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Medieval Theater History

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Tonya Howe

on 17 February 2014

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Transcript of Medieval Theater History

Medieval Theater History
from Ancient Greek to Early Modern
How do we chart the development of Western theater history from ancient Greece to medieval Europe?
through the Roman Empire and the Church
Republican Era of the Roman Empire, c.500BCE -> Romans left Britain c.400CE
The long fall of the Roman Empire (starts c.200, ends with the fall of Constantinople in 1453)
Constantine becomes sole emperor of the Empire in 312CE; Christianity becomes official religion of Rome in 380CE; Sacked by the Visigoths in 410, the Vandals in 455;
Early Medieval period->Christian church becomes massively powerful c.600; socioeconomic gaps are huge; feudalism

(Greek) Theater in Rome
In Rome, theater as we think of it was a “Greek” activity.
The Greek festivals were transferred to Roman context; Roman theaters mimicked Greek amphitheaters.
The earliest Latin plays were translations of Greek plays. Plays were set in Greece, and used Greek costumes and masks.
While Greece was characterized by power in the arena of art, literature, and philosophy, Rome was characterized by
military expansionism.
For the Roman Empire to assert power over the Greek world, it needed to take over Greek cultural activity.
Note Roman names for Greek gods--Zeus versus Jove
Theater and Politics in Early Rome
Theaters were again political arena; but, Roman Senate recognized their
and sought to limit it, in line with militaristic goals and system of government.
Nevertheless, Roman theater “become de facto a political arena. Plays, gladiator fights, and chariot races provided a unique opportunity for the masses to confront politicians and, from the safety of the crowd, to make their feelings known” (56).
“The roman Senate preferred the electorate to gather in groups, say yes or no, and
disperse quickly
” (Wiles 56). This was unlike the Greek tradition, wherein theaters “doubled as places of political assembly, where the population in their thousands could sit on seats and listen to lengthy democratic debates" (56).
First permanent structures were large multi-use amphiteaters and stadia meant to keep the people happy and unquestioning. Theaters, however, were wooden structures, which were to be demolished after each festival—for political reasons.
Theater of Pompey
Modeled on Greek theaters, but free-standing and partially enclosed; the focus of the plays performed was on spectacle, rather than language.
Pompey (with Caesar and Crassus) defied the Republican tradition of Rome, and sought to gain individual power.
Used by Pompey to “boost his prestige and attract political support” (58)
The theater of Pompey was the first stone auditorium in Rome (55BCE); it was a permanent structure, as opposed to wooden auditoria.
“The arrival of the stone theatre coincides with the demise of the republic and the commencement of Empire” (60).
Caesar was murdered in the
of the theater of Pompey!
"The ruthless unity in the culture industry is evidence of what will happen in politics."

--Horkheimer and Adorno,
Dialectic of Enlightenment
“Transient theatres had been bound up with the idea that power should rotate; permanent theatres were built by men who meant to hold power permanently. The old prejudice against stone theatres vanished under the Emperor Augustus, and enormous numbers of theatres were built across Europe and along the north African coast. Augustus attempted to reorganize the Roman audience in order to make the auditorium a microcosm of an ordered society, and to obliterate the crude divisions of rich and poor which had vitiated the Republic. Women, foreigners, and serving soldiers were all segregated, and male citizens were ordered to wear their togas” (60).
Stone Theaters and Social Organization
Many Greek allusions, frameworks; audience = educated elite; but, altered for a Roman context.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca
(c. 4BCE–65CE)
10 surviving plays (some may be by an imitator)
A philosopher, first and foremost (Stoicism)
Tutor to the Emperor Nero (who loved bloody violence); but Seneca had “strong reservations about gladiator fights, pantomime, and other forms of mass entertainment” (61)
Stoicism: “interests in the ideal of self-abnegation and the dangers of emotion” (61)
Adapted myth to serve as images for the expansion of the Roman empire.
Rigidly observes the unities of time, place, and action vaunted by Aristotle in De Poetica (62)
“The plays belong to an imperial world where individuals could not choose their fate” (61).
Lack of interest in character; rather, interested in the “elemental qualities” of emotion (61)
Choruses are “devoid of personality, and have become detached commentators” (61)
“In a world where emperors like Nero called themselves gods, there could be no uestion of Olympian deities intervening in human affairs.... Humans destroy each other through their emotions in Senecas world, and there is no possibility of salvation” (62).
Senecan Tragedy
Roman Playwright
Pantomime and mime
; ludi, ludic games; We have few records in general, but especially of actor-centered traditions.
Also, note role of laughter as tool of
“Mimes have enjoyed a bad historical press because we know about them through legislation aimed at crowd control, through biographers interested in homosexual affairs between mimes and emperors, and through
the complaints of Christians
Christians found it hard to understand why mime actors made fun of their own pagan gods, and were outraged when Christianity came in for attack....
a context of obscenity created a milieu in which some political freedom of speech remained possible. Actor-centred theatre could evade censorship in a way that text-centred theatre could not” (63-4).

