June 18, 1951 | Filed under:

YORK’S FESTIVAL TRIUMPH

A fortnight of imperishable memories

By WALTER FIELDHOUSE, Our Chief Correspondent at York

ACCLAIMED a triumphant success, York’s Festival of the Arts ended last night leaving the big questions: will the festival be held again, and will the Mystery Plays be allowed to return to the dust which covered them for four centuries?

When the Board of the Festival Society meets on Wednesday to receive preliminary reports and to discuss those two points they will have ringing in their ears the fervent pleas voiced time and again during the past fortnight for the Festival and the plays to become a regular feature in the life of the city.

York’s contributions to the festival of Britain achieved a success far greater than the expectations of the organisers. The chairman of the Arts Council, Sir Ernest Pooley, described it as”unsurpassable,” Sir Gerald Barry, Director-General of the Festival, as “tremendous”; and the chairman of the York Society, Mr. A. S. Rymer told me last night that they would not need to draw upon the £12,000 guaranteed by the Arts council and the York Corporation to the extent that had at first been estimated.

Wherein lies the success of the festival which leaves behind it memories of stirring scenes, a feast of music and drama, pageantry and traditional ceremonial, of glories of the past we lived, of a city flower-decked and floodlit and of courteous citizens proud of their city and anxious to please?

The setting

First, there is the setting, with the Minster, architecture of every period wonderfully preserved, the picturesque streets, the walls and the Bars, the river and the remains of St. Mary’s Abbey in the grounds of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society. These would not exist today but for the civic pride and the keen interest taken in the old and beautiful by public-spirited citizens who have succeeded sometimes in the face of bitter opposition, in preserving York as it is today, though much has gone.

Today those citizens are organised and though the Corporation as at present constituted may be just as anxious as they are to preserve old buildings, it has not always been so and may not be again. Their organisations – the Civic Trust, the Georgian society, the Archaeological and Architectural Society – are able to exert a considerable influence by strength of knowledge and membership. And there are the Guild Companies, with their ancient halls, who also have contributed towards the reputation of the city in its architecture and its pageantry.

Integrated into the life of the city was the Festival programme, with the Minster, the buildings, the streets and the men in them, and the river just as much a part as were the world-famous orchestras, the artists and the choirs. Every minute of the day the city proclaimed the atmosphere of Festival and every man, woman and child seemed part of it, as if crowd scenes had been specifically planned and cast.

The people’s part

Many festivals might as well be held in secret

for all the outward signs that exist. In York’s the people collaborated wholeheartedly, and many appreciative letters have flowed into the city commenting on the courtesy, kindness and helpfulness of people in all walks of life – taxi drivers who have expounded the history of the city to visitors, hotel staffs who have sought to meet every need, guides who given their services voluntarily, shop assistants and office workers who felt that they themselves were also on show. The spontaneous response of the people of York in private and in business has been one of the most gratifying features of the Festival.

When plans were first laid two years ago the Artistic Director, Mr. Keith Thomson, set out to let York tell its own story. How far his plan succeeded could be seen in the large crowds which waited every evening to see the proclamation of the Mystery Plays by a mounted herald with attendant halberdiers, the guard-mounting ceremonies and the medieval street criers. Crowds have been a remarkable feature of the Festival. They were enormous on the opening day, and the exhibitions and displays were thronged as soon as they were opened, but day by day the impossible seemed to be achieved as their numbers continued to increase.

Queues for museums

The unusual sight of long winding queues waiting to enter museums and exhibitions, which during the fortnight were seen by over 120,000 people, became accepted as normal. At the castle Museum, where there were about 40,000 visitors, attendants were stationed in the galleries to ask visitors to move along to make room for those waiting outside. The railway exhibition, with early locomotives and the latest express vying for popularity with the Royal coaches of four queens, attracted 47,590 visitors including 15,628 children.

Bringing to life the fine half-timbered St. William’s College, the Women’s Institutes’ exhibition of Grandmothers’ Treasures was seen by 19,790 in 12 days, with the record of 2,147 on the last day. The collection of civic, ecclesiastical and Guild records, in itself unique, displayed in the Public Library and the exhibition of paintings from great Yorkshire houses in the Art Gallery also attracted visitors in their thousands. At the five exhibitions the total attendance was about 140,000.

The Mystery Plays

As was confidently predicted from the very first, the revival of the York Cycle of Mystery Plays for the first time since the 16th Century was the great discovery of the Festival, a never to be forgotten experience which might prove to be an outstanding feature of the entire Festival of Britain.

The setting in the grounds of St. Mary’s Abbey with the ruin’s atmosphere of monastic peace cast its own spell. The moving simplicity of the Bible stories, the deep significance of the trenchant dialogue and the movements of the players enthralled every audience. There were great personal triumphs for Dr. J. S. Purvis, who revised the original script and made the production possible; for the producer Mr.

Joseph O’Conor, who played Christ; Mr. J. van Eyssen as Lucifer and 17-year-old Mary Urea as the Virgin.

Many impressions contribute to the captivating impact of the plays: still evenings, the gradually fading light of the sun setting behind the Abbey, the evensong of the birds, the polite welcome and attention of the stewards, the reverence of the audience, the restrained and subtle use of lighting and the total avoidance of artificial effect.

Typical scenes

In the city there were many impressions of England on holiday, typical scenes which enriched the pageantry and ceremonial. There were the quiet dignity with which the great crowds watched the processions of the opening day entering the Minster, the pride with which visitors picked out the dignitaries of their towns in the procession of 27 civic heads, the brilliant summer day when the Duchess of Gloucester found her way by her own charm into the hearts of everyone. With their warm regard for the capital of the county and their enthusiastic appreciation of good music, the old and the picturesque, Yorkshire folk gave York the wholehearted support that emphasised the triumph of the Festival.

Towering over all was the majesty of the Minster, floodlit by night with the soft glow of gas lamps, treating kindly the scarred face of the West Front and the twin beams of searchlights picking out the Central tower as a beacon for miles around – an impressive setting for the major concerts with audiences of between 3,000 and 4,000 filling the nave and transepts.

In a setting of world-famous beauty and the atmosphere of 13 centuries of history the festival opened there. Great orchestras and choirs exploited to the full the feeling which momentous occasions engendered and the new and untried acoustics that the Minster offered. And there the Festival officially closed on Saturday evening with the Lord Mayor and the Corporation walking in state through great crowds to the West Front to meet the Minster clergy. With the bells pealing and a military band playing the National Anthem, the guard presented arms – an appropriate ending to a glorious fortnight.

Plea for revival

But memories of the Festival will linger on and a plea for a revival will be strongly urged. Endowed with a unique heritage, York, by no means a rich city, has a great obligation to the country and the world in the preservation of its ancient relics. Sacrifices have been made and will have to be made in the future to permit the devotion of resources the preservation and renovation of historic buildings. Unless part of the burden is borne by the wider shoulders of the nation the attraction of tourists in great numbers is the only way in which the city can offset this form of expenditure. Nothing could have done more to encourage visitors to the city in years ahead than the Festival.

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