From the Executive Director
Wisconsin Humanities Council

Let the WHC be your travel agent

In September of last year, in Madison, my wife and I saw a performance of Hildegard of Bingen's Ordo Virtutem. Written in Latin and set to Hildegard's own music, the Ordo Virtutem is often described as the earliest medieval morality play. It tells the story of a human soul drawn away from the practice of virtue by the devil but finally restored by the more powerful grace of God. A Wisconsin Humanities Council grant had made possible Edgewood College's year-long celebration of the 900th anniversary of HildegardŐs birth and this performance of her play was the culminating event. I had more than just a proprietary interest in whether the WHC's money had been well spent. Several years ago, as a young scholar of medieval drama, my first published article had included two pages of discussion of the Ordo Virtutem. I had read the text several times, but I had never before had an opportunity to see the play performed and had therefore been looking forward to this evening for several months.

At a workshop earlier in the day, the four Hildegurls had discussed their goals They had tried to stage a dialogue with the original words and music They wanted Hildegard's voice to be heard, but they also wanted to engage their own voices with hers.They had therefore played with Hildegard's music, feeding it through computerized electronics so and at other times fiercely modern. The virtues had become disembodied voices speaking over loudspeakers mounted in the ceiling. The devil was the only character who spoke rather than sang his words (the devil, Hildegard wrote, lacks the capacity for music). The triumph of the virtues in the final act was a joyous rock and roll party.

The effect was stunning. My wife and I were deeply moved, powerfully engaged, if you like, in thinking medieval thoughts in a postmodern idiom or in subjecting late twentieth-century emotions to the discipline of a brilliant medieval mind.

Now, modern directors of medieval drama face a choice. They can either aim at a close approximation of the play's original mode of staging or they can use aggressively modern staging methods in the hope of reproducing in a late twentieth-century audience the kind of effect that the play might have had on its original audience. They can, in short, be archaic or anachronistic. The Hildegurls of New York City, the group of four women composers and singers responsible for the Edgewood production, chose the latter course.

Travel beyond the confines of the familiar and exposure to the best public humanities programs are not unlike the Hildegurls' performance of the Ordo Virtutem. We don't leave our own identities behind when we cross a national boundary or enter an exhibit hall. Nor, if we are wise, do we insist that the other's country, narrative, ideas, or vision so resemble ours that we feel completely at home. Travel and the humanities, done well, engage us in genuine dialogue with other worlds, other times, other places, and other voices.



Is travel safe? Not always. But, if you like the excitement of encountering new ideas, we can be your travel agent. Check out the WHC Events Calendar. There are a lot of destinations from which to choose!

—Max Harris

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Kitty Brazelton, bandleader

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