Lately, the song “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” has been haunting me. In case you’re not familiar with it, it’s sung by Queen Guinevere and King Arthur (Vanessa Redgrave and Richard Harris in the movie; Julie Andrews and Richard Burton on Broadway). The catalyst is Guinevere’s secret love for Sir Lancelot du Lac, and Arthur’s unspoken knowledge of their affair.
Alone together, both of them heartsick but not speaking of the cause, Guinevere asks Arthur in song:
What do the simple folk do
To help them escape when they're blue?
The shepherd who is ailing, the milkmaid who is glum,
The cobbler who is wailing from nailing his thumb?
When they're beset and besieged –
The folk not noblessly obliged –
However do they manage to shed their weary lot?
Oh, what do simple folk do we do not?
Arthur offers her several solutions: They whistle. They sing. They dance a fiery dance. Arthur and Guinevere try each one, but find no relief. He has only one more solution to offer: “They sit around and wonder what royal folk would do.”
It strikes me that this song is really a profound analysis of very common human behaviors – for these are among the things most of us do to try to mend our hearts, to bury our troubles, to silence our consciences.
We mask our sadness with happy music.
Steep our fears in frenetic exercise, wild dancing, morning-to-night activity.
Saturate ourselves with ultimately futile obsessions, from celebrity worship to non-stop pursuit of entertainment, education, art, travel, clothes, home-decorating.
Anything to avoid being alone with our thoughts. And with the truth.
No wonder none of it works for long. If our only hope is for this current life, we are hopeless indeed.
I find it interesting that Lerner and Loewe failed to offer one more possible cure for heartache in this song, the one cure that is both foolproof and permanent: turning to the Lord, asking for His help, and consulting His word for the keys to eternal peace and joy.
Just think: If Guinevere, Arthur and Lancelot had done that, there could actually have been a happy ending to this tragic tale.