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Ian Anderson's lyrics for Jethro Tull's 'A Passion Play
  Mark Ridley, Derek Small, Max Quad, Ben Rossington, John Tetrad


As the audience take their seats: INSTRUMENTAL: 'Lifebeats'

Performed live in 1973, The Play began with a special film.

Overture INSTRUMENTAL: 'Prelude'

On the first 'stab' of Prelude, the ballerina danced THROUGH the mirror. On the second 'stab', the band appeared in a flash, followed by Ian. Recalling this from the 21 May Nashville show, Allen Welty-Green believes he was 'just prancing about' and the band were miming until the main melody began.


Scene: A winter's morning in the cemetery. A group of mourners stand around a grave. As the curtain rises, RONNIE, a ghost, rises from the grave and joins the congregation, listening to his own eulogy. The audience only hear RONNIE's soliloquy, 'The Silver Cord'.

"Do you still see me even here?" An enigmatic beginning. Who is Ronnie asking? One interpretation may be God - the only one likely to be able to see the incorporeal Ronnie. I'm a little uneasy about this idea. Mathie interprets the line as "Is there nowhere I can go and be unseen by you?", but from subsequent events, I don't get the impression that Ronnie is someone who thought God was watching anyway.
Alternatively, he may be addressing the funeral congregation. Personally, I favour this one, not least because it neatly leads on to the next-but-one line.
Yet another interpretation might be that Ronnie is directly addressing the audience, checking he has our attention before proceeding ("can you hear me, Mother?"). This fits the context of APP being a 'stage musical' or, indeed, a traditional Passion play, but otherwise I don't ascribe much weight to the idea.
(The silver cord lies on the ground.) The cord linking Ronnie's astral and physical bodies has been severed.
"And so I'm dead", the young man said Having received no reply to his earlier question, and seeing the link to his mortal body is gone, Ronnie resigns himself to his situation.
over the hill (not a wish away). 'Over the hill' is slang for 'past his best'.
Ronnie has to accept the finality of death. Rather than a sentimental, fairy tale 'over the hill and far away', from whence a wish would bring him back, this is It. The End.
My friends (as one) all stand aligned In a formal group round his grave, united in paying their respects. Or are they attending the funeral merely because it's the 'done thing', the behaviour expected by polite society? They might even be there to be seen by their peers, to GAIN respect and to align themselves with people potentially useful to their careers. That may be overly cynical; A.2, s.1 suggests Ronnie had several close friends, so their intentions were probably genuine.
although their taxis came too late. They attend his funeral, but didn't make the effort to see him much while he was alive - maybe he was in hospital, but they didn't visit until it was too late.
Carsten Bergmann sees it more simply as his friends having been delayed by heavy traffic, mentioned in the next line.
There was / a rush along the Fulham Road. Back to the top of the page
There was / a hush in the Passion Play. People's lives pause for a moment, to say goodbye to Ronnie at his funeral. In the context of scene one, I read 'the Passion Play' as 'everyday life - bustling; thrilling; humdrum'. See also Genesis' "The Lamb...", where I feel the 'it' of the final track refers to the many aspects of daily life.
It's been suggested that the 'rush' of the previous line may be that of the funeral congregation leaving, as soon as social decency permits, with the 'hush' of this line referring to Ronnie's sudden solitude - life goes on, without him. However, I feel that the self-analysis of the next few lines takes place while the funeral is still going on, Ronnie's thoughts inspired by listening to the priest and his friends speak about him.
Such a sense of glowing in the aftermath Ronnie reflects on his life with a degree of satisfaction.
ripe with rich attainments all imagined He thinks of all the achievements of his life - and realises that he might have exaggerated their significance a little.
sad misdeeds in disarray In fact, much of his life was a muddle of
the sore thumb screams aloud, The clearest, most vivid memories are of his mistakes, regrets and disappointments.
echoing out of the Passion Play. His doubts are confirmed (echoed) by the words of those still in the Passion Play i.e. alive.
All the old familiar choruses come crowding in a different key: As Ronnie hears the events of his life recounted, he reviews them from a different perspective, and realises that his friends' memories of those events don't quite match his own perceptions. This provokes the main episode of self-reflection, in Act Two.
Carsten Bergmann suggests that the 'old familiar choruses' are typical funereal music (and, presumably, spoken platitudes) which take on a fresh meaning from Ronnie's new perspective.
Melodies decaying in sweet dissonance.  
There was a rush along the Fulham Road
into the Ever-passion Play.
The funeral is over; the mourners return to their daily lives, everyday concerns driving memories of Ronnie into the background.
This is the first of nine instances of the compound adjective 'ever-' used in The Play, implying, as Andy Jackson notes, 'everlasting' or 'ever-recurring'.
Back to the top of the page


