mind emerges from a desultory remark about “the grey drapes with which many community theatres are equipped.”

At the same time, Sullivan has grappled searchingly with the medieval text, but we can presume that he did so in a translation and not in the French. He divulges his alertness to the original in both a cursory note and the drama itself. The introductory author’s note locates the dramatic action in Clairvaux, clearly pointing to the tale as recounted in the poem from the Middle Ages. He explains that this foundation was Cistercian. Despite making the brethren white monks, he calls for the actors of his theater piece to be dressed in the brown of Franciscans. In the body of the play, the unnamed brother, who had been a tumbler before entering the abbey, uses technical terms of dance and acrobatics, such as the French Vault and the Leap of Champagne. This terminology was an impactful feature of the original poem. It also proves how familiar the author was with jongleurs, not just of a literary inclination but also of a physical sort.

The twentieth-century stage production may be most intriguing not for its fidelity to its wellspring of inspiration but for its departures from it. In the thirteenth-century poetry, the performer expresses exasperation at his inability to earn his keep among the brethren, because he lacks the skills to produce anything. Sullivan’s version puts front and center the worthlessness of this Brother Wat. Despite suffering from an irremediable cough which soon turns out to be symptomatic of a fatal affliction, the former professional seems pestered less by his compromised health than by the prick of his troubled conscience. The convert’s first speech is a prayerful soliloquy, in which he admits: “I do not earn my bread in this holy monastery.” As in many versions going back to the earlier of the two medieval ones, he has jitters that by not paying his own way in the cloister, he has become a parasite, as he never was in the world. But he has in mind a salve for his guilt about freeloading. In his next breath, he claims to have offered his tumbling to Mary. As the dramatist reconceives the story, the statue of the Virgin does not spring miraculously to life until after the tumbler’s death. The theatrical event draws to a close with an exchange between the young monk, who has been implacably condemnatory of Brother Wat for his parasitism, and the abbot, who moments before had given the entertainer his walking papers: he would have to absent himself from the convent.

Sullivan’s text gives scant sign of aiming at any contemporary social or political relevance. All the same, in it the writer almost puts his finger on social tensions that artists in America at the time must have felt ever more penetratingly. Some of those who had recourse to the tale of the juggler in the 1950s and 1960s made it even more a parable, yet ever less in an overtly Christian sense, of their own anxieties and aspirations as creative forces. The play would never have been common knowledge to untold numbers of spectators. For all that, it had its transitory moment in the experimentation that took place in the early years of television. A 1953 production of Our Lady’s Tumbler was broadcast in a series that showed the activities of Catholic schools in the diocese of Cleveland. No information is forthcoming that the script was ever staged again, but other recastings of the story have continued to catch the fancy of producers and the public in different locales for similar school productions.

A woman known as Hannah Blue Heron professed in an autobiography that in the early 1950s she composed a modern musical version of The Little Juggler of Our Lady for performance at Christmas. Back then she was Sister Teresa. Her Catholic religious order, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, has specialized in ministering to women and girls who need buttressing as they recover from domestic violence, adolescent troubles, addiction, abortion, and other major bumps in the road of life. At the time the religious of her nunnery chanted or sang daily, among other portions of the liturgy, the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin. The memoirist indicated that she chose to make the narrative into a theatrical piece partly because the school where she taught English to wayward high school girls lacked a budget to pay royalties. In her version, the drama ends when the juggler is found dead, with a gorgeous red rose laid across his heart, by monks who have gone to bring back the abbot to see the blasphemy of the man juggling before the Madonna. Blue Heron made no secret that she identified with the character of the medieval performer in her musical, “with this simple character, who had known both success and failure, and for whom love was the primary motivating force.” No exact diagnosis is feasible of the narrative she had read, heard, or seen. In referring to “the Old French medieval play,” she is right about the time and region of origin but just plain wrong about the genre.

The likelihood runs strong that the onetime Sister Teresa had been influenced by the tradition, going back to Mary Garden, of having a female enact the role of the jongleur in the dress of the opposite sex. The specific detail of finding a girl who could dance but who for want of juggling skill must pantomime that activity calls to mind American campus productions and television presentations of the early 1950s. Still, Sister Teresa’s selection of the name Cantalbert for the juggler points to a thoroughgoingly distinct version, as we will soon see. After leaving the nuns, Blue Heron eventually realized, or at long last admitted to herself, that her romantic attractions were same-sex. Her acceptance of her sexuality may have played a considerable role in her choice of topic for the musical, her identification with its hero, and the overall nature of her adaptation. This is to say nothing of her decision to entitle one of her novels The Virgin. For a story that in many tellings has no space for a woman beyond the Mother of God, Our Lady’s Tumbler and Le jongleur de Notre Dame have attracted no meager attention from female writers who have either been alleged or avowed to have same-sex attraction. The standouts would be Mary Garden, who was first to bend the gender of the lead role in the opera, and Katharine Lee Bates. Beyond the distinctive history of en travesti performances, both the medieval poem and its modern adaptations had embedded in them a hero who was an outsider, in a minority of one within a larger fellowship of men who were all something else from him. The situation may have resonated not only with lesbians but also with many gay authors and artists.

To return to the markedly different world of the early 1950s, the time was especially ripe for the tale of Our Lady’s Tumbler to flourish. Pope Pius XII declared in an encyclical that the first Marian year in the history of the Roman Catholic Church should run from December of 1953 through December of 1954. He directed that these twelve months be filled with cultural, theological, and devotional initiatives to honor Mary, and that special observance be shown to the Virgin in Marian churches and shrines, especially the Grotto of Lourdes. Elsewhere, houses of worship were bidden to have “at least an altar, in which the sacred image of the Blessed Virgin Mary is enshrined.” A few years later, Bernadette Soubirous’s visions at Lourdes had their centenary in 1958. For these reasons and more, the 1950s have been called “very much the decade of Mary, as far as her prominence in popular periodicals is concerned.”

Outside local and specifically Catholic milieus, times had changed enough by 1953 that the juggler’s story would demand severe reshaping to achieve more than a regional vogue, and also to be transported further beyond its Christian roots than it had ever before gone, in the United States and even internationally. Just such a new version was on its way.

R. O. Blechman, Cartoon Juggler

If you cannot improve on a story, then there is no sense in retelling it.

In 1952, an American student by the name of R. O. Blechman received his bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College in Ohio and resolved to become an artist, although he had yet to place any work with a publisher. An editor-in-chief at a trade press, after leafing through the portfolio of the young man’s art, urged the fresh graduate for commercial reasons to attempt a theme that lent itself to the Christmas retail market. Accordingly, Blechman set out to design a publication on a Noel theme. The book that resulted, The Juggler of Our Lady, was published in 1953. On both the dust jacket and the title page it bore the subordinate title A Medieval Legend. On the page where a dedication or an epigraph might be expected, it has emblazoned the words “A sort-of Christmas story.” Forty-five years later, a reprint merited a preface by the much-ballyhooed Maurice Sendak, the late American author and illustrator of children’s literature. In at least two forms of the wrapper for the reedition the original subtitle was omitted. Instead it was replaced by the phrase “A Reissue of the Classic Christmas Story.” Therein lies a story. …

Fig. 3.19 To left, R. O. Blechman, The Juggler of Our Lady: The Classic Christmas Story, 3rd ed. (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2015); to right, R. O. Blechman, The Juggler of Our Lady: A Medieval Legend, 1st ed. (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1953). Photograph by Joe Mills, 2018.

The prospect of having to cater to the yuletide season at first alarmed Blechman. He was Jewish, knew little about the holiday, and had no real interest in it. But time and again, the miracle’s deep-rooted associations with Christianity and even with Catholicism have not interfered with its use by Jews. A few examples will suffice as evidence. The actor Tony Curtis played the lead in a 1960 made-for-television movie that transposed the narrative to the small screen. The American football coach Allie Sherman related the narrative in 1963, as a call to arms for the professionals of the New York Giants team before they played a game a couple of days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The writer Louis Untermeyer retold the narrative in a 1968 volume of “legends that live forever.” Although Blechman had no way of knowing that coreligionists before him had been instigated to draw upon the story, he made the decision on his own not merely to recount it but even to anchor it as firmly as it had ever been in the days between Advent and Christmas.

In quest of ideas, the aspiring young artist flailed about for dear life. In need of a brain to pick, he telephoned a buddy, who encouraged him to adapt “The Juggler of Our Lady.” At the time, this word of wisdom was reasonable, since both Blechman and his prospective audience of publishers and readers would have been familiar with the tale. In fact, the author reminisced, in his autobiography Behind the Lines, that he was already acquainted with the legend and that the next day he reread it. How did he happen to be acquainted with the account and choose it to be his pilot project? He does not specify which version he looked over again. In the United States the most readily available form of the medieval Our Lady’s Tumbler would have been a used copy of a reprint by Thomas Mosher of the Wicksteed translation. There is no point in speculating about the Anatole France: at this juncture, the short story and its imitations were everywhere to be read.

Many people who read the story would also have heard or seen it. In this case, Blechman could have studied the text of the miracle from the Middle Ages in English at his alma mater, or been told about it by a friend who had done so, in a course offered by Frederick Artz, a medievalist on the faculty who had dealt with the narrative in his widely used textbook. By the same token, the young man could have attended a dramatic performance or heard about one from a classmate. Artz had mounted productions of pageant and staged them plein-air at Oberlin in the late 1920s and 1930s. His shows had swept up more students and spectators than any campus production before or since.

In the early 1950s, a person need not have encountered the juggler through any single, local conduit. The tale was ubiquitous. An endnote in a gift book, printed in America for Noel of 1951, adumbrates the history of “Our Lady’s Juggler” by tracing a slightly inaccurate itinerary. It sets out from twelfth-century France, leads through mid-nineteenth-century Germany, Anatole France, and Jules Massenet, and arrives in the year of its publication. By then, the author reports, the narrative had become a minor classic in yuletide publications on both shores of the Atlantic, belonged to the stock holiday repertoire on radio, had been recorded on an album, and seemed to be instituting itself likewise on television.

The following year saw published in England a theatrical work that purports to be “based on an ancient legend and on the story of the same name by Anatole France.” The adjective about the age of the tale can be applied only inexactly, since the miracle originated in the Middle Ages and not in antiquity. More problematic, the observation that the medieval poem and the late nineteenth-century short fiction have the same title is mistaken. Be that as it may, Rex Knight’s Our Lady’s Jester: A One-Act Play, takes in a whimsical direction the inclination to have the jongleur’s suffering overshadow the Virgin’s response to it. In this piece, Brother Barnaby is an ex-jester who struts his stuff before a statue of the Madonna. The monk’s vaudeville act involves both rudimentary acrobatics, such as capers, cartwheels, and somersaults, and “a jester’s stick, surmounted with a carven head of Punch.” He calls the thin piece of wood Master Punchinello, or Nello for short. The term of endearment is taken from a short and stocky buffoon in the Italian puppet shows that arose from seventeenth-century commedia dell’arte. The culminating miracle in Knight’s drama occurs when this character is transmuted to gold, which the old entertainer takes as “the beatitude of his playmate.” The piece ends with Mary nowhere in sight, but instead all eyes trained upon Barnaby, who “stands, ’Nello clasped to his bosom, with rapt, unseeing eyes, listening perhaps to the applause of celestial voices. The evening sunlight, through the stained-glass windows, throws a glory round his head.” Our Lady’s Jester is written in an uncolloquial archaizing style we have met often. Not many audiences, even if we traveled back more than a half century to conduct our test, would respond well to hearing such a script delivered.