Was seen as a “source of obscenity and slander” as well as “a part of an opposed [pagan] religion” (64)

“The pleasures of theatre were introduced into church services, first through antiphonal music, then through formal dramatic enactments, and in a final phase through allowing certain holy days to become anarchic festivals of role reversal” (64-65). Over time, theater would physically and thematically move away from the church.
Taking a page from the history of empire, Christian theatrical traditions absorbed pagan festivals, just as they did pagan churches.
Early Theatre in the Christian (?) Tradition
Roman Theater
Quem Quaeritis (Whom do you seek? Heart of Medieval liturgical drama, introduced into the Easter mass in the 9th century)
El Misteri d'Elx (The Mystery of Elche, celebrates the assumption of Mary)
liturgical drama
mystery, cycle, and saint plays
morality plays
surviving secular entertainments
Roman Pantomime Actors in Masks
(engraving from 1736)
NYPL Digital Gallery
liturgical drama
mystery plays
cycle plays
An Introduction to the York Mystery Plays (2010)
Pagan Revelry
Pagan & Christian Intermingled
pagan revelry
morris dancing
In the church
Outside church
Town center
Open field
in the round or open air
pageant processional carts
integrated with liturgy

public/outdoor (summer) & private/indoor (winter)
key features
heterogenous and unpredictable
involvement of guilds
no purpose-built theaters
"There was nothing [and no one] that medieval dramatists felt themselves incapable of representing, when a story had to be told" (Wiles 68).
"Not even churches were free from [the] pagan" (69).
Medieval "stage-space" often made allegorical use of the points on the compass, whether inside the church building or outside, in place-and-scaffold performance.
"Everyman" (and -woman...)
grotesque humor
"The medieval Church was no monolithic entity, but a locus of conflict in which different groups competed for power. Medieval drama never offered its audience
Christian message; it offered an interpretation that was open to challenge and argument" (72).
"The linkage of cow and lamb of God, of capon and dove of peace, made for comic effect, purposeful comedy that might make an audience think afresh about traditional Christian symbols" (82).
In the medieval theater, the "spaces of everyday life" are "theatricalized" because "true reality was other-worldly"; that is, spiritual forces--God and Satan--were "omnipresent." As Wiles notes, the "actor/audience boundary was fluid because...[t]o portray reality was to portray the divine scheme, and one's own place within that scheme..." (82).
Rather, "the divine order and the order of everyday life coalesce" (85).
"It is an important medieval paradox that goodness grows out of evil. Spectators were never taken to be objective and detatched beings, viewing from a safe position of virtue..." (Wiles 87ff).
role reversal
Robin Hood (90)
under feudalism, a divided society
Mummers: Masks and Mischief
(excerpt from an Irish documentary on mumming)
Twelfth Night Mummer's Play by The Lions troupe at the Globe theatre, London
Scene from 'The Daemons' episode of
Doctor Who

in which The Doctor is attacked by Morris Dancers
...but, not fully distinct from one another
the heterogeneity of medieval theater
"The human body disclosed divine proportions and thus the plans of cathedrals - certain lengths - were ordered to these ratios: the ‘perfect octave’, (diapason), ‘perfect fifth’ (diapente) and so on." (Jenks,
Architectural Review
, 6 May 2013)
Typical cruciform cathedral architecture; note the orientation!
Place-and-scaffold (pageant cart; may be mobile, too)
et design" or "peformance plans" for
The Castle of Perseverance
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