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Ian Anderson's lyrics for Jethro Tull's 'A Passion Play

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Mark Ridley, Derek Small, Max Quad, Ben Rossington, John Tetrad


INSTRUMENTAL: 'Forest Dance #2'


Scene: The business office of G. Oddie and Son - two days later.

Having spent two days in Heaven, RONNIE is dissatisfied, and has requested a meeting with God.

The Foot of Our Stairs  
We sleep by the ever-bright hole in the door, The inhabitants have all the wonders of Heaven to enjoy, but most of their interest is still in mortal life.They could wander away into Heaven itself, but tend to remain by the entrance, to catch glimpses of mortal life whenever someone enters, or to peer through the keyhole. I see 'ever-bright' as not just referring to visible light, but meaning that the view is perpetually interesting and as attractive to the denizens of Heaven as bright, shiny things are to a magpie.
eat in the corner, talk to the floor, A possible reference to humility and the mindset that earned the residents their places in Heaven?
It may also be a hint that Heaven is a little mundane - Carsten Bergmann notes the incongruity of Heaven, the manifestation of divine love, having doors, walls and floors, just like Earth.
cheating the spiders who come to say "Please",
They bend at the knees.
The spiders are praying mortals on Earth; the dead in heaven hear the prayers but don't pay much attention.
Well, I'll go to the foot of our stairs. 'I'll go to the foot of our stairs' is an expression of surprise, perhaps only used in NW England. I've yet to verify it's origin, but I presume it evolved as a milder form of 'Well, I'll be damned', which Ronnie obviously couldn't say in Heaven!
Old gentlemen talk of when they were young
of ladies lost and erring sons.
The inhabitants of heaven reminisce about their lives.
On 20 July 1973 the lyric was distinctly 'bearing', not 'erring'.
Lace-covered dandies revel (with friends)
pure as the truth, tied at both ends.
Well I'll go to the foot of our stairs. Ronnie says this with sarcasm; he finds their stories REALLY boring.
Scented cathedral spire pointed down. The spire of a cathedral on Earth points upwards, to 'Heaven'. In Heaven, the cathedral's spire, and the inhabitants' attention, points towards Earth. If mortal churches aspire (sorry...) to Heaven, Heavenly ones revere the mortal world.
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We pray for souls in Kentish Town. An area of London, 'coincidentally' where Ian lived in 1968. This in-joke perhaps suggests a degree of self-interest on the part of the souls in Heaven; they don't watch over all mortals, taking a particular interest in the areas and people they knew when they were alive.
Robert Pahre suggests that 'Kentish Town' might be Canterbury, as the religious head of the Church of England is the Archbishop of Canterbury, a city in Kent. I'm not convinced of the relevance of this observation; there's no suggestion in doctrine that Canterbury is any more 'holy' than elsewhere, and likely to attract special attention from Heaven.
A delicate hush, the gods floating by Activity pauses in reverence as angels pass. Note that they're 'gods' - slightly lower in the hierarchy than the Big G, God.
wishing us well, pie in the sky. 'Pie in the sky' is another British slang term, suggesting that the angels offer empty platitudes - well-meaning but remote and ineffectual.
God of ages, Lord of Time,
mine is the right to be wrong.
Ronnie asserts his right to self-determination.
Panglos points out that another name for 'God of Ages/Lord of Time' is 'Ancient of Days'.
Well I'll go to the foot of our stairs.  
Jack rabbit mister... Rabbits populations are famously able to expand rapidly, so the animal has become a symbol of extreme fertility; an appropriate metaphor for God, the ultimate creator of life.
Incidentally, an American jack-rabbit would be known in Britain as a hare...
....spawn a new breed
of love-hungry pilgrims (no bodies to feed).
Ronnie (sarcastically) proposes that G. Oddie use this renowned creativity to produce entirely spiritual creatures, free from all earthly appetites, who could thrive on abstract 'love' and would truly appreciate Heaven - because the ex-mortal souls certainly don't.
Meyers' interpretation: ... the poet prays to transform the body into a pure spiritual substance that cannot be restricted by time, or corporeal reason. The alleged dichotomy between body and soul, or between Man and God, will not exist.
Show me a good man and I'll show you the door. There are so many 'good' people in Heaven that Ronnie has become heartily sick of their piety and wants to leave. To 'show someone the door' is to reject him/her; literally, to ask him/her to leave. It's obviously not an option to evict God from Heaven, so Ronnie will be the one departing.
Terry Moore again proposes a very credible alternative: that a 'good man' may be a spiritual, wise and virtuous person whose teachings are the 'door' to Heaven. I'm not entirely sure this fits the narrative, though.
The last hymn is sung and the devil cries "More." Hymns were (are?) seen as weapons in the war against Satan. Well, they don't work. Heaven is full of piety, but Ronnie questions whether it has any purpose.
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Instrumental In 1973 concerts after 28/8/73, the beginning of Act 3 was omitted and replaced by 'My God'. A brief keyboard solo reintroduced The Play at this point.
Well, I'm all for leaving and that being done, I've put in a request to take up my turn  
in that forsaken paradise that calls itself "Hell"
where no-one has nothing and nothing is...
Ronnie has had enough of Heaven, and decides to try the alternative for a while. It seems Ronnie has a rather idealistic view of Hell.
....well-meaning fool, G. Oddie has heard enough, and interrupts. He thinks Ronnie is making a error, but can understand his reasoning. If Ronnie regarded this version of Heaven as a personal Hell, it would be a punishment to make him stay.
pick up thy bed and rise up from your gloom smiling. An echo of Mark Ch.2,v.9: 'Take up thy bed and walk' (referring to the healing of a lame beggar). G. Oddie accepts that if Ronnie feels Heaven is 'crippling' him, he's free to leave, if that would make him happier.
Give me your hate and do as the loving heathen do. Being the 'God of Love', G.Oddie is happy to accept any grudge Ronnie might hold against Him, and let him go to Hell without guilt. Ronnie is 'condemned' to join those souls who are in Hell not because they are 'evil', but simply because they're unbelievers.


