Community Theaters

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Community Theaters

Urban Centers.

Toward the end of the twelfth century, a cleric called William FitzStephen included a lengthy description of the city of London in his biography of St. Thomas Becket (1118–1170), written to attract visitors to the new martyr's shrine at Canterbury and to his birthplace nearby. Among the city's attractions, William emphasized its opportunities for entertainment, listing an array of pleasurable pastimes that resembles the catalogue of theatrical activities outlined by Hugh of Saint-Victor.

I do not think that there is any city deserving greater approval for its customs, with regard to church-going, ho\noring divine ceremonies, the keeping of feast-days, the giving of alms, reception of strangers, confirmation of betrothals, making of marriages, celebration of weddings, preparation of banquets, welcoming of guests, and also in the observance of funeral rites and the burying of the dead.

He goes on to paint a tantalizing picture of "the sports of the city, since it is appropriate that a city be not only useful and important, but also a source of mirth and diversion." Acknowledging that London, unlike ancient Rome, has no theater buildings in which plays can be seen, he assures his audience that it "has dramatic performances of a holier kind, plays wherein are shown either the miracles wrought by holy confessors or the sufferings which glorified the faith of the martyrs." Moreover, he says, London has Carnival plays and games, tournaments and processions, mock naval battles, hunting and hawking, summer games showcasing feats of athletic skill, and winter sports like bear-baiting and ice-skating. In many ways, urban communities such as London showcased the quintessential community of medieval theater—which used the resources of the community to which it performed in order to deliver its message—more fully even than the closed community of the monastery. The city could be the theater when it provided the stage for theatrical activities mounted at different times and seasons of the year; or it could be an actor in great pageants of national significance when it arrayed itself in finery and put on parades and plays to welcome visiting kings and dignitaries. And sometimes it could represent the whole world, and the whole history of human salvation, when it staged the great cycle plays of the later Middle Ages.

Christmastide and Carnival.

Like the drama of the church, the drama of the medieval town was governed by the liturgical calendar and the seasons of the year. Certain seasons were especially conducive to theatricality, either because they were times of comparative leisure and plenty, when the rhythms of sowing and harvest had slowed, or because they were times when people were drawn together by sociable impulses as old as humanity, as at the dark time of the winter solstice. While spring and summer offered numerous opportunities for the games, dances, and diversions described by William FitzStephen—played out in towns and villages all over Europe—Christmastide and Carnival were the major occasions for festive theater in most communities. The week after Christmas was a busy time in churches, and it is important to remember that the liturgical plays celebrating Jesus' birth and the events leading up to the Epiphany of the Magi were in performance throughout the Middle Ages, and would have been extremely familiar to everyone. Supplementing these formal dramas were the revels associated with Christmas, which included a variety of small-scale dramatic productions often called "mumming plays." These drew upon the same ancient inclinations that had prompted the church to attach the celebration of Christmas to the winter solstice in the first place. The birth of a marvelous child, the rekindling of light in a dark place, the miraculous recycling of the new year—the simple plays that dramatized these things reached deep into the primal mythology in which medieval Christianity was already firmly rooted. So did the revelry of Carnival, the season of license and conspicuous consumption that followed Epiphany and ended on "Fat Tuesday" (Mardi Gras), when Ash Wednesday ushered in the six weeks of fasting and penance that preceded Easter. Carnival, Lent, and Easter were also products of the natural cycle, since the meat from animals slaughtered in late autumn would not last through the winter and had to be eaten, thus providing for the feasting of Carnival; Lent, by contrast, institutionalized the basic necessity of rationing the remaining store of grains and legumes that had been put up at the autumn harvest and had to last until spring, when earth's fertility would be renewed, just as Christ's body was resurrected from the tomb. The theater of Carnival resembled the foods of Carnival: excessive, rich, and unlike the normal fare of everyday life. Carnival plays, like the Fastnachtspiele of Germany, accordingly reveled in cross-dressing, the reversal of hierarchies, and the flouting of acceptable conventions. As at the Feasts of Fools during Christmastime, the world was turned upside down. The celebration of subversive behavior may seem strange to us, but in many ways it was the glue that held these communities together. Carnival allowed the people of Europe to use up excess energy, as well as excess food—both being commodities which, if stored too long and allowed to go bad, would be far more dangerous than a period of organized dissipation.

Passion and Mystery.

The further development of towns in the later Middle Ages led to the growth of new identities within these communities, as well as to a growing sense of shared identity—local, regional, and even national. Theater became a medium for expressing these identities. In Italy, where towns had long been the fundamental units of political as well as economic organization, lay confraternities often took the lead in displays of public religious fervor, competing with one another in the performance of laudes—songs and ritual processions staged in honor of the Blessed Virgin or the saints—which by the fifteenth century were accompanied by sacra rappresentazioni—theatrical presentations of events from sacred history performed on major feasts. In Spain and Catalonia, the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin, celebrated on the 15th of August, became an especially important occasion for dramatic demonstrations of collective piety, and plays glorifying the life and miracles of the Virgin were performed annually; the Misteri d'Elx is still performed every year in the Basque town of Elche, the oldest European play in continuous production. Elsewhere on the Continent, community theater received its fullest expression in plays devoted to the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In some places—notably in the major cities of the Low Countries, Switzerland, France, and Germany—these Passion plays (plays dramatizing the suffering of Christ) came to be called "mystery" plays, not only because they delved into the mysteries of faith, but because they were produced by representatives of the various trade guilds, associations of craftsmen who banded together to protect and regulate the secrets or "mystery" of their trades. Depending on the size of the city, the number of its guilds, and the generosity of their budgets, these plays could be more or less elaborate. In some places, episodic plays chronicling the entire history of human salvation were performed on successive days in a cycle that could last nearly a month. The geography of the town would often dictate where and how such plays were performed, whether in the round, using several scaffolds or platforms, or in procession at various stations throughout the city. Continental towns in northern Europe tended to have larger market squares that could accommodate large-scale spectacles and their audiences; in England and in Spain, by contrast, more constricted spaces favored the use of pageant wagons that were drawn through the narrow streets, stopping at certain pre-arranged sites for the performance of individual plays.

A New Occasion for Theater.

It is clear that members of medieval communities eagerly sought opportunities to take part in dramatic productions. In The Miller's Tale, one of the stories in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1342–1400), a parish clerk called Absolon falls in love with Alison, the pretty young wife of a wealthy carpenter; but she is already infatuated with Nicholas, a student who lodges in her husband's house. Desperate to win her for himself, Absolon woos Alison with gifts and sweets, tender ballads, and proofs of his prowess. These include demonstrations of dramatic skill, when "to show his lightness and his mastery, / He playeth Herod upon a scaffold high." Given the ubiquity of community-sponsored theater in late medieval Europe, young men with a penchant for acting had many opportunities to showcase their talents—especially in England, where the celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi provided the opportunity for towns and guilds to advertise themselves and their piety, as well as to satