The Story of "The Pilgrim's Progress"
By David Simpich
Our performance theme this year is The Anchor. John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress has been a strong rope tied to this Anchor for me since I first discovered this story while researching Abraham Lincoln’s life for a potential marionette play. Apparently, it was a strong rope for him too. In fact, I was so taken by this narrative I dropped my plans for the Lincoln show and almost overnight committed to producing my own adaptation of Christian’s journey from the City of Destruction to The Celestial Gate. There was so much that resonated for me in this work—it completely moved in and took over—and the larger than life characters seemed so “fit” for the marionette stage. (Lincoln did show up, however, two years later in my play, Portraits—in retrospect, a much better place for him to take stage in my work.)
As I started out I really only examined the popular details of what inspired Bunyan to write The Pilgrim’s Progress back in the 1670s: A English tinker by trade, he was imprisoned for preaching The Gospel—his masterpiece wrought in a tiny cell, eventually published, and in really a short period of time becoming one of most prevalent and beloved books ever written. It’s never been out of print and continues to influence Christendom—and popular culture—with its rich imagery and keen insight.
It’s a well-known fact that Bunyan’s almost unearthly knowledge and understanding of Scripture is the foundation of his narrative (i.e. the saying: Prick John Bunyan and he bleeds The Bible). However, my wife, Debby, and I just recently discovered some information on the imaginative and structural development of this story that we found fascinating—and really brought this story into a new light.
Apparently, Bunyan had “a route” he took by foot on his frequent travels from his home in the village of Bedford to London. One might call it the very “circuit” he was forced to leave behind when he was imprisoned—for it was along this route that Bunyan preached and regularly proclaimed the message of Christ and His Cross. Scholars have studied this route and, interestingly, most of the features described in The Pilgrim’s Progress have a corresponding topographical “place” along this course. The large field just outside Bedford is perfectly imagined as the place where Christian first sets out on his journey. The swampy area just beyond become The Slough of Despond. The ridged cliffs that overhang the road become Mount Sinai, the small wooden entrance to the Elstow Church could be the inspiration for The Wicket Gate. The Houghton House, now in ruins, becomes The Palace Beautiful; the Millbrook gorge is the Valley of the Shadow of Death; and the list goes on and on, finally reaching London, the great city and parallel to the Celestial City.
When I first read of these interesting geographical counterparts in England, a bell from my own imaginative enterprises resounded loudly. It seems there is always a foundation, a model, a blueprint which holds us to the course; that establishes our true understanding of the world around us; and helps us to express truthfully, with common landmarks, the road we share together. Back in 1997 when I set about to build my production of The Pilgrim’s Progress, I decided that since the narrative is “a dream” to set it in a somewhat imaginary locale with my characters dressed in fanciful medieval garb rather than the Puritan dress of Bunyan’s time. I also created an array of theatrical “doors” rather than realistic settings. No regrets there. It’s a timeless story. The dream IS fantastic and creates its own world. But how I appreciate knowing more of Bunyan’s route to London and how it inspired him. How it made him the man he was, really. A man on the road.
Most importantly, I have found and continue to find The Anchor, the timeless Ancient of Days, Bunyan extends to his audience so brilliantly, insightfully, and poignantly through his great story. The rope is strong and sure. Christ’s Cross is at the very crossroads of all the roads we’ve traveled. And the journey home.