The Play

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1141

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As The Ceremony of Innocence opens, a procession of chanting monks crosses the stage, which represents a monastery. It is Christmas Day, 1013. In a few minutes, the serenity is broken by a loud knocking and the entrance of three leading characters—nobles Kent and Sussex and an English bishop, who have come to seek audience with King Ethelred. For reasons yet to be determined, the king has isolated himself in this out-of-the-way religious institution on the Isle of Wight, while his presence is urgently needed on the English mainland: An invasion by the Danes is expected within the week.

As the emissaries wait for the abbot, sharp words are exchanged, and their disparate characters are delineated. The impetuous, soldierly Sussex complains of the trouble they are taking and states that he can defend his own shire without the king’s help. The more diplomatic but equally acerbic Kent calls him a fool for thinking he can best the Danes without the king’s army. The bishop temporizes between the two.

When the abbot appears, they urge him to bring the king to meet them. The scene shifts to the king’s cell, where the abbot urges Ethelred to see his visitors. The king, however, is lost in melancholy reflections and, when told that the men have pressing business, replies in a way that foretells the movement of the play: “The world moves forward day by day while time moves backward memory by memory through me.”

The story now returns to the previous winter at King Ethelred’s castle, where a truce is being negotiated with King Sweyn of the Danes. The bulk of the play, then, will be reminiscences of the previous year which will gradually explain the abrupt retirement of Ethelred from the court and his attitude of unrelieved pessimism. In exchange for money, King Sweyn has agreed to cease his depredations against England and as surety will leave his fifteen-year-old daughter Thulja with the English. Although Kent and the churchmen support the plan, many voices are raised against it. Sussex finds it a blot on England’s honor to pay tribute to outlaws. Ethelred’s family also abhors the idea. His wife, Queen Emma, considers the Danes animals who should be tied to stakes and burned like candles, while his mother Alfreda believes that war is necessary to keep the restive populace occupied. In the king’s argument with his mother, dynastic history and one reason for Ethelred’s love of peace are discussed. While still a boy, Ethelred had worshiped his otherworldly, impractical stepbrother, King Edward, a saintly man who was unsuspecting enough to be murdered by Ethelred’s mother in a plot to advance her son to the throne. Ethelred’s life has been tortured by the knowledge that he gained power through the murder of the one person he had admired.

The only bright spots in this act are provided by the childish talk of Thulja as she displays the clothes she has brought for her visit and as she touchingly takes leave of her father. An innocent, she can understand the evil in men’s hearts even less than can Ethelred, and she is taken aback when the king’s son Edmund rejects her friendly overtures. Edmund feels insulted by the paid-for peace and, as soon as he is left alone with Thulja, he begins rifling and then ripping up her clothes. The scene ends with a confrontation between Ethelred, who stops the wanton destruction, and his son. He tells the boy he will not let him interfere: “You will help me hold this truce, Edmund.”

Act 2 moves ahead to August of the following year. It is late, but the king is still in counsel with Kent and the bishop concerning his plans to rebuild and strengthen the kingdom during this time of peace. Ethelred’s ambitions include not only teaching the peasants to read and supporting scholars, but equipping an Italian with a ship to sail on a voyage of discovery. Unfortunately, his ideas have garnered complaints from some that were originally in favor of the peace but now believe that he is wasting money; the Church, meanwhile, is not happy that the people are being educated. After his advisers retire, Ethelred is visited by Thulja, who cannot sleep. Her concern for the Italian who is to make the voyage of adventure appears as a sign of human goodness to the overburdened king.

The mood is abruptly broken by a scene that departs from the relatively realistic staging of the plot thus far. Edmund stands with a battle-ax on a darkened, raised portion of the stage both acting out and narrating how he has murdered four Danish farmers. (Some Danes have been granted the privilege of holding land in England.) Edmund states that they challenged his right to cross a bridge and then raised their hands against him, although they were unarmed. A number of characters give their opinions on the justice of the act. Ethelred feels that the villainy of Edmund should be openly admitted to the Danes, but he acquiesces to the advice that they describe the deaths as an accident for which compensation will be paid.

Danish ambassador Thorkill appears to hear the details of the case. Although the bishop and Ethelred try to placate him and put the best construction on events, Edmund’s contemptuous and patronizing remarks infuriate the emissary. When Edmund tauntingly offers Thorkill a purse, insinuating that he will prefer that to the lives of his countrymen, the ambassador abruptly ends the session. Edmund menacingly pursues him, and Thorkill turns and kills the prince.

