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Descendants of the original Glastonbury cast are playing this Christmas in Eager Heart, the nativity play written by Alice Buckton of Chalice Well a century ago.
Reg and Ina Joce played Joseph and Mary in about 1913; this year’s Joseph is their grandson Byron. Lisa Whitcombe Kirle plays the title role of Eager Heart; her great-grandfather Dudley Mills was Buckton’s general factotum.
The performance at Strode Theatre on December 16 by the Miracles at Glastonbury theatre company, directed by Bill Wych, is possibly the first full British production since the war.
The historian Tim Hopkinson-Ball will talk about the background of the play before the performance.
An annual tradition since 1933 — in Kansas!
However, a touring American group played Eager Heart in Glastonbury Town Hall last year on December 29. I had several surprises — not least, that the play was not stilted as I had been led to expect but that its earnest language and naive style carried emotional power like the medieval mystery plays.
Talking to the players afterwards I was amazed on several counts. They were from Kansas, of all places: Southwestern College, Winfield. Furthermore, the college first performed this play in 1933 and Eager Heart has appeared there every Christmas ever since. The lead role — Eager Heart — is such an honour at the college that the rest of the company elects the player whose own character befits it.
In 1950 a fire destroyed one of the campus buildings and all the Eager Heart scripts. But the teacher who had directed the play for 17 years wrote it out from memory, and the tradition carried on unbroken.
An internet search in 2007 led to contact between the college and Chalice Well, which inspired the tour of England last year. There is talk of another visit from Kansas to Glastonbury in 2013 to mark the centenary of Alice Buckton’s buying the Chalice Well.
She was a prolific writer and enlisted local people to perform in her pageants of Glastonbury lore. Five years ago a 1922 silent film of one of them was rediscovered and restored (Newsletter 110). However, during her lifetime her best known work by far was Eager Heart. She died in 1944; her memorial is in St John’s Church near the south door.