As the 1951 Christmas book and the 1952 English play go to show, the tale was in the air. Consequently, we should not feel obliged to identify any one text as Blechman’s source. By the early 1950s, the account had perfused all levels and extents of American culture, through all the channels that we have now seen and that various adapters of Our Lady’s Tumbler had themselves enumerated. A college-educated student would have somehow naturally become versed in the juggler and his story. The narrative was in the early stages of being first trivialized and then forgotten. Its success may have been mistimed: it peaked too strongly and too early. But at that point no one could foretell the obsolescence that lay not far ahead.

Beyond imparting intelligence about his sources, the graphic artist goes on to tell how he related to the narrative because of his personal circumstances: “The juggler desperately performing before an indifferent world might have served as the parable of my own life.” Then he relates how he quickly brainstormed before tossing off his story. Overnight, he dreamed up his version, based on this masterstroke. Although for him the paramount theme was the correlation between the artist and the world, he could not circumvent altogether the religious element—but he could transmute and ecumenize it. No wonder he utilized the word parable. Bidden to produce a book with a holiday theme, he called the bluff.

By choosing a legend set within a medieval monastery, he even raised the stakes by intensifying the religiosity that Christmas alone would have involved. Getting the monasticism right required acquainting himself in a flash with what was relevant in the cultural and institutional history of the Middle Ages. To this end, he took The Age of Faith by the bestselling historian Will Durant as his reference work in ascertaining how to portray medieval faith in general and medieval monks in particular. This book, a encyclopedic study of culture that had come out only recently, was the fourth volume in a series called “The Story of Civilization.” The eleven tomes in the series furnish an integral transhistorical overview of two and a half millennia of Western culture that the author and his wife, Ariel Durant, wrote over four decades, from 1935 to 1975. The view of the Middle Ages as an Age or Ages of Faith, or as one of Belief, is old but not antiquated or superseded, and not entirely wrongheaded. The outlook has proven winsome to those in quest of a golden past as an antidote to the shortcomings and especially the spiritual bankruptcy of their own times. As we have seen, people in the West who have deemed their own days soulless have often replenished their spirits by resorting to the earlier epoch.

The publication of The Juggler of Our Lady marked the first major milestone in Blechman’s walk of life. The sparseness of lines and frugal application of color in its images were attention-getting. The accompanying text was penned in a spidery hand that was simultaneously neat and tremulous, regular and squiggly, linear and wavy. The combination was at once understatedly minimalist and over-the-top innovative, faux-naïf and expressive. The young artist alluded to both the character of his leading man and the nature of his own artistry when he articulated the wish that his modernism not be eclipsed by the medievalism. A Franciscan who reviewed the volume soon after its publication zeroed in on the author’s originality in modernizing a story from the Middle Ages.

For two decades the book’s éclat put a low-grade hex on Blechman, who in his modesty shared with the diffident protagonist a sense of undeservingness. He stuck with the theme, on the hunt for a sequel or prequel that refused to gestate, and worried that he might be nothing more than a one-hit wonder. But the biography of the artist achieves a happy denouement, like that of the monkish hero of his first great success, with creativity continuing now deep into his octogenarian years (see Fig. 3.20). Building on The Juggler of Our Lady, Blechman retained the special affinity for Christmas themes that he gained from his first breakthrough. He also persisted in seeking out foreign folktales.

Fig. 3.20 R. O. Blechman at work. Photograph, November 2013. Photographer unknown. Image courtesy of R. O. Blechman. All rights reserved.

Although the story of the artist’s own destiny has had many chapters since his youthful triumph, it remained bound up with that of the juggler for a little longer in the 1950s. Within a few years, his brainchild passed from paper onto celluloid: in 1957, a nine-minute animated short entitled The Juggler of Our Lady was released. The month of distribution was December, most definitely no mere coincidence: the animation was meant as holiday fare.

The cartoon, anything but cartoonish in quality, came about through an improbable partnership. The Terrytoon Cartoons/CBS Productions studio, in operation for four decades from 1928 to 1968, became best known for anthropomorphic animals: a rodent superhero known as Mighty Mouse, a canine deputy sheriff called Deputy Dawg, and a pair of magpies named Heckle and Jeckle, who spoke with English and Brooklyn accents, respectively. All these birds and beasts were standouts of animated children’s entertainment and comic books, unimaginative and uninspiring, that attained their high-water mark in the 1950s and early 1960s. As far as production values are concerned, the most famous saying ascribed to Paul Terry, after whom the facility was named, runs “Disney is the Tiffany’s in this business, and I am the Woolworth’s.” By this, the businessman did not allude to the glorious Gothic skyscraper that the dimestore magnate had built as a cathedral of commerce in Manhattan. Rather, he meant that his footholds in the market for animations resembled nickel-and-dime or five-and-ten mass retail outlets—corresponding to what inflation has made today’s dollar stores. The metaphor is through-and-through commercial: Terry not only says plainly that his cartoonmaking is a business, but he puts himself at the bottom of its food chain. We are not talking here about high and low art, but high-value at low volume and low-value at high. In the end, the moving-image mammals were all cash cows to Terry, to be milked as often as their udders could bear so that he could market every conceivable dairy product.

Blechman’s animation was created in a momentary interlude when the studio was endeavoring to move upmarket. In effect, new management sought to make a leap toward producing the cartoon equivalent of the top-dollar wares on sale in the high-class jewelry shop that Terry had identified. The animated short had voiceover by Boris Karloff (see Fig. 3.21), whose renown until this juncture in his career had rested upon his stardom in horror films. He was best known as Frankenstein’s monster (see Fig. 3.22). The actor later maintained a stake (not of the vampire-killing sort) in entertainment for the December holiday: he narrated the on-screen animation of the Christmas book by Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Fig. 3.21 Boris Karloff, age 45. Photograph by MGM Studios, 1932,

Fig. 3.22 Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), CC BY-SA 4.0,'s_monster.jpg

The Terrytoon short is just as much a gem as Blechman’s book. Both have sparkling facets of social criticism that passed unremarked in contemporary reviews but that make them both qualify as graphic commentary. The two tell of a medieval juggler who wishes to revamp the world through his craft. Named Cantalbert, this well-meaning but hapless fellow cannot make a living, cannot reform a class structure divided between serfs and freemen, and believes he has no way to shine. Despite his right-minded aspirations, he cannot compete with the witch-hunting and warring that draw away his wished-for audience. Spectators greet his displays of juggling with shrugs of indifference and wander away.

What is Cantalbert to do, if he cannot alter humanity? First, he dons a garment of haircloth so as to become an ascetic—but now his only viewers are other flea-bitten and louse-ridden recluses, equally itchy in their own hairshirts. Finally, chagrined by the failings of society and by his lucklessness in mustering a following, he joins an abbey in the hope of leading a humble existence. There he witnesses how all the other brethren ennoble Mary with their elan in cooking meals, illuminating manuscripts, writing poetry, sculpting statues, and composing music. Subsequently he tries to pitch in in each of these endeavors, but he turns out to be to the same degree incompetent and ineffectual in all of them. After a bit, his colleagues hold a festival for the Virgin on Christmas, and each brother tenders the gift he has completed, but the juggler can think of nothing to grant. Feeling even more keenly than before his scarcity of talent, the performer steals into the chapel and renders to the Mother of God the only skill he has. He does his utmost for her through the night. When his fellow cenobites plod into the space in the morning, they watch the exhausted entertainer, bone-weary and weakened, swoon just before Mary enacts a miracle. The statue of the Virgin becomes animate and gracefully accepts his juggling by conferring upon him a single red rose. After she has rewarded him, the whole community at last recognizes his facility: the secular schlimazel has been unveiled as a monastic mensch. In a mass “monks see, monks do,” they all take up juggling in emulation of him. The closing message to the brothers—and to the rest of us, when greeted by innovative art—is not a reproachful “You should be ashamed of yourselves” but a peppy “You too can do it.” Wonders are at our fingertips, and artists can be as life-giving as the highest and holiest religious figures.

In the eloquent language of Christian signs and symbols, the Mother of God was associated most closely with the lily. Its whiteness stood for her purity and virginity. Although less commonly, she was connected also with the rose. This other flower has tended to represent martyrdom, for the self-explanatory reason that blood is red. The theology of the Immaculate Conception was fine-tuned only after the medieval poem of Our Lady’s Tumbler had been written. It held the Virgin to be exempt from the stain of original sin, helping to testify to the notion of her as a “rose without thorns.” This Marian flower leads ineluctably to the rosary. The term derives from the Latin for “garland of roses.” The noun is applied both to a rank order of prayers, with emphasis on the “Hail, Mary,” and to a necklace-like string of beads used to count them. Although the verbal formulas and the physical objects fulfill multiple purposes, the two have been tied especially to devotion to Mary in popular contexts from as early as the thirteenth century, building upon meditative practices of Cistercian monks going back to the twelfth.

What would Blechman have known and made of all the iconography and theology? He was an early-career graphic artist of Jewish background, and not a budding theologian steeped in the doctrinal nuances of Catholicism. If symbolism and dogma were not on his mind, he may have been spellbound by red because of its vividness. For the most part, he cleaved to chromatic minimalism in both the book and the later animation of it. The strictness prevails until the disembodied hand of the Virgin is shown bestowing a rose upon the juggler as he lies prostrate near the end of the story. The fleck of spot color, intensified by yellow (used here and only here across the whole book) for the epiphany, is all the more effective in contrast to the black and white elsewhere.

Fig. 3.23 The Virgin’s hand extends a rose to the juggler. Illustration by R. O. Blechman, 1953. Published in R. O. Blechman, The Juggler of Our Lady: The Classic Christmas Story, 3rd ed. (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2015), 110 (unnumbered). Image courtesy of R. O. Blechman. All rights reserved.

For the underlying meaning of The Juggler of Our Lady as Blechman tells the tale, we need to look not at Christian symbolism but instead at the 1950s. He said: “I hope people won’t be fooled by the mediaeval setting. Cantalbert is strictly a modern man.” The last assertion holds equally true for the author and designer himself. From today’s vantage, his version of the story not only presents the portrait of an artist as a young man but it is also defined by the mood of the Cold War. The hostility and anxiety, even neurosis, of the period manifest themselves all the more in the animation. For more than four decades, from 1947 to 1991, the United States and its allies were pitted in political and military tension against the Soviet Union and its client states. The frictions were in formation when The Juggler of Our Lady was conceived. Two circumstances in current events of the day are particularly evident. One was the recent crisis of the Korean War; the other was the witch-hunt for communists that a Republican Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph R. McCarthy, conducted over roughly the same stretch.

Less starkly and more gently, Blechman’s story elaborates an implicit inquiry into the remedial functions that art can fulfill when its beholders behave in accord with mob mentality or psychology. In his narrative, paranoia goads war-mongering crowds to rush headlong into dissension and persecution. Left implicit but indubitable is his opposition both to the constant military action during the protracted political hostility between the Soviet bloc and the Western powers and to the related red-baiting in McCarthyite America, with its stalking of so-called commies and pinkos who were felt to be supportive of the enemy. These angles are brought home with even greater emphasis in the animated short than in print: the film version makes a more overt case for anti-militarism and pacifism. Both the book and the cartoon answer the unspoken question about the functions of art by positing that no matter how unfavorable the climate, a performance that springs from the heart will in due course win favor, both divine and human.

In form as well as in content, the brief film marks as profound a change within the incipient tradition of juggler films as the book that harbingered it did in literature. To compare it on a split screen in our mind’s eye with the juggler segments of the Waring hour taped at Christmastime in the early 1950s requires the perspective of Janus, the two-headed Roman deity who lent his name to the first month of the year (Janu-ary!). With the visage that faces backward, we can look in best retro fashion, through the entertainment arranged by Fred Waring on his television variety show in the early 1950s (see Fig. 3.24), to the earliest years of the twentieth century. We can also discern the intensifying commercialization of Christmas, since the program is coupled with other such products as sound recordings. Nadine Gae, the woman who mimes and dances the role of the juggler, was far from a diva. She arrived at television from a career as a dancer, including stints on Broadway. Yet by the very trait of being female, she owed an ultimate debt to Mary Garden. The Chicago-based soprano, virtuosic as a media presence no less than as a singer, set the stage for all subsequent recreations of the jongleur’s story by women in musical drama, ballet, and other media. The head of the divine Janus that stares forward sees nothing of the gilded opera houses of Monaco and France. Instead, it gazes at the modernism centered on New York City in the 1950s, when abstract expressionism ruled uncontested.