The constantly accelerating action now moves to the cathedral where Edmund’s funeral is being conducted. Kent is alone with Thulja, whom he is about to remove to a place of safety. The king and his family appear, and Queen Emma begins abusing the girl, accusing her of having slept with everyone in the palace. The enraged king loses control of himself and begins slapping his wife; while he is distracted, Alfreda steps forward and kills the girl.

The play then returns, moving full circle, to the three visitors awaiting the king. The king enters and greets them, but instead of listening to their pleas he talks of the plans he had made in the days of peace. When he chides Kent for not responding, the hardened Kent tells him to forget the past: “We are now fixed into these killings or else become bystanders to England’s extinction. We are set to our duty though the cause be rotten.”

The king’s response is sad and broken. The innocent Danish girl has been slaughtered by these madmen, and he no longer wants any part of this world or its schemes. The three leave, disgruntled and unhearing, pledging themselves to war and victory.

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 620

Ribman’s theater is one of supercharged contrasts. The play opens with a vivid juxtaposition as the quiet chanting of the monks celebrating Christmas is quickly followed by the noisy entrance of three harbingers of war. Ribman sharpens these contrasts with a number of simple devices. He uses dissolves (the fading out of one scene while the next fades in) to make a smooth transition between moments of maximum contrast. He moves by way of a dissolve, for example, from the tender midnight colloquy between Thulja and Ethelred to Edmund’s brutal and unrepentant narration of his cold-blooded murders. With this technique the dramatist underscores the transience of moments of quiet and sanity.

Within individual scenes, contrasts are heightened by adept staging. This is particularly evident in the manner in which violence occurs unexpectedly on the periphery of the audience’s attention. In a medium such as film, where the viewer’s gaze is directed by the camera, it would be difficult to deliver this type of surprise, but in a play, where the audience can survey the whole scene, it is possible for it to miss the beginning of an important action. When Thorkill quits his confrontation with Edmund, for example, it would seem that the action is over and the play will move to another setting and development. Instead, at this moment of relaxed attention, Edmund is stabbed at the corner of the stage. An even better example occurs in the cathedral. Both Ethelred and the audience are distracted by the contretemps with his wife when the Queen Mother strikes. By this blocking, the playwright suggests that violence is waiting to uncoil at any moment.

Furthermore, the play is structured on a pair of contrasts. On one hand, there is the geographical and thematic contrast between the turbulent, bustling court which stands at the center of the country’s activities and the isolated monastery, a place of unchanging ritual and withdrawn contemplation, where the play begins and ends. On the other hand, there is the division between the realistic staging of most of the play (both at the court and at the monastery) and the abbreviated series of monologues that interrupts this realism when Edmund slays the farmers. In a half-light Edmund tells what he has done, and a spotlight moves from character to character, leaving the rest of the playing area black, as they pass judgment on what has happened. This murder is the first break in the chain of events that has led to and maintained peace and so is starkly contrasted with events before and after.

Amid all these contrasts, there is one constant—perhaps Ribman’s strongest distinguishing mark as a writer—the tempered, graceful use of language. In keeping with the unlettered, simple concerns of the historical period he presents, the language is unadorned and blunt, yet it is still flexible. When King Sweyn is telling his daughter how to act among the English, he hints at the very flexibility of Ribman’s usage: “You . . . must not confuse their habit of blunt speech as a sign that they are not concealing something. When people prize bluntness as a virtue, they soon learn to conceal things bluntly.” Into his characters’ rough-hewn speech, Ribman incorporates many subtleties and metaphors. A brilliant example of his homely use of comparisons occurs at the end of the piece when Kent and Sussex have finally agreed on what actions England should take. Kent points out, “We are all of one mind here. In spite of different paths we have come to this common fork.” The dramatist’s use of this pure, unsullied language adds to the clarity with which he portrays the contrasting worldviews of his characters in conflict.


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Sources for Further Study

Bennetts, Leslie. “Ronald Ribman Writes of a Violent World.” New York Times, March 6, 1983, pp. 4-5.

Bock, Hedwig, and Albert Wertheim, eds. Essays on Contemporary American Drama. Munich: M. Hueber, 1981.

Brustein, Robert. “The Journey and Arrival of a Playwright.” The New Republic 151 (May 7, 1966): 31-34.

Clurman, Harold. “Theatre.” Nation 206 (January 15, 1969): 92-93.

Cohn, Ruby. “Narrower Straits: Ribman, Rabe, Guare, Manet.” In New American Dramatists, 1960-1980. New York: Grove Press, 1982.

Oliver, Edith. “Off Broadway.” The New Yorker 43 (January 6, 1968): 68-69.

Weales, Gerald. “Ronald Ribman.” In Contemporary Dramatists. 6th ed. Chicago: St. James Press, 1999.


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