Backdrop rises on a scene in hell.
Might the groan heard at the start of this scene indicate the damned souls in Hell?

Overseer Overture  
Colours I've none, dark or light, red, white or blue. Lucifer's very first comment is to stress his independence - that he owes allegiance to no-one. This is Ronnie's self-image, too. Is Lucifer trying to allege that they're actually rather similar?
Note the double meaning: 'colours' might also refer to a flag (c.f. 'Flying Colours').
Cold is my touch (freezing). I'm not sure why Lucifer would boast about the idea, but he is 'freezing' i.e. non-creative, as opposed to the warmth or flame of Life.
Summoned by name - I am the overseer over you. 'Speak of the Devil, and he shall appear'.
Given this command to watch o'er our miserable sphere.
Fallen from grace, called on to bring sun or rain.
Lucifer describes how G.Oddie took him out of Heaven, giving him the job of watching over the Earth, like a janitor checking all the mechanisms operate correctly. Lucifer would rather have stayed in Heaven!
Occasional corn from my oversight grew. Lucifer acknowledges that his monitoring had some positive results, but nothing grand - hardly justifying the attention of a proud demigod.
Note the play on words: oversight means 'superintendence', but also 'failure to notice'; the 'icy' (sterile) Lucifer could only create life by accident.
Corn is a powerful symbol in several mythologies, and similarly has a double-meaning: the fertility of life, but also the harvest of death.
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Fell with mine angels from a far better place, A reference to Lucifer's biblical 'fall from grace'. Lucifer didn't like his job, rebelled, and was evicted from Heaven.
Some regard this to be a 'clear' reference to Milton's 'Paradise Lost' (the only conceivable Milton reference I can see in The Play). However, the story of Lucifer's fall is mentioned repeatedly in the Bible, so is very much part of Protestant/English general knowledge. Reference to this particular story requires no specific knowledge whatsoever of 'Paradise Lost'. So, no Milton in The Play!
offering services for the saving of face. I originally read this as Lucifer and his followers setting up a 'rival agency', offering mortals immediate gratification and earthly power in exchange for their souls; a reference to Faust.
Alternatively, the 'saving of face' might be that mortals try to deny their culpability for evil actions by blaming Lucifer.
Now you're here, you may as well admire
all whom living has retired from the benign reconciliation.
A particularly complicated lyric! Lucifer suggests that, now that Ronnie's in the same situation, he ought to understand and even admire those other souls who found themselves in Hell not because they were actively 'evil' mortals, but because their lives were spent actually living; engaging in earthly concerns without 'due regard' for more religious or moral matters, so that when they died, they failed to qualify for Heaven.
Legends were born surrounding mysterious lights
seen in the sky (flashing).
I just lit a fag then took my leave in the blink of an eye.
Lucifer boasts of his power and jokes about the gullibility of mortals: the glow of his cigarette ('fag') was misinterpreted as 'mystic lights'.
Passionate play join round the maypole in dance.  
(primitive rite) (wrongly). The maypole dance was a powerful pagan fertility ritual, but Christianity and time have meant some of its significance has been lost; it's now considered merely 'quaint', and modern practitioners are more likely to be merchant bankers than shamans.
Summoned by name I am the overseer over you.  

Ian Anderson
Magus Perde

On to Act Four

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

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