It is eerie to remember that just one year ago, on March 8, 2020, I went to review “The Amateurs” at the Olney Theatre Center. I attended with a close friend and fellow theatre buff. We did note that Montgomery County, where the theater is located, had recorded a few isolated cases of Covid-19. There were some empty seats that might have been attributed to the small outbreak and some people’s reluctance to go into an enclosed building and sit next to strangers. The play focused on an acting troupe that performed Morality Plays during “The Black Death,” or bubonic plague, the scourge of Europe in the Middle Ages. It illustrated how they, and other populations, dealt with the disease.
Little did we know one week later, the number of Covid-19 cases would tick up so quickly that our state would start shutting down. In Howard County where we live, the mall would close exactly one week later. Theaters would stop performing. People would start isolating. If someone had written a script about a reviewer whose last play before this pandemic would depict one of the worst pandemics of all time, you would think it was farfetched. But that is exactly what happened.
There are many parallels between the plague and our present circumstances, as well as some clear differences. People in the Middle Ages knew they could catch the disease from each other, but did not actually know how it was transmitted, which was through fleas and lice. No one at the time comprehended the importance of sanitization and personal hygiene. Most did not wash or bath regularly. They had no hope of a vaccine or cure. There were no antibiotics or antivirals. That is why there were so many more deaths.
Some thought the Black Death was diabolical and that Jews were responsible. There has been a sharp rise of anti-Semitism in this past year, both nationally and internationally. People in the Middle Ages observed that Jews did not catch the disease as much as Christians. This was due in part because the Jewish faith has more rituals about hand washing, and they bury their dead quickly. The latter prevented fleas from jumping from the corpses onto mourners. Another notable similarity is that the wealthy were less affected by the disease because they were able to isolate in their castles. In one scene during the “The Amateurs,” the troupe performs for a nobleman who watches from his palace window. His assistant is the one sent to meet with the group.
The troupe had to deal with death, birth, and illness in its own midst. In the end, the actors depicted in the play help each other through kindness and their own humanity. While many had become terrified of outsiders, they open their arms to a stranger in trouble.
During this pandemic, we have heard many stories of those who helped neighbors and strangers alike. They donate food or work at food banks, give to front line medical staff, and a myriad of other good deeds. With the economic gap widening, today’s wealthy populations like those in the Middles Ages, have been able to shield themselves from the ravages of the pandemic in their modern day “castles.” Sadly, some jump the line for vaccines. There are also those who hinder aid or do not support something so simple and scientifically proven as wearing a mask to protect themselves and others. During the Black Death, doctors were the most vulnerable and most died from the disease. It is reminiscent of our own front line medical workers, many of whom have had died saving others and fighting for PPE.
“The Amateurs” was originally a parable about the AIDS epidemic. Although 675,000 died from AIDS and about 13,000 still die from it every year, the rates of COVID-19 deaths have dwarfed that number by comparison. In three years, the plague killed 25 to 50 million in Europe alone and over 200 Jewish communities were destroyed. At that time, it was a third of the population.
The other takeaway from the play was that theater lives on despite everything. People don’t give up hope for tomorrow. They pick up from the ashes and civilization blooms again. As we see the end in sight, or at least better days, we are starting to ask when theaters will reopen. In New York City, they will open soon on a limited basis. We also have movies, television, streaming services, YouTube, and even Zoom to inform as well as entertain us. The performing arts have continued to adapt and have outlets, albeit not in person.
The characters in “The Amateurs” learn things are more bearable if you care for others. This applies today, if every person cared for the rest of society by following safety protocols outlined by the scientific and medical communities. These were not options during the Black Death. We can thank modern medicine and vaccines for not allowing this pandemic wipe out 60% of London and 80% of Florence like the plague of the Middle Ages. However, if we don’t learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.
Olney Theatre Center will be presenting their own look back on Monday, March 15, 2021 at 7:00 p.m. To RSVP for this pay-what-you-can program and to see this poignant discussion with clip from the show, click here. For more information about virtual performances and lectures from the Olney Theatre Center, click this link. To help support Olney, you can also donate when you RSVP or go to this link.
Read Susan Brall’s original review from March 9, 2020 here.