Fig. 3.24 Filming The Fred Waring Show. Photograph, ca. 1949–1954. Photographer unknown.

From the earliest attestations in the thirteenth century, we can make out how the miracle of the juggler has been restyled. At intervals, it has elicited treatments in successful texts that for a while have fixed in their audiences’ consciousness new motifs that had not been part of previous instantiations. At other times, the narrative has been received by authors who have either chanced upon it in only a synoptic form or felt themselves deputized to reimagine liberally whatever fuller handling of it they have encountered. Thus, we have beside the medieval French poem the précis in the later Latin exemplum, and alongside the Anatole France version the sundry radio broadcasts and other remoldings of the tale. Those who have transformed the story in texts seem often to have dived into floods of waning memories. In the wash of these recollections, they have adjusted and even overcorrected details, consciously or not. The tale is so short and simple that the temptation must be uncontrollable simply to plop down and write out a fresh adaptation. Why go through the folderol of fixating on whatever older iterations one has at hand? Why bother with such niceties? The narrative has belonged to the common domain from the very beginning. Copyright has not been a constraint, since no one artist has ever had a monopoly over it.

Both Blechman’s book and the animation take the story in a new direction. On the one hand, they keep the spirit true to the Middle Ages, or at least medieval-like. On the other, they depart from the tendency of many earlier and subsequent illustrators to replicate qualities of age-old manuscript illumination. Even in the printed version, the author illustrates the tale more extensively than did any of his predecessors, particularly to judge by the head count of illustrations in proportion to the number of words in his narrative. In effect, Blechman creates a proto-graphic novel. His volume differs in length from the ones that decades later have become an accepted genre. He even forms the lettering of the text in his distinctive hand, with its elegantly controlled wavering. In the same squiggly script, he records on the jacket of the first edition that “The Juggler of Our Lady is a retelling of the famous legend in picture-and-caption form.” Despite the enchanting simplicity of both text and images, the relationship between the two is sophisticated. The book marks a great initial stride in Blechman’s development as a graphic storyteller. The famous children’s book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak observed that his friend and fellow artist’s chief sources of inspiration were newspaper funnies, animated cartoons, and silent-movie comedies. Once again, Charlie Chaplin makes his presence felt in the environs of the object manipulator.

Blechman achieves graphic sparkle by adhering throughout to a disciplined minimalist style which, although very much his own, is simultaneously recognizable in a flash as belonging to the second half of the twentieth century rather than to the first. His look, even today, remains redolent of what was the then-new abstract expressionism, or American abstraction, of which New York of the early Cold War era was the hub. The Juggler of Our Lady anticipates the ecumenism that would become enshrined in the nondenominational Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. In a distinctively different artistic milieu, Blechman’s understatedness shows a kinship to that of the limited animation associated with the United Productions of America studio. This type of production has come to be associated with vacuous commercial cartoons of low quality from the 1960s and 1970s. Yet it began life a little earlier as a deliberate artistic experiment. In the case of The Juggler of Our Lady, the form accords well with the gentle and simple irony with which the artist conveys his themes. It also suits the economy of line and color that typifies all his work across the decades.

Blechman’s handwriting bears comparison, or contrast, with the meticulously personalized, pseudo-Carolingian minuscule that Wilhelm Preetorius employed in his interpretation of the medieval story from 1964.

Fig. 3.25 The tumbler dancing. Illustration by Wilhelm Preetorius, in Wilhelm Preetorius, Der Tänzer unserer lieben Frau (Zurich: Die Waage, 1964), 29.

Fig. 3.26 The tumbler dancing. Illustration by Wilhelm Preetorius, in Wilhelm Preetorius, Der Tänzer unserer lieben Frau (Zurich: Die Waage, 1964), 31.

The juxtaposition reveals two diametrically opposed styles of sparing, mid-century modern minimalism. The German artist produced artwork to accompany various short narratives, many translated from non-German source languages, that could entice audiences of both cultivated adults and juveniles. In keeping with a family culture of heavy engagement in theater, the Swiss book illustrator was also an actor and marionettist. In 1984, he established in the German town of Esslingen am Neckar a “literary marionette theater” modeled on a medieval house chapel. In this venue he performed puppet plays based on literary inspirations. Preetorius’s book presents the story of The Dancer of Our Lady anonymously on the title page. He relegates acknowledgment of his own role to the edition notice, where he subsumes the narrative as legend or pious tale. Not unreasonably, he was misled by a swatch in the text itself into identifying its source as being one reflex of the thirteenth-century French Life of the Fathers. In his modernization he adapts the medieval poem freely. While leaving the basic actions unaltered, he introduces many modifications to make the psychology of the tumbler more digestible. For the art, he applied a centuries-old craft of paper cutting. Loosely comparable to silhouette, this technique is known in German as Scherenschnitte, “scissor cuts.” It was by way of being a family tradition: the illustration work of Wilhelm’s uncle Emil Preetorius stood out ineradicably in this artistic form.

Blechman’s style in both the book and the subsequent animation can be read as a small-scale summa, in which a man who came of age after the Second World War looks back on the genres with which he had grown up and come of age. In response, he synthesizes them so as to meet the artistic expectations of a new era. The illustrations contain their fair share of Gothic architectural features, but the pointed arches are not part of a sustained effort to translocate us as viewers into a fanciful medieval past. Instead, we are moderns, as are our artists, who inhabit temporarily a Middle Ages that all of us concede never was. The aesthetics prompted pundits of the day to be complimentary, although the strong stylistic novelty put them in some perplexity. At least one reviewer of the animation had doubts about how many viewers would take kindly to the experience of watching it.

Gene Deitch, who produced the animated Juggler of Our Lady, gave an account of the process, stressing the strain of subsuming a story about art for art’s sake within the catalogue of a commercial cartoon studio. In fact, he suggested that his commitment to making this short hastened his ouster from the firm not much later. A little history is in order. Paul Terry departed from Terrytoons after selling it to the CBS television network in 1955. In the aftermath Deitch, aged all of thirty-one, was ushered in as creative director in the following year. He was drawn to the undertaking because he saw an opportunity to achieve an unprecedented wedding of form and content. The latest technology allowed for shooting wide-screen movies. The precocious new appointee grasped that the spectacular width allowed by the innovative format would facilitate sensational contrasts in Blechman’s illustrations, “playing off those tiny timorous figures against the vast expanse of that very wide screen.” The effect is striking, since the size of the backdrop accentuates the wriggliness and sinuousness of the artist’s style. Deitch has made no attempt to hide his assurance that this short was his “highest achievement at Terrytoons.”

For the project to yield results, Deitch had to serve two masters, with antithetical aims and values. One was the head of the studio, who had to be persuaded that the cartoon would bring sufficient prestige to the company to warrant the payroll for staff time and the outlay of other resources it would entail. The other was Blechman himself, who the director reports “was well aware of the Terrytoons product, and was terrified we would convert his little juggler into Mighty Mouse.” After close to a year, Deitch prevailed upon the young man to accord the rights for his masterpiece to be animated. In the animation, Al Kouzel clung rigorously to the artist’s visual minimalism. Both the music, limited to a woodwind quartet, and the narration enhanced the same spare aesthetic.

The matter of genre intensified the challenges inherent in the manner. The simplicity of Blechman’s story makes it resemble a children’s book, while its Christmas setting could trick the unwary into mistaking it for a religious one. When the hardback first hit the market, it was listed in the New York Times with a brief mention under the heading “Religion.” Both the confusion with children’s literature and that with religion had ample justification. By being childlike and simple, the tale resembled youthful reading. By being a miracle, it had a footing among religious studies. The distinction between childlike and childish can easily be overlooked, just as simplicity in an adult can be misconstrued as being sophomoric. Today the book has leapt out of juvenile literature into graphic novels, a literary form that did not even exist as such when Blechman’s stroke of genius was first published. Coincidentally, it is now flagged on its cover as “The Classic Christmas Story.” As far as creed is concerned, we may find ourselves bemused and even taken aback by the answers if we ask whether the thirteenth-century poem promotes organized religion or individual devotion. By the same token, Anatole France’s version is deliberately enigmatic, even ironic, in its presentation of the juggler’s faith and indeed of medieval Christianity. These conundrums, handled adroitly, may deepen the narrative, as the undercurrents of such imponderable questions keep its simplicity from becoming simplistic. They prevent its childlike truths from degenerating into unadulterated childishness.

From The Juggler of Our Lady on, Blechman’s special magic has been to evoke profound issues, often through juxtaposition of different registers or eras, but at once to elicit chuckles. Forty years after conceiving the book, the cartoonist created the cover art for a now defunct magazine entitled tout court Story (see Fig. 3.27). To the left slumps Hamlet, cupping Yorick’s skull in the graveyard scene with the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy that everyone comes across in mass culture. To the right a jester sits perkily, with his belled cap and shoes, tossing a sphere in his hand. The viewer need not recall the specific that Yorick had been, before his death twenty-three years earlier, just such a court entertainer. The mere contrast between darkly pensive and brightly smiling figures gets at something elemental about the human condition. Rather than being ordered to suggest a sequence of life and death, as Yorick to the left and Hamlet to the right might have done, the two are flipflopped. Overarching both are the heavens, with the mysteries of the cosmos (see Saturn and its rings?) floating above the suicidally brooding Hamlet and the bubbly balls above the jester. In Blechman’s universe, juggling’s levity wins the day.

Fig. 3.27 R. O. Blechman, cover art. To left, Hamlet with Yorick’s skull; to right, Yorick the court jester with juggling ball. Story, Spring 1992. Image courtesy of R. O. Blechman. All rights reserved.

Robert Lax, Poet among Acrobats

The juggler is therefore the being who leaves himself—like the poet in the deepest sense of his vocation. The clown and the poet are two men, very slightly limited by their bodies, who aspire to be invaded by God.

—Wallace Fowlie

The future American poet Robert Lax met the mystic (and monastic) theologian-to-be Thomas Merton when the two were undergraduates at Columbia University. Among other shared pursuits, both young men served as editors of The Jester (see Fig. 3.28), a collegiate humor magazine that was founded on April Fool’s Day of 1901. Their college acquaintance mellowed into lifelong friendship, and it resulted in a goodly number of letters sent and received.

Fig. 3.28 From left, Thomas Merton, Robert Lax, and Ralph de Toledano, editors of the Jester. Photograph, ca. 1937. Photographer unknown. New York, Columbia University Archives. Image courtesy of the Columbia University Archives. All rights reserved.

Merton was rebuffed when he attempted to enter the Franciscans. At the end of 1941, he joined instead the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani. The brothers there are Trappists, a reformed order that descended from the Cistercians, the monastic society with which the thirteenth-century French of Our Lady’s Tumbler associated the miracle that some six hundred fifty years later morphed into Le jongleur de Notre Dame. At the monastery in Kentucky, Merton wrote voluminously. The output of this American Catholic author encompasses books of autobiography, biography, biblical exegesis, contemplation, and meditation.

