The Fool as Healer

Posted by Washington Revels
August 30, 2019

For September’s Directors’ Blog post, we thought we’d look back once more through our original Revelations newsletter, which ran in print from 1987-2006. We came across this timely article that was featured in the Fall 1992 installment — the first year that Washington Revels produced the “Celestial Fools” show you’ll see this December! Written by Elizabeth Lloyd (Lisby) Mayer of California Revels in 1991, it speaks to the role of the Fool in medieval society and the lessons that the Fool’s wisdom held for us in the twentieth  century— and still holds in the twenty-first. And while not every Christmas Revels show has featured a Fool in the year’s following Lisby’s article, we think the magic she describes will certainly be on display this year.

One of the great healing figures in every culture is the figure of the Fool. As shaman, jester, trickster, or clown, the Fool’s wisdom is to see beyond human limitations — limitations of the body as well as of the mind and spirit. The Fool defies convention and in that defiance lie both his medicine and his magic. The Fool re-defines what is possible.

In folk plays from all over the world, Fool characters have power over life and death; they bring healing when nothing else can. In the English mumming tradition, the Doctor, with all his science and all his study, never succeeds in reviving the slain hero. That is Fool’s work. While he makes the audience laugh, the Fool foretells the magic that his foolery brings:

St. George shall come and die by swords
Which circle round his neck;
As Winter dies, so shall he die,
And rise as Spring again!

In twentieth-century America, we lack a culture of the Fool. We work hard at everything and we take life seriously, whether it’s making money or leisure activity or keeping our bodies and souls in top condition. We have few rituals that remind us to laugh at ourselves and to recognize how little we know, how little we really are able to control.

Harvey Cox, the Harvard theologian, describes how, in medieval times, a festival known as the Feast of Fools flourished throughout Europe. The Feast of Fools served to remind people that laughter and nonsense mattered. Hilarity, irreverence, and audacity were the order of the day as choirboys turned in prelates, servants became lords, and fools reigned as kings. Cox mourns the passing of the Feast of Fools in Western culture. He sees a renewal of its spirit as the key to healing our alienation from ourselves and from each other.

These days we also hear other voices like Norman Cousins, Bernie Siegal, Joan Borysenko, and those emerging from the new science of psycho-neuroimmunology. They remind us that laughter and lightness of spirit benefit our bodies. They tell us to defy prognoses, to challenge preconceptions, to be exceptions, to expect the extraordinary. Like Cox, they are prescribing the wisdom of the Fool.

Cox suggests that, little by little, the Fool may be finding his (or quite likely, her) way back into our culture. Perhaps the Revels are one place this is happening. Through every Revels production, the figure of the Fool runs like a thread. Every Christmas, Revels audiences watch that brief but extraordinary moment when the Fool turns nature back on itself, breathing life into the dead hero and turning Winter back to Spring.

This year, the figure of the Fool takes center stage, and we celebrate the Fool’s astonishing variety. Geoff Hoyle [veteran interpreter of the Fool, who played the Sun Fool in California Revels’ 1991 production of “Celestial Fools”] describes that all this variety has a simple purpose: “The Fool strips away our preconceptions so that we can see the world as it might be.”

Increasingly, twentieth-century medicine teaches us that this stripping away, this seeing ourselves as we might be, is the essence of healing. Perhaps, too, this process of seeing ourselves as we might be describes the essence of what Revels is all about.

—Elizabeth Lloyd (Lisby) Mayer

Lisby Mayer was associate clinical professor at the Medical School of the University of California, San Francisco, and in the Department of Psychology, U.C. Berkeley. She was also the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Bay Revels [now California Revels]. Her article was reprinted in Revelations from Revels Inc.’s 1992 program by popular request.

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