In 1963 Professor Paul Piehler of the Cal Berkeley English Department came to KPFA with a remarkable proposition. His graduate Middle English seminar included a couple of PhD candidates who had some theatrical experience and, knowing that KPFA was prepared to attempt anything, he thought it would be fun to present a radio adaptation of The Towneley Play of Noah in Middle English. It wasn’t such a wild idea; the play came from a tradition of public performances as popular as the Commedia del Arte, and if performed in that same spirit with a suitable introduction rather than as a mere scholarly exercise, it just might work.
As an undergrad in UC Berkeley’s English Department I had read Chaucer for my senior paper under the remarkable Alain Renoir, so the idea appealed to me enormously and I immediately accepted his intriguing offer. Under Professor Piehler’s direction, the cast had already been working on it and were so well prepared that recording it went much faster than I had anticipated. After a day in the studio I was left with the editing and the production. There was no budget for searching out and recording music of the place and period, so I borrowed freely from Michael Praetorius’ Terpsichorean Dances on DG Archiv, which totally made up in spirit what they lacked in historical authenticity.
The Towneley Play of Noah Adapted and directed by Paul Piehler, Produced by John Whiting
Here is the TEXT in a version close to that which we recorded.
Our efforts were so successful that two years later Professor Piehler came to us with an even more ambitious project, three-and-a-half hours devoted to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, including an introduction and running synopsis. This time there would be a larger cast and we were able to include original music composed by our young music department assistant Peter Winkler, who would go on to a distinguished career as both scholar and composer. KPFA was always a fertile nursery!
Adapted and Directed by Paul Piehler, Produced by Jack Nessle, Technical Production by John Whiting, Music by Peter Winkler. Cast: Karigan Prescott, Paul Piehler, Julie Lavder, Arnold Henderson, Larry Robbins
The original manuscript can be viewed HERE
Sir Gawain went on the air just before Christmas and was such a success that for years it featured annually in our Christmas programming. Elitist? You betcha! That year our subscription drive included a PLUG offering sex and violence in Middle English!