In 1943, Lax laid aside Judaism and embraced Catholicism. In October of 1949, the twenty-seven-year-old addressed a letter to his former fellow student—now a white monk—that referred to the legend of the juggler. In the same year, the not-so-new believer mingled with a troupe, the Cristiani Family Circus. That summer he traveled as a kind of roustabout or carny with this ménage of peripatetic performers. He developed with one member of this squadron what would blossom into a long-time attachment. Mogador Cristiani was an acrobat and equestrian, as accomplished a death defying daredevil as he was a debonair devil.

While keeping company with the Cristiani clan, the poet acted episodically as a clown. Still more germane to our purposes, he play-acted at being a wandering minstrel of the Middle Ages. The artistic upshots of his spell with the peripatetic company did not stop there. His exposure to the family, their way of life, and the high-achieving feats demanded by their line of work caused him to take a soulful turn and coincided with his composing a profusion of impassioned prose and verse. His passion would seem to have been driven in equal measures by the big top and by the winsome Mogador.

The signal outcome of the experience was Circus of the Sun, a cycle of poems that Lax published as a complete volume only a decade later, in 1959. Literarily, he cast himself as the ringmaster of a three-ring circus. The lyrics are arranged according to stages of the day, deliberately like the canonical hours. Against this backdrop of spirituality, medievalizing, and wayfaring, the poet was drawn unsurprisingly to the tale of the medieval acrobat. The parallels between his reactions to the circus routine and the story of the jongleur would have been intensified by the circumstances in which he devised his book, in the spring of 1950. A Franciscan of Saint Bonaventure advised him to hunker down to write daily at the same hour in the same place. As his location for crouching to dedicate time and effort to composition, the writer chose the lower level of the library. Expressed differently, this drill means that he drafted his poem by himself in the basement of a building where he was fenced in by friars. How would an author not deem the minstrel on-topic in such circumstances?

In the 1949 missive to Merton, Lax rhapsodized dreamily about filming the performer who infatuated him: “[I] want to make a movie ballet of Juggler of Notre Dame. Mogador Cristiani turning the right kind of sommersalts. I wish we could make it in the Church, for the Church.” No must-watch cinematic magnum opus ever emerged, but the story clung to the poet in his life as well as his literature. From 1962, for the final three and a half decades of his existence, the man of letters resided on the Greek island of Patmos, in what was regarded in some quarters as a self-imposed hermeticism. Without going so far as to become a Cistercian like his classmate and close crony Merton, he managed all the same to traipse down a pathway that made him similar to the juggler. The difference was that, as with all writers of the tale since the original poet, Lax’s craft was verbal rather than acrobatic. In a lyric called “Acrobat’s Song,” he likened the faith of believers in Mary to the exaltation, literal and figurative, of aerialists while aloft. Many of his pieces about the circus can be interpreted as having the jongleur in their background. In one, the medieval lay brother pokes his way into the foreground.

Although Lax never brought to fruition his castle in the air of making a motion picture, by the 1940s cinema had become an obvious conduit for the story of Our Lady’s Tumbler. Television soon followed. Later still came videos designed for home viewing. Most representations of the story on celluloid, whether for the big or small screen, whether for public or private viewing, fall into an underwhelming zone between intimate and amateurish. Thus, Benedict Groeschel, a Catholic priest who died in 2014, recounted three inspirational saintly legends of the early church in a 2008 videotape for children, which was informal to the point of appearing homemade. One of the triad was about the juggling monk who witnessed a statue of the Virgin move, a miracle he identified as being seven hundred years old. For the mentions of juggling and six balls the good father, who belonged to the Community of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, owed an ultimate debt to Anatole France, and beyond him to Raymond de Borrelli. The animation of Tomie dePaola’s The Clown of God was more commercial, but not much more polished and professional. Neither would qualify as slick or Hollywoodish. Then again, why should they? The tale can be construed as a paean to the would-be artist, but it affords more certitude about his faith than about his flair.

A made-for-television film from 1982 entitled The Juggler of Notre Dame has reaped the most enthusiastic praise of all big-screen versions. The production aired first in late November as a TV special, a timing chosen in all likelihood because it fell in the temporal outskirts of Christmastide. Although the broadcast brought in some laudatory notices, positive assessments were hardly universal. Even to knead the story into a movie of fifty minutes requires substantial leavening of the plot. The fictitious character of the juggler, predictably named Barnaby, has suffered one major deprivation before the narrative even commences. Flashbacks fill the viewer in that while previously in the circus, the heartsick man suffered the trauma of witnessing his newly wed wife slip as she performed on the tightrope and hurtle to her untimely death. As the psychodrama begins, he is busker, tormented and alone, but he soon shares his life with a fellow street person. This fresh comrade, called Sparrow, assists him and picks up the rudiments of juggling from him. In return, the entertainer opens his heart a crack to living again. Not long afterward, he is racked by loss once again, when his buddy is slain by other drifters while being robbed. At this juncture, the entertainer forsakes not only his métier but also all hope. Yet in his meandering he is taken in as a model by a sculptor who himself has endured tragedy and sorrow, when his family perishes in a house fire.

As the story unfolds, it turns out that this Jonas has carved a Madonna. The sculpture turns out to be the very likeness of the juggler’s late wife. Barnaby resolves to abscond from the community, driven away by the artist’s distrustful and harsh-hearted sister, who faults him for having no gift to offer the statue for the Mass on Christmas Eve. Before parting, the former performer comes back to the chapel of the church, which was ruined by an earthquake but has been restored and reconditioned. Offerings are arrayed before the effigy, as is a life-sized crèche. The dead Sparrow materializes and cajoles his living friend to do homage through his craft before the image of Mary, which after some time he does. The final miracle in this version of the tale, as in many others, takes the form of a floral motif, as the Virgin presents the circus artist with a rose.

The television special partially addressed two deficiencies of the narrative for modern times. In the first place, it introduced female characters, in the persons of the juggler’s deceased wife and his host’s inhospitable sister. For all that, the movie would scarcely pass the Bechdel test. This measure evaluates whether a motion picture or other work of fiction features at least two females who converse with each other about a topic other than a man. For the story to go down well now with general audiences in Western or Westernized countries as anything other than a short skit, it may need to be reconceived to allow more scope for women, girls, or both. In a second enhancement of the medieval miracle, the collaborators from the Paulines and Walt Disney studios may have been right to add splashes of color with both the romance with the dearly departed wife and the bromance with the deceased best friend. General viewers may not be gratified by would-be entertainment that depicts no love save that for God.

Tony Curtis, Prime-Time Juggler

One “what if” is to wonder whether the trials and tribulations of the juggler would be better known if the telegenic Tony Curtis had followed through on his woolgathering: he thought of adding footage to the color made-for-television film of 1960 entitled The Young Juggler (see Fig. 3.29 and 3.30) so that this miniaturized historical drama could be released as a feature-length production. The idea of creating such a movie made sense at the time, since the career of this fine-looking golden boy of Hollywood was at its zenith: he was then a top-class celebrity, still married to the prominent actress Janet Leigh. To single out only two motion pictures, both Some Like It Hot with Marilyn Monroe and Spartacus with Kirk Douglas and Laurence Olivier that co-starred Curtis were blockbusters at the box office, in 1959 and 1960, respectively. The story of the juggler was also at its height in television, for the year 1959 alone saw versions aired in France and the United States. But any dreams that a reworking with such a high-profile actor could succeed beyond the small screen in movie theaters came out of a pipe. After airing once, the telefilm went nowhere further than the vaults where it has degraded ever since. It was a sneak preview for nothing.

Fig. 3.29 Tony Curtis as the juggler in The Young Juggler, dir. Ted Post (1960). Photograph, 1960. Photographer unknown.

Fig. 3.30 Tony Curtis contemplates the Madonna in The Young Juggler, dir. Ted Post (1960). Photograph, 1960. Photographer unknown.

The Young Juggler, known now only to the most passionate of film buffs, gave Curtis room to show off circus skills, which he had deployed already in the 1956 Trapeze. This coincidence belongs in a larger context. The big top is the only major institution in which the juggler, the clown, and all their kin live on. These professions are the modern iterations of premodern vocations, calcified within a guild that stands apart from larger society. The juggler is one type of jongleur, the clown perpetuates the jester, and the present-day mime narrows the unbounded range of the medieval mime player to a single specialization. The nexus between jongleur and circus in real life is brought home most vividly by a 1967 French press photo that captures a posse of prelates, some seated, others standing, in a circus round (see Fig. 3.31). Like masters of ceremony costumed in cassocks, they watch as a female juggler knocks out a routine involving the manipulation (with mouth, head, and hands) of four twirling balls. The ceremony was a Mass to mark the end of “circus week,” a tradition that has been alleged to extend back a half millennium or more. The liturgy was officiated by a chaplain tasked with ministering to fairground and traveling people.

Fig. 3.31 French prelates in a circus round watch a juggling performance. Photograph, 1967. Photographer unknown.

The inherent limitations of Curtis’s movie would have precluded it from achieving much greater success, even if it had been put into a shape that had allowed it to be screened in theaters. Although elaborate sets at Universal Studios gave the semblance of a lush ambience, The Young Juggler was in fact filmed on a tight budget. Additionally, it was broadcast not during the Christmas season but instead during Lent. The actor, who had the birth name Bernard Herschel Schwartz, retained his whole life long a working-class Bronx accent, which garnered him the sometimes affectionately teasing nickname “Boinie.” The manner of speaking functioned to better effect in comedies than in an early modern period piece. The star himself may well have recognized some of the substantial blemishes in the version that was recorded: he never pursued the project further.

The film claimed to be set not in the Middle Ages, as conventionally delimited, but in sixteenth-century France, between the medieval and the early modern. Likewise, it purported to be based upon a legend of the same period. The movie opens during the Feast of Fools. This celebration, popular from the fifth century through the sixteenth, allowed the prevailing social hierarchy among both clergy and laity to be overturned. For a brief spell, the world was altered dramatically. The carnival-like misrule of the festival received vivid expression in Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, published in 1831. There the tale begins on this very feast, which is said to occur on January 6, 1482, to mark the holiday of Epiphany, when the three Magi visited the Christ child.

In the story as the screenplay developed it, the athletic Tony Curtis acts the part of a young entertainer who is poor and proud, unable to beg or to believe in God, but fully proficient in juggling both real plates and ladies’ hearts: “If I can’t believe in the power of a woman, what can I believe in?” The womanizing of this dark-haired blue-eyed charmer incites doting from the fair sex but dislike from wronged husbands. From the late nineteenth century on, researchers and artists went to great lengths to cleanse the protagonist of the medieval poem from any inadvertent associations with later Lotharios or Casanovas. Although in the dark about the unseemly ambivalence that the word carried in French, this screenplay makes the timid tombeur of the original into a total tomcat. It embroiders further upon this titillating tangent by implying repeatedly that the outraged spouses of the adulteresses seek to avenge their abasement by castrating the oversexed performer.

Together with his best friend, the character played by Curtis ends up being accosted by a gang of vigilantes enraged at having been cuckolded. He saves his own skin by playing Judas: he pushes his companion into the hands of the thuggish mob. The betrayed buddy is first beaten and then hanged in a Christ-like fashion by his bloodied arms from a large beam, mocked by being necklaced with a juggling ring. After a scene with a vague visual resemblance to the Descent from the Cross and Pietà, the juggler ends up being found and stabbed. Although the brethren of Our Lady nurse him back to more or less fine fettle, the itinerant can no longer ply his trade: one arm has been left partly paralyzed. To complete his convalescence, the monks ministering to him give him counsel to pray before a statue of the Virgin. Professing himself ever a believer in the might of the fair sex, he does so. When the Madonna miraculously warms to life and restores full mobility to him, he gains faith and tenders thanks by giving his only gift. Reducing any narrative to such bare bones (and that proverbiality is right for a lightly clad acrobat) does not smooth the way for equitable judgment, without fearfulness or favor, but the well-worn elements that have just been described held out little promise of great success.