Scene: The empty desert of Limbo. RONNIE wanders aimlessly, until an ANGEL arrives to guide him on to the next stage of the afterlife.

And who comes here to wish me well?
A sweetly-scented angel fell.
She presumably comes from God and Heaven so, as Jan Voorbij suggests, wears the scent of holiness around her.
It's interesting that the angel 'fell'. This may imply that she was one of those 'fallen angels' that accompanied Lucifer out of Heaven. Could this be why she's in Limbo; not good enough for Heaven, but not bad enough for Hell (which reflects Ronnie's situation by the end of A.3)?
Alternatively, Andy Jackson proposes that she descended "... from a higher plane than the desolate limbo in which Ronnie now finds himself." Maybe, though the word 'fell' still jars.
It's been suggested that the angel is a reference to Dante's Beatrice. A case of wanting to see a literary reference where none exists - there is nothing to support this idea, and it simple doesn't fit the narrative.
She laid her head upon my disbelief
and bathed me with her ever-smile.
The angel accepts that Ronnie didn't really believe in god, heaven, angels, etc. whilst he was alive, but is still compassionate and willing to welcome him into heaven.
And with a howl across the sand Ronnie recoils from the, in his view, fairytale concept of 'angels playing harps on clouds', and flees.
It has been suggested that 'the sand' may be that of a beach. There is some attraction to this view, in that if Ronnie crosses a beach to reach the afterlife, there's a neat symmetry in his returning across it in Act 4, on his way back to the mortal world. However, a more common image of Limbo, with which I concur, is of an endless, featureless desert.
Although it is, I doubt Ian drew on childhood memories of Blackpool's beach as an 'icy waste'.
Exit ANGEL. Back to the top of the page
I go escorted by a band of gentlemen in leather bound However, Ronnie is no longer alone. For guidance, he has the collected wisdom of prophets, bound in book form - he's carrying a bible. I'm unsure how to interpret this. The angel might have given Ronnie a bible which, when he reads it and thinks about the good and evil in his life, leads the story on to Act 2.
Alternatively, the bible may itself be metaphorical - the angel didn't literally give a bible to Ronnie, but the encounter with the angel might have sparked a train of thought (symbolised by the bible) leading Ronnie to consider his mortal life, in Act 2.
There is a less elegant alternative: a group of people appear from nowhere, seize and bind Ronnie, then force him to accompany them to the Viewing Room. When in doubt, I tend to favour the simplest explanation, but this one just doesn't seem to fit.
NO-ONE (but someone to be found). Alive, Ronnie wasn't an important or remarkable person (A key point - he could have been you or me), but every individual is special.
Martin Hall expands on this: "he is no-one in particular, but within him there is something he has not yet discovered, which makes him a particular person. This 'someone' is to be found over the course of the play."
A second meaning is that the bible is no-one - it's a book, not a person. Yet it's also a conduit - by reading it, Ronnie may be able to find someone in the bible - God? Ronnie himself?
Terry Moore points out a parallel with the traditional epitaph 'hic jacit nemo' (here lies no one) "a high honour to any monk or spiritual traveler who has completely purified his own ego and is 'empty of himself that he may be full of God'."

INSTRUMENTAL: 'Re-Assuring Tune'

Ian Anderson
Magus Perde

On to Act Two

All lyrics © 1973 Chrysalis Records, Ltd. Used with respect, but not permission.

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