In the Anglophone world, the narrative has been told and retold, written and rewritten, shown and reshown so often that much of the flavor has been washed out of it. By the principle of “familiarity breeds contempt,” it has run the jeopardy being rendered into watery pap. Alternatively, the juggler’s decline may reflect not the ubiquity of the tale but instead the debased quality of many recent tellings. The information aggregated in the present book makes no pretense of being exhaustive, but it may be enough to disabuse future adapters of the illusion that they are pioneers. It compensates by opening paths for attentive readers and writers to go not for the jugular but for the juggler—to locate many different versions to which to react and respond.

W. H. Auden, The Ballad of Barnaby

We who must die demand a miracle.

—W. H. Auden, For the Time Being

Fig. 3.32 W. H. Auden, age 60. Photograph by Jill Krementz, 1967.

The fifth of my six examples, and among the most bewitching efforts ever made to recast the legend, was by a poet, born an Englishman but later an American citizen (see Fig. 3.32). In the initial stages of his métier in metrics, W. H. Auden was not gripped by Latin and French texts from the twelfth and later centuries of medieval Gothic architecture. Instead, his heart went out to Germanic literature of the early Middle Ages. His given name of Wystan memorialized his parents’ interest in medieval England as it was constituted before the Norman conquest in 1066. He was so called after a saint who suffered martyrdom in 849, in the thick of the Anglo-Saxon period, and who hailed from Repton, the village in Derbyshire where his father attended school. The elder Auden maintained that his side of the family traced its lineage back to a settler by this name who figured among the earliest Norse in Iceland. The poet’s cultural formation, from childhood through the last gasp of his life, included a heavy accent on myths from the Germanic past, both directly in the original and indirectly in translation. His mother taught him the words of Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde, duets from which she and he belted out arias together. He was exposed to the English of Icelandic sagas by William Morris and the Icelandic scholar Eiríkr Magnusson, studied Anglo-Saxon at Oxford and became friendly there with the philologist and fiction writer J. R. R. Tolkien, admired Old English poems such as Deor, and teamed up with a scholar and lover of English literature in bringing out three volumes of translations from Old Norse poetry.

In college Auden also sampled from Middle English poetry and prose. His tastes ranged too widely to forestall him from responding to good reading from beyond the chronological pale that separated the early Middle Ages from the twelfth century and later. If an exquisite and intriguing text from the high or late medieval period caught his attention and suited his poetic purposes, he did not hesitate to immerse himself in it. Particularly after his emigration to the United States in 1939, he developed a curiosity about pre-modern Christendom that is evident in his adaptations of medieval writings. He engaged closely with Julian of Norwich, an English anchoress and mystic who died in the early fifteenth century. The modern poet also poured himself into the vernacular of the Second Shepherds’ Play, which merges the sublimity of high religion with the farcicality of low culture. It takes scant imagination to see why a person mesmerized by such a mystery play on the Nativity would have found Our Lady’s Tumbler both genial and congenial. Auden’s “Ode to the Medieval Poets,” dated June 1971, addresses first by name a foursome of Middle English and Scots poets—“Chaucer, Langland, Douglas, Dunbar”—but then acknowledges the innumerable cohort to which the French poet from the Middle Ages belonged—“with all your / brother Anons.” Despite the valiant efforts of medieval scribes and modern scholars to attach identifiable names, the pipeline of literature from these distant centuries carries an unstanchable flow of texts that remain nameless or incognito.

So much for generalities based on biography. In this case Auden had a specific instigation. He drafted The Ballad of Barnaby as the libretto for a musical that was composed and performed in 1969 by the pupils of a girls’ school in Connecticut. A longtime friend of his who taught and directed the music program at the institution created the score, in conjunction with the students in his class. The narrative text of the poem was released officially months later along with the musical notation as sheet music. The poet had collaborated in a similar venture years before, when he wrote the narration to the medieval Latin liturgical drama, the Play of Daniel. In 1958, this thirteenth-century mystery play had been recorded as an opera in the environs, at once monastic and pseudo-monastic, of The Cloisters, the medieval European branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Auden retained the connection with youth when in 1972 he first published the ballad in Epistle to a Godson and Other Poems. He gave the piece of poetry, the longest in this collection, center stage arithmetically, as number seventeen of thirty-three items. He also brought home its centrality by a symmetry: to produce a mini-chiasmus, he bracketed it between “Shorts I” and “Shorts II.”

Before appearing in the volume of verse, The Ballad of Barnaby came into print in the fortnightly cultural magazine New York Review of Books, a forum intended very much for adults. The front cover from December 18, 1969, labeled as a Christmas issue, offered the poem in two columns. The text was flanked by six decorations by Edward Gorey in the left and right margins. This artist (and writer) was an apt choice as illustrator. He lavished meticulous care upon the craft of illustrating and cultivated a style that was vaguely Gothic—but viewers must decide for themselves in which specific senses the descriptor would apply here. Whatever we call Gorey’s manner, his diverse output included coverings for the English translation of The Romance of Tristan and Iseult as retold by Joseph Bédier, and The Perfect Joy of St. Francis: A Biographical Novel by Felix Timmermanns, to say nothing of the typography for Henry Adams’s Mont Saint Michel and Chartres. Beyond generalities of style and content, Gorey admired Auden’s verse greatly. As an undergraduate, he memorized the poet’s whole canon.

The Ballad of Barnaby lives up to the conventional definition of the literary form that its title trumpets. That is, it offers a simple narrative of a dramatic episode to be chanted or recited to a rounded tune. Furthermore, Auden’s poem makes use of the repetition common in run-of-the-mill balladry. For example, it repeats verbatim a list of four specific vaults that the tumbler accomplishes. It also adheres to convention in relying heavily on dialogue. Beyond such formal matters, the poet’s decision to cast his version of the tale as balladic is doubly apropos, since folk songs of this sort are often long-established by custom. The genre squared too with the context of the entertainer’s activities as a popular performer. A ballad automatically conjured up the oral-traditional literature of bygone centuries. What is more, the literary-historical associations dovetailed with the lack of Latin and illiteracy of the protagonist. Finally, misleadingly or not, the generic term has embedded in it a root that implies, as does the word ballet, an intrinsic relationship with dance.

The disarmingly, and deceptively, straightforward nature of the verse has been styled “faux-naïf.” That last modifier, splicing two foreign elements, emphasizes falsity that undermines seeming innocence. Such a characterization is not the fairest designation for the genial ingenuousness of Auden’s poem. Simple is not the same as easy, still less the same as facile. In life as in mathematics, simplicity may be at once suave and impregnable. The spirit of the ballad, whatever we vote to call it, is crystalized in the four lines that set forth the passing of the personable dancer:

“Lady,” cried Barnaby, “I beg of Thee

To intercede with Thy Son for me!”

Gave one more leap, then down he dropped,

And lay dead still, for his heart had stopped.

Two further stanzas follow. One recounts how gleeful demons swarm out to take hold of Barnaby’s soul, since all tumblers are demoniacs—all jongleurs belong to the devil and his henchmen. The other tells how the Virgin and her angels drive away the hellions and bear the entertainer heavenward. The melodious event that Auden envisaged closes with the chorus intoning the Latin of the so-called angelic hymn or great doxology, “Glory to God in the highest.” Through the musicality, he brings us all, auditors or readers alike, to the communal high note of Gloria as chorused in Latin. This commonality has arrived only lethargically. At the beginning, the entertainer is accepted more with forbearance than with open arms. Whereas the other monks are literate, high-culture, polyglot artists, he is illiterate and “ignorant as a beast,” with no skill to his name but his tumbling.

Less than four years after composing The Ballad of Barnaby, Auden succumbed to cardiac arrest after a poetry reading he gave in Vienna on September 29, 1973. That he gave his tumbler the same cause of death could have been sheer coincidence, not a sign that the poet had a prophetic premonition of his own heart failure. Did he have other reasons to identify with the young athlete—or did he associate him with past lovers? Whatever the reasons, this poem was supposedly a personal favorite of the author’s. For that reason, a few days after he gave up the ghost alone in a hotel room in Austria, copies of the ballad were handed out as leaflets to the mourners at a two-hour memorial service in New York City (see Fig. 3.33).

The ballad has not been universally loved or respected. One critic faulted the choice of this piece to cap an anthology of narrative poetry. He conceded that its placement as the last item “allows the book to end as sweetly and softly as the voices of the angels who bear Barnaby to Heaven.” All the same, he gave voice to doubt at a selection he damned with faint praise as “inoffensive, almost apologetic.” Another scholar was equally stinting when he described it as standing on a plateau rather than a mountaintop. Such unadmiring potshots reflect a frequent divide among Audenists. Some favor his early compositions, whereas others prefer the later ones he crafted in what might be called his American phase. A fair number regard Auden’s evolution as a poet after his naturalization as a US citizen as a decline and fall. In this interpretation, he cascaded from the full-bodied subtlety and sophistication of his career in Britain and glided into a watered-down facility that elided difficulties. His new style sidled away from challenges—esthetic and artistic as well as psychological and emotional. Criticism in this vein reads the song of Barnaby as nothing more than fluff.

Fig. 3.33 W. H. Auden, The Ballad of Barnaby, illus. Edward Gorey. Pre-existing poem and artwork, distributed to complement the Memorial Service in St. John the Divine, New York City, Wednesday, October 3, 1973. All rights reserved.

The negativity fails to register that outward shows of simplicity are often attained only through Herculean toil and Orphic virtuosity, and that the gentleness of the poem makes Auden’s joy manifest in offering up the best of his art, in an act as hallowed as that of the tumbler himself. In recent years, “The Ballad of Barnaby” has been given renewed musical outlet in the version by Alla Borzova. The composition by this Belarus-born resident in the United States premiered in 2002. It infiltrates such medievalizing features as Gregorian chant-like monody. As the musician explains on the second page of the score, the “ballad” quotes three medieval melodies. One, a tune the tumbler whistles while astride his horse, is extrapolated from the thirteenth-century Play of Robin and Marian, by the thirteenth-century Adam de la Halle. The second brings together extracts from the Lay of Our Lady by the trouvère Ernoul le Vieux de Gastinois, likewise of the thirteenth century. Finally, Borzova incorporates the medieval Latin hymn Day of Wrath as a sequence intoned by a male chorus. The composer was won over to the poem by its message of unflinching, lifelong commitment to art by an artist.

The simplicity of Auden’s text may give the impression of extempore creation, but nothing could be further from the truth. Like many other classic men of letters, this one had a proficiency for ferreting out his sources and zeroing in on their key features. In The Ballad of Barnaby he distilled and blended the essences of both the medieval poetry that constitutes the earliest extant form of our story and Anatole France’s late nineteenth-century French literary revision. This is exactly as it should be. Great fashioners of poetry and prose should have the freedom to wrestle with the narrative to isolate for themselves what they regard as its determinants. They should not be constrained by the thirteenth-century poem, the late nineteenth-century short story, the early twentieth-century libretto, or any other version.

In an interview, Auden once made clear that he would have seen no contradiction between what we have called medieval studies and medievalism. To the wry amusement of the few who earn their keep as professional medievalists, he admitted that on occasion in real life he posed as a historian of the Middle Ages, a pretense that enabled him to sidestep the gauche and importunate questions that he faced sometimes when he admitted to being a verse-maker. He clarified that because of his family upbringing, he had never viewed what he called art and science as being at loggerheads.

When had Auden first happened upon the medieval French original, in translation or adaptation? He may have come across the medieval miracle first through the prism of Henry Adams. The poet’s “New Year Letter” of 1940 places on display an intimate familiarity with Adams’s “Virgin and the Dynamo.” His mastery of Adamsiana presumes knowledge of the chapter in The Education of Henry Adams entitled “The Dynamo and the Virgin.” It may suggest an acquaintance too with Mont Saint Michel and Chartres and its excerpts from Our Lady’s Tumbler. The historian’s book remained essential reading among intellectuals. To the author of the 1940 ballad, North America as a continent and the United States as a culture have the appeal of allowing personal development by lacking or not imposing, at least relatively, a deep past—of having “worshipped no / Virgin before the Dynamo.”

Later in the decade, Auden expatiated on his engagement with the scion of the political dynasty in a disquisition called “The Virgin & the Dynamo.” In this essay, the poet took the reader’s mindfulness of The Education of Henry Adams so much as a given that he adverted nowhere to its title. In fact, he identified the autobiographer’s own name, on the third page of his meditation, only to take issue with him. In the discussion, the later writer examines human existence, without descending to smooth-talking dichotomies, within a context of polar questions about the dynamic between the social and poetic order as well as between religious belief and hard science.

The twentieth-century poet’s musings on “The Virgin & the Dynamo” twist their way to a passage of more than a paragraph that relates strongly to his short stanzas about the tumbler. Four sentences bear quoting in full:

The subject matter of a poem is comprised of a crowd of recollected occasions of feeling, among which the most important are recollections of encounters with sacred beings or events. This crowd the poet attempts to transform into a community by embodying it in a verbal society. Such a society, like any society in nature, has its own laws; its laws of prosody and syntax are analogous to the laws of physics and chemistry. Every poem must presuppose—sometimes mistakenly—that the history of the language is at an end.

The Ballad of Barnaby gives an account of just such an interaction with a revered entity, since the Madonna strides forth from her nook and as the Virgin blesses the title character. A later amplification also holds significance:

Every beautiful poem presents an analogy to the forgiveness of sins; an analogy, not an imitation, because it is not evil intentions which are repented of and pardoned but contradictory feelings which the poet surrenders to the poem in which they are reconciled.

Against this backdrop, it becomes harder to niggle at what could be called the optimistic simplicity of the pseudo-traditional song. At its crowning point, the ballad demonstrates a benediction. Such blessing lies within reach of the presently or even momentarily irreproachable, no matter how un-innocent their pasts.

The modern ballad-writer had only indirect access to the medieval French of Our Lady’s Tumbler. He would not have read the poem in the original, but by the avenue of the Wicksteed translation. He may have also come across allusions to the tale by other versifiers, although by the 1960s most of the verse translations or explicit references to the narrative in poetry could be seen only through a glass darkly. Obviously, Patrick Kavanagh would have been known to Auden, but the Irishman’s Our Lady’s Tumbler is among his most opaque compositions. In any case, Auden’s influence on the Irish poet is more easily charted than vice versa.

Like past authors, counting Anatole France, Auden seems to have been roused by features intrinsic to the story from the Middle Ages that reechoed across the centuries even when it was abridged and made into prose. The pivotal event in the thirteenth-century poem is in fact the bolt from the blue of an unannounced meeting with a sacred emissary. Encircling the austerity of the tumbler and the Virgin are concentric rings, first of the onlooking abbot and monks, and then of the entire community beyond them. From France’s short story the Anglo-American drew the name of the tumbler, which he interjected already in the first stanza of The Ballad of Barnaby. From the medieval text he lifted the terms for two of the liturgical texts, the Paternoster and the creed, that the performer could not recite in Latin. From the same source, he derived the designations for the moves that are specified in the second stanza—the French Vault, the Vault of Champagne, the Vault of Metz, and the Vault of Lorraine.

The third stanza, in which the youth’s looks and morals are delineated, is all Auden’s own. The tumbler, blue-eyed and trim, with sensual and even sexual appeal, susceptibility to quaffing and gambling, and showiness about his tumbling talent, caught the poet’s eye and heart. The athlete’s willowy allure is reported to be unambiguously heterosexual: “He liked the girls and the girls liked him.” For this reason, it would be overinterpreting to lay too much emphasis upon the balladeer’s same-sex attractions. Although we may picture the juggler’s wasp-waisted and lissome body as sculpted by exercise, the poem is (to put it mildly) mostly not about sex. Mary is barely described, since the focus rests to the end on Barnaby’s spiritual condition, yet nonetheless her vivacious physicality comes through. The “Blessed Virgin” and “Mother-of-God” all in one, she is never whittled down to being merely a static wooden “statue of Our Lady.”

The ballad is not only deeply religious but also deeply Christian. Through the tumbler, Auden gave vent to the passion of artists, for whom their art and their life, or their art and their salvation, are one and the same. “The finest tumbler of his day” has a talent to which he remains true to the last gasp. His soul is then spared. Salvation comes despite the earlier-mentioned concession that “for years he lived a life of vice.” He is redeemed despite the gloom-and-doom statement of two large crows on a gallows-tree which caw that Barnaby “will one day be as this hanging man.” That is to say, he will be damned to hell. For all his sins, the gymnast proves in time to be as redemptive in his humility as he has been ignorant. Even more, he achieves holiness through the appeal of his artistry. Thus, there is neither hollowness nor gallows humor in the profession “this man is holy and humble.”

The bird talk near the end brings to mind the most famous poem by François Villon, in which putrid corpses on a gibbet deliver an apostrophe (see Fig. 3.34). The late-medieval poet’s stock has risen by leaps and bounds since the Gothic revivals of the nineteenth century, with a decisive groundswell in the 1860s and 1870s. A dependable thumbnail sketch of his character and conduct is hard to give; for that matter, it does not come easy to put a finger on his occupation or the demimonde in which he lived. Ultimately, the title of an 1877 essay by Robert Louis Stevenson sums up the situation best: “François Villon: Student, Poet, and Housebreaker.” Although the Frenchman’s activities as a wayward student and felonious lawbreaker have shouldered aside close popular attention to his lyric poetry, Auden gave equal weight to all three aspects of the genius’s biography.

Fig. 3.34 Hanged Criminals. Woodcut illustration to François Villon, Le Grant Testament et le Petit, Son Codicille, Le Jargon et ses Balades, 1st ed. (Paris: Pierre Levet, 1489),

Villon’s ballad, supposedly composed while its late medieval maker languished on death row, refers to the fate of the hanged. According to the judicial practices way back when, those who have been so executed are afterward to be exposed to the elements and torn apart (by fowl play). In the exclamation, the bodies cry out to later living human beings for their sympathy and prayers. Auden makes the final motif very much his own. The chance conversation with the two ravens about a body suspended from the scaffold with a noose around its neck results in a revelation. True gallows birds, they taunt the carcass with gibes about the prospect, or threat, of hell. This prospect induces his resolution to repent, leave the world, and take the cloth. To the end, the tumbler retains his unassuming bearing. Without his saying it expressly, we understand when he sees the corpses that he knows “there but for the grace of God go I.” The only qualification may be the theologically problematic substitution of the Virgin for God.

In 1968, Auden perused Rabelais and His World by Mikhail Bakhtin. The book had been drafted decades earlier, but owing to the political and cultural vagaries of the Soviet era it saw publication in English translation only in the year in which the poet read it. Auden seems to have been struck forcefully by the notion of the carnivalesque laid out in it, which refers to types of literature that leverage whimsy and grotesquerie to upend the dominant hierarchy. The Anglo-American poet shows similarly subversive flashes of waggishness when he refers to the canonical hours of worship as “the office-hours.” The Russian emphasized the origins of the carnivalesque in carnival and festivals similar to it, with the medieval Feast of Fools holding high importance. The popular ramifications of this literary mode accorded nicely with Auden’s choice of an old-fashioned form for The Ballad of Barnaby, since broadside poems of this sort were originally aimed at a readership of commoners. The poet fused Bakhtin’s concept with his own unique interpretation of the monastic ideal of ora et labora (“pray and work!”) to forge a view of poetic creation. About 1970, Auden wrote an essay, entitled “Work, Carnival and Prayer,” that he had not polished at the time of his death. He concludes the piece by advocating our human need to pursue a triad of “prayer, work, laughter.” This was the last pronouncement on faith he issued before dying.

In the prose critique, Auden observed at one point that “the primary task of the schoolteacher is to teach children, in a secular context, the technique of prayer.” In The Ballad of Barnaby he furnishes instruction, as a pedagogue to the girls of the Wykeham Rise School but as a poet to us all, in understanding all-encompassingly the forms praying can take. To him, this activity amounts to an homage of praise and a petition for salvation. He presents this message so as to match a seeming simplicity of style and language with the commensurately simple piety of the tumbler he depicts. He puts forward for deliberation that a show given sincerely, no matter how humble the art or unschooled and sinful the artist, can attain deliverance for its giver. This credo is to be cherished by all of us who work with words, which of all things in the world are simultaneously the cheapest and most precious, most readily available and yet elusive, most ephemeral and yet perennial.

Both Our Lady’s Tumber and Le jongleur de Notre Dame tell of a man whose skills run to the corporeal and not to the cerebral, a physical performer who has no panache for foreign tongues or even sign language. At first blush, it may strike some as incompatible that later poets should have co-opted such a story as a parable for what they have to furnish the world and their readers through their art. Yet this anomaly may have been embedded in the tale from its inception. The vernacular poem asserts that a person untrained in the words and movements of formal worship has the capacity nonetheless to transcend his humanity by making an offering to God of the skill he has.

Propelled to anatomize Anatole France’s short story on more than one occasion, the American literary critic John Ciardi (see Fig. 3.35) once recapitulated it for instructors of fine arts, especially of English literature, and elaborated its meaning for them. He envisaged the entertainer as being much like a teacher and verse-maker. In the opinion of this twentieth-century man of letters, a master of literature is automatically a self-appointed bard. As the poet and professor spins out his analogy, the monks who catch the medieval minstrel in flagrante delicto and who clamor to hurl him out of their community correspond in present-day terms to the school committee; the prior, to the superintendent of educational system. In the peroration to the address that this essay records, the author sets forth in detail how the juggler’s act relates to a poet’s shaping of a poem. Ciardi wrote an introduction to poetry and to the criticism of it that became standard fare in the 1960s. In it, he distills France’s prose (but not prosaic) tale to bring home the kind of wordplay that sets a lyric apart from other brands of artistic expression. An antinomy of the jongleur is that the length and elaborateness of the language in which he has been purveyed has been as elastic and bendy as he is sometimes reported to be himself. His story has been pared down to nothing, only thereafter to regenerate itself in manifestations that are ever different, and yet sufficiently the same to be instantaneously recognizable.

Fig. 3.35 John Ciardi. Photograph from late 1950s, photographer unknown. Image courtesy of Rutgers University Libraries. All rights reserved.

If The Ballad of Barnaby suffers from two imperfections, they are mutually opposed. One is that the lightness of its exterior puts it at hazard of being faulted as frivolous and overused. The other is that its excellence may have imposed upon later writers an anxiety of influence: the phrase describes the insecurity of successive authors when confronting great literary antecedents. Various other verse-makers since Auden have judged his piece in a far more favorable light than nitpickers have done. Some of them have even been suborned by the loveliness of the story into devising songs of their own about the jongleur or juggler. Many enterprising mortals, including those who write verse, have lives with energetic ups and downs. Without reference to the medieval story, Robert Lowell wrote metaphorically in a letter to his fellow American poet, John Berryman: “You and I have had so many of the same tumbles and leaps. We must have a green old age. We both have drunk the downward drag as deeply as is perhaps bearable. I feel we have better work and better lives ahead.”

The 1970s generated at least a couple of specimens by American poets. The little-known Massachusetts-based Nina Nyhart exercised her skills as a verse-maker in fashioning a beautifully compact version in nine sestets. (Could she have been galvanized to put the lyric into this number of stanzas by her first name, with its resemblance to the noun nine?) The groupings of lines have contours in which the shortest come at the beginning and end, the longest in the middle. This shape echoes the poem’s emphasis on the arch or bridge, such as that formed by the body of a gymnast. After falling flat in a performance, the acrobat (of unspecified gender) receives direction from a bridge “my fellow arch” that he should enter the monastery of Clairvaux. There, after despairing of having a calling, the tumbler does a routine “under Our Lady’s arch.” In concluding, the composition concentrates exclusively upon the performer, who bounds about ever faster until his or her head bursts:

with fervor

and I tumbled down. I swear I felt

her hand, yet waked to a still crypt. To this day

I covet no other’s rite or talent, knowing how I may,

by the simple spending of myself,

deserve her.

Entitled “Our Lady’s Tumbler,” Nyhart’s piece makes full sense only if the reader is previously acquainted with the events in the original medieval narrative. Through the words “trick,” “vault,” and “somersault,” the text gives a hint that the author may have consulted all three of the main translations from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, by Wicksteed, Butler, and Kemp-Welch.

Fig. 3.36 Turner Cassity. Photograph, date and photographer unknown. Atlanta, GA, Emory University, Robert W. Woodruff Library. Image courtesy of Emory University Archives. All rights reserved.

A second effort from the 1970s to lyricize the tale from the Middle Ages would be a short poem by Turner Cassity that was first published in 1976 (see Fig. 3.36). The American poet’s “Our Lady’s Juggler” may respond to Auden’s:

The miracle is mine, My Lady

Do not think your lifted hand,

Your so late simper count. The steady,

Prompted poise of no hoops in the hand

And some hoops in the air surpasses.

This I make for you of rest,

Eye, wrist—a going magic—grace’s

Access neither harms nor much assists.

Grace is to have no need of grace,

And I who send out no prospectus,

Leave no memory, give phase

To fall, in giving mass my little ictus.

Be that as it may, the lyric grabs a reader’s interest by valorizing the persona of the versifier over the Virgin and for casting him as the juggler (or the manipulator of objects as the writer of poetry). To turn to another example which is not a complete poem, Peter Porter did not retell the story of the juggler, but he did allude to it in the sentence “We watch / Le Jongleur de Notre Dame perform before / His plastic Virgin.” Although this Australian did not refer to Barnaby or juggling, the connection to the ballad is palpable: the composition is entitled “Scrawled on Auden’s Napkin.”

Another word of encouragement is owed to aspiring poets who are wondering what remains to be done. The troubadours had Ezra Pound. Such canonical medieval authors as Chrétien de Troyes and Dante (to single out only a couple of other instances) have coaxed numberless lyricists into versifying medieval poetry and occasionally even into turning it into its genuine modern equivalent. In contrast, Our Lady’s Tumbler has wasted away in sometimes grimy, dog-eared books. In the versions preserved in them, the nettlesome diction that was already unnaturally archaic when they were printed in these plain-looking volumes a hundred years ago may outweigh the compensation of quaintness. The person who could follow the text of the original without slavishness but with loyalty, and who could enable its spirit and sounds to speak to us across the centuries and over the gulf between the French of the Middle Ages and the English of here and now, would do it and its eventual readers a service as great as the jongleur fulfilled for the Virgin. Mary might not ventilate him in this life as a reward, but the verse-maker who accomplished the feat of truly translating Our Lady’s Tumbler for our times would be sure to win many fans of another sort.

Music from Massenet to Peter Maxwell Davies

Jules Massenet’s feat with Le jongleur de Notre Dame both blessed and cursed the story’s subsequent fate in music. Had Richard Strauss written the opera Cosima Wagner urged upon him, or had Giacomo Puccini beaten the French composer to the punch, the destiny of the tale in the twentieth century might have looked different—and dimmer. Massenet’s day in the sun would have paled without the contributions of the awe-inspiringly hard-driving and ingeniously manipulative Mary Garden. In his handling of the theme, he was driven to no inconsequential degree by his desire to demonstrate that he could score a favorable outcome without resorting to women; he thirsted for this one triumph with no pandering to leading ladies, female opera-goers, and romantic love. But despite all his efforts, the sultry soprano tugged his creation back toward fair sex by interposing herself as the lead. Her initial ploy and subsequent gamesmanship ensured that the narrative would be propagated in the United States, certainly far more widely than if its continuance after the Frenchman had rested solely on the many little boutique volumes with English translations of the medieval Our Lady’s Tumbler that we have seen, most of them published in northern New England around the turn of the century.

The last assertion holds true even if, for the sake of argument (and in the face of all the countervailing evidence), we hypothesize that without the Scottish-American prima donna, dramatizations of Anatole France’s story would nonetheless have been enacted on the radio and television. Her operatic road trips throughout the nation belong in the context of the legendary head-to-head rivalry between Oscar Hammerstein and the Metropolitan Opera Company of New York. They set the stage, really and truly, for the dissemination of the jongleur’s juggling song-and-dance across vaudeville stages, college campuses, community and company auditoriums, and everywhere else where minor professionals and rank amateurs had a sporting chance to strut their stuff.

The 1920s saw the fame of the jongleur reach a summit, or the beginning of a drawn-out high plateau, in the United States. Let us take two different examples from 1925. To appreciate the reach that Garden’s star turns achieved, we first need do no more than glance at an activity book for children. Entitled Young Folks’ Picture History of Music, the item contains images to be cut out with scissors and glued into their proper places. A section “How Music Grew Up” concentrates on the nonecclesiastical musicians of the first thousand years of the common era. Massenet’s opera is singled out, and the picture to illustrate it shows—could there be any doubt?—the diva as the jongleur. In Europe, the French composer’s achievement almost put an end to experimentation with the theme by other musicians, as not many felt the slightest exigency to replicate, quite possibly not as artfully, what their predecessor had done already. But this is not to say that Le jongleur de Notre Dame was without influence, even though its ripples seem to have arisen more from its storyline than its music. In Germany, the First World War and expressionism brought enough of a rupture to permit experiments in adapting the tried-and-true tale. In 1921, at the very dawn of his career, Alfred Huth (see Fig. 3.37) composed his Opus 4: The Dancer of Our Dear Lady: Legendary Play in Two Acts, for Soloists, Choir, and Orchestra. By the end of 1932, this minor composer had enrolled in the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, and he remained an active member to the end of World War II. After the deep freeze of the hostilities came a long thaw that has not ended. The Nazi diktat against French and other corrupt cultures no longer applied; in fact, the postwar framework for Western Europe encouraged Franco-German amity. Its effects, amalgamated with the emphasis on the Virgin within Catholicism at the time, meant that by the early 1950s German musicians and playwrights became amenable once again to re-energizing the underutilized story of the jongleur. In two cases, it bears note that titles highlighting The Dancer of Our Blessed Lady explicitly and unprotestingly acknowledge the French pedigree of the miracle.

Fig. 3.37 Alfred Huth. Photograph by Ernst Huth, date unknown, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Those who had been active and outspoken as National Socialists in Germany could not effortlessly wash away the taint of the belief system in which they had been implicated for years. A case in point would be The Dancer of Our Blessed Lady, the libretto for a ballet in two acts by Konrad Karkosch and Ludwig Holzleitner. The first of the pair wrote his early criticism on literature, and his later mainly on film. He participated actively in the Nazification of culture, among other things as the proponent of “a biologically based Bildung—a true Volk education.”

Karkosch’s self-published script for stage, film, and television has a few features that reflect the baggage of the 1930s and the war years. For example, it makes the principal character, named Louis de Clairvaux, the leader of a dance troupe, whose crew has given him unequivocal obedience: he is in effect a Führer. The entertainers are presented as prompting a squall of protest from the monks. In effect, the two groups are pitted against each other in ideological conflict. After a long scene devoted to a balletic play about the treacherousness of luck, Louis undergoes a conversion experience and joins the brethren. Within the abbey, he feels the inadequacy that was recounted in Our Lady’s Tumbler, Anatole France, and Jules Massenet, but the three brothers who make the newcomer feel inadequate are not the artists and artisans familiar from earlier versions of the story. The second one beats his breast and wrings his hands in anguish, and the third is a flagellant who whips and welts his back with a flail. The traditional and normal focus on different types of artistic expression has metamorphosed here into something less salubrious and more violent. Remember the unspeakable turn that the tale took when retold by the Austrian author Rudolf Elmayer von Vestenbrugg. If those developments were psychopathic, this episode seems instead sociopathic.

The narrative did not necessarily suffer sinister twisting from all those who rode out the storm and lived to appropriate it after the Second World War. The account of an artist who goes into internal exile within a monastery may have appealed to many who had been through the Nazi era, giving them a way to feel as if they had resisted and struck out on their own through acts of devotion apprehensible to no one except God. Such speculation would have to be put to the test artist by artist, with uncompromising attention to their biographies—if their life stories could even be reconstructed today with sufficient granularity to justify the effort.

In France, a young Catholic artist who found a role model in the jongleur was Francis Poulenc (see Fig. 3.38). Various elements point to the early familiarity of this composer with the story. In 1918, he began drafting a piece entitled Le Jongleur for a music hall session that the writer Jean Cocteau planned for the end of the year. In 1919, the musician partially orchestrated the two-piano score he had composed, but he did not finalize the work. Eventually a composition by this name was staged in 1921, with both juggling and intricate acrobatic dancing, by the avant-gardist known as Caryathis (see Fig. 3.39). The show included a dance suite by Erik Satie that the same entertainer and choreographer also performed, in a costume designed by Jean Cocteau (see Fig. 3.40).Since none of the music survives, it remains a long haul to know whether any of the versions related closely to Our Lady’s Tumbler.

Fig. 3.38 Francis Poulenc. Photograph by Joseph Rosmand, before 1922. Miniature Essays: Francis Poulenc (London: J. & W Chester, 1922), 2.

Fig. 3.39 Poster based on a watercolor by Léon Bakst, for a 1921 dance recital by Caryathis.

Fig. 3.40 Caryathis, in a costume designed by Jean Cocteau, in a dance show that included a performance of Le Jongleur. Photograph, 1921. Photographer unknown.

In 1936, Poulenc was agitated by the gruesome death by decapitation of a close friend and fellow musician in a car wreck. Returning to the Church to which he had mostly paid no mind in the intervening years, he made a penitential pilgrimage to the Black Virgin at Rocamadour. There he had a mystical experience that inspired him to compose three Litanies to the Black Virgin of that village. After 1936, he began to compose some strictly liturgical music. In 1952 the composer undertook Dialogues of the Carmelites, but the enterprise gave him migraine-level vexation. The opera was first staged only in 1956. During the interim, he wrote to the American John Howard Griffin, and declared his despair of completing it. He asked the Texan journalist to have the Discalced Carmelite Fathers at Mount Carmel Seminary in Dallas pray for his recovery. Poulenc’s comparisons between himself and the jongleur of Notre Dame verge on being a leitmotif in his writings.

In the United States, the story had become indelible in popular and mass culture through the decades of vaudeville, radio, and live enactments by students in foreign-language teaching and other scholastic contexts, by staff members in corporate productions, and by families in domestic settings. Many such presentations have prompted the musically inclined to create their own treatments, some of which have been preserved. In the case of schools and church groups, composers and librettists have sometimes teamed up to publish versions for use by classes or congregations. Even the scripts of family stagings have been brought into print now and again. Only seldom have musicians endeavored to take the tale back up the ladder into high culture.

It speaks to the salient profile and all-inclusive reach of the narrative in the mid-1950s that just as Fred Waring incorporated his backward-looking adaptations of the episode into his variety show on television, Ulysses Kay (see Fig. 3.41) should have gravitated to The Juggler of Our Lady as the subject for a one-act opera that he composed in 1956. An African-American, he had a given name that in part would seem likely to pay tribute to Ulysses S. Grant, commanding general of the Union Army during the Civil War and prime mover in the Congressional Reconstruction. Then again, the appellation could allude directly to the hero of the Odyssey: most descendants of those who had formerly been enslaved could identify with the wily wanderer and shrewd survivor of Greek myth.

Fig. 3.41 Ulysses Kay, left foreground, at the reception after the premiere of his opera The Juggler of Our Lady at Xavier University, February 23, 1962. Xavier University of Louisiana Archives and Special Collections. Copyright by Xavier University of Louisiana. All rights reserved.

On the face of it, the story to which Kay gravitated for this opera was one far removed from, and unsoiled by, the slave era or its aftermath. He favored a neoclassical style. The Juggler of Our Lady, partly by dint of being detached from America and its history, offered its composer and librettist a free hand in dealing with the nature of veneration and art. The libretto was the creation of Alexander King. This Vienna-born US author and media personality claimed to have taken a French morality play as the basis for the dramatic action.

In the musical drama the lead is called Colin. His poverty is contrasted with the condition of two monks (see Fig. 3.42). Other characters include two street singers, one of them a boy soprano. The events unfold in 1554, in the French city of Tours. The juggler takes a suggestion from his musician to spend the night in an inn, but the host tells Colin that not a bed is free. Down the road, the minstrel finds a cloister that allows him to lodge overnight. There he endures various vicissitudes before doing fancy footwork before the statue of the Virgin, including magic tricks and playing music (see Fig. 3.43). At the end of his act, the image comes to life, and Mary flashes Colin a smile of approval and gives him a blessing (see Fig. 3.44).

Fig. 3.42 The juggler Colin and his musician are received by the monks. Ulysses Kay’s opera The Juggler of Our Lady (1956), premiere at Xavier University, February 23, 1962. Xavier University of Louisiana Archives and Special Collections. Copyright by Xavier University of Louisiana. All rights reserved.

Figs. 3.43 and 3.44 The drama unfolds within the monastery. Colin performs before the Madonna. Ulysses Kay’s opera The Juggler of Our Lady (1956), premiere at Xavier University, February 23, 1962. Xavier University of Louisiana Archives and Special Collections. Copyright by Xavier University of Louisiana. All rights reserved.

The opera lay neglected for six years before premiering in New Orleans. In a letter, Kay once offered pithily: “opera is not the medium for our time.” His thinking seems to have been spot on, as far as any broad reception for this composition of his is concerned. Still, the local response in Louisiana to the performance of his musical drama before a full house of 450, and to his own involvement as composer and guiding spirit, could not have been more enthusiastic and approving. The Juggler of Our Lady was deemed “a melodic triumph” in a front-page story in the local student paper, and a “melodic affair” in a local city daily. The heavy emphasis on the tunefulness and sonority of the work may have been a deliberate corrective to the widespread prejudice among racists that African-Americans had rhythm but not melody.

Word trickled outside the South in the African-American press. One decade after the belated 1962 opening, the musical drama was revived in 1972 in Jackson, Mississippi, to modest national fanfare. King’s libretto need not have been tailored to the experiences and sensibilities of non-white audiences. The composer makes no show of being intent on striking a blow against the segregation, disenfranchisement, and racism of the Jim Crow laws. Yet the motif of the lodging place that refuses to accommodate a would-be patron would have resonated with blacks who had to contend with housing segregated by law when traveling in the United States before the ratification of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—and by lingering custom even long afterward.

A few years after Ulysses Kay, Juan Orrego-Salas composed a ballet based on Our Lady’s Tumbler. It might be tempting to connect the initiative of this Chilean composer with the children’s story published in his homeland by the Spanish author José María Souvirón in 1942. Yet the certainty is that the narrative from the Middle Ages came to the musician’s attention when a host presented him with a copy in English during a sojourn in the United States in the early 1950s. Behind that gift stood the non-metaphoric lone-wolf killing of a child that had taken place a quarter century earlier. The murder was stranger than either the medieval fiction or the slightly later kidnapping and infanticide of Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr. in 1932. Enough suspensefulness: hear the ghastly facts about what happened in both 1953 and 1927.

While spending a few days at the home of an executive of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, Orrego-Salas found one night that a translation of Our Lady’s Tumbler had been placed on the pillow in his bedroom. After reading the tale right away, the musician was inspired by it to envisage a ballet. The next morning, his hosts responded to his enthusiasm by commissioning him to create his work in honor of the wife’s younger son by her first husband.

The boy had died as a little one about twenty-five years previously in a grisly mischance. As a hobby, his wealthy father had traded in exotic birds and boarded a menagerie of wild animals. In 1926, a leopard slipped free from its cage. Fortunately, the feline fugitive was recaptured before causing harm. The next year, a wolf that escaped from its pen turned out to be anything but a paper tiger. In a grim rampage, the escapee leapt upon the two-year-old as he played on the back lawn with the son of his parents’ live-in domestic. Both the maid’s three-year-old boy and his year-younger playmate bolted, but only the first of them reached the safety of the house. There the housekeeper’s son shrieked to his mother that a big dog was biting his friend. The childcare provider raced out to find the carnivore slinging the child in the air repeatedly and mauling him. She kicked to shoo away the creature, gathered up the youngster, and gunned down the predator with a rifle. But the deed was done. Like a fairy tale gone terribly wrong, no woodcutter arrived to effect a miraculous rescue. In this reality, the bloodthirsty beast won. More than twenty bite marks were counted on the lacerated corpse of the toddler Tommy. In one sense, that’s the end of the story.

The traumatized mother of the fatality never put the catastrophe entirely behind her. Her first marriage dissolved: it would have been hard for her not to feel that her husband had fed their boy to the wolves. She took the American corporate boss as her second spouse. Still disconsolate, she pitched herself into stitching needlepoint tapestries. As a textile artist and quilter, she formed ties with a muralist from Chile, who sewed embroideries that used colcha crewel work. Through this surrealist named Carmen Orrego-Salas, the American developed a connection with the musician.

And the little book with the translation of the medieval miracle that landed on the pillow of the Chilean composer—why would the US artist have known it and cared about it? However facile the psychologizing may seem, it can be readily imagined how the bereaved parent of a son who had been killed while still a tot would find Our Lady’s Tumbler therapeutic. The narrative has an almost medicinal potential: its balm appealed to authors who were Jews in hiding from the Nazis or other individuals in the resistance in World War II. Likewise, the tale was invoked later by the poet Adair, who made a practice of book therapy.

With the passage of decades, the mother of the boy who had been killed could have discerned in the tumbler the adult into whom her son would have grown. The story of an angelic dancer could have helped to banish the mental picture of a beastly wolf juggling a boyish preschooler. Moreover, when projecting what her lost child would have become in boisterous manhood, she could have arrested his development to retain intact all the positives of puerility. In effect, she could have juvenilized her Tommy to freeze-frame him before he could experience alcohol, sexual awakening, and other distinguishing traits and sometimes failings of grown-ups. She could have visualized him as undergoing a vague maturation that left him still sinless and physically active, simple and asexual. In Our Lady’s Tumbler and Le jongleur de Notre Dame the jongleur and the Madonna commune in silence, in some ways like children playing: in no version do the two actors speak with each other. Whatever may have motivated his benefactor, Juan Orrego-Salas threw himself into composing the orchestral score in fits and starts, taking four years to clinch it. In performance in both Chile and the United States (see Fig. 3.45 and 3.46), the resultant music bears as its title the Spanish term for tumbler or acrobat.

Fig. 3.45 The image of the Virgin with the jongleur after his collapse. Ballet Nacional Chileno, November 17, 1961, Viña del Mar, and Teatro Victoria, Santiago, April 19, 1962. Image courtesy of Juan Orrego.

Fig. 3.46 The jongleur, holding his vielle, with one of the young women serving the Virgin. Ballet Nacional Chileno, November 17, 1961, Viña del Mar, and Teatro Victoria, Santiago, April 19, 1962. Image courtesy of Juan Orrego.

After Massenet, a distant second as the most important musical work of art to deal with the story of the jongleur would be a 1978 theater piece in one act. With both music and libretto by Peter Maxwell Davies (see Fig. 3.47), the composition is entitled Le Jongleur de Notre Dame. Staging the masque requires the services of an actual mime player with the ability to juggle, as well as a chamber ensemble of flutist, clarinetist, and percussionist who play three of the brethren, a baritone who sings the abbot, and a children’s band that makes music at the beginning and end.

Fig. 3.47 Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. Photograph by the University of Salford Press Office, 2012, CC BY 2.0,

In this piece of music theater, the English composer and librettist departs from his usual practice by relating a miracle rather than sketching a character. His version of the legend, in which the juggler is truly a starving artist, focuses on the difficulties that an entertainer faces in fitting into his environment. On a higher level, it conveys what is essentially a memo that those endowed with musical talents should use and share them. As in other pieces in his oeuvre, Davies showed himself in this chamber opera to be attracted to older literature and dramatic forms, engrossed by Catholicism and ritual but revolted by the affectations of the religious, and eclectic in seeking out fountainheads of inspiration in earlier music, such as plainsong. Le Jongleur de Notre Dame was not Davies’s first foray into material relating to the Virgin.

The masque “is based on the well-known story of the starving juggler whose performing made the Virgin Mary smile.” In it, the musician presents the lead, named Mark, as a clownish mime player and juggler who enters a cloister as a neophyte. In this riff on the medieval tale, the jongleur first is humiliated for the lability of his earlier life by being assigned as janitor, washer, and cook for the brethren, and then is enjoined to leave the abbey. On the Virgin’s birthday the other three monks, portrayed as smugly self-righteous and self-satisfied, make their offerings. Mark is told that because of his past sins he cannot do the same, but nonetheless he renders a performance as an entertainer. In response to the sincerity of his artistry, the statue plays a violin solo, through which the Virgin smiles and (after a fashion) speaks. The abbot recognizes that Mary has appreciated what Brother Mark has given in humility and devotion. Beyond that appreciation, she has a special destiny in mind for her conscript. She does not want the juggler to hide his light under a bushel—or his talent in a monastery. She bids him to abandon the closed community and carry his talent into the wide world. Afterward, the leader of the cloister sends off Mark so that he may refine and share his artistic talents.

Fidelity to the internal workings of the medieval account would argue for connecting it with Our Lady. This affiliation is part of what motivated Davies to base his fifty-minute “masque” or sacred comedy on chant for the Nativity of the Virgin. This festivity is customarily celebrated in the Catholic and Anglican churches on September 8. To make the tale into a birthday party and present for Mary would make sense, since the climactic event within the narrative as it has often been recounted is the presentation of gifts to an effigy of her. He also made the Mother of God a more active agent than is usually the case, by directing that she be a violinist.

Despite the composer’s efforts to accentuate the tale’s Marian qualities, the magnetism of Christmas could not be withstood. Davies’s masque was written and scored for “The Fires of London,” the special ensemble with which he teamed up at the time. The sacred comedy premiered on June 18, 1978. The first sentence of an early review described it as “a charming music theater piece which would be especially effective during the Christmas season.” Yuletide is overpoweringly suited, it would seem, for short, traditional narratives. All the same, the holiday market is now also congested. In large part, it has been co-opted by old favorites. Our Lady’s Tumbler and Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame got their foot in the door many times, but the slippery snow of a white Christmas makes traction insecure. Yes, another chancel drama for children’s choir has come to light in the past twenty years. Yes, a Beirut-born and European-based composer has in this decade set three poems based on the story to music for soprano and organ, with a prelude of alternating clarinet and organ. Yes, the tale has been made into a one-hour musical. Yet the narrative has not received treatment in a genre with a broader reach—with the mass appeal that the story once commanded, in the golden age of short story, opera, and radio. These days it hides in plain sight, having had much past success, remaining extant in a few beautiful renditions, but not being widely known. What lies ahead? What will the juggler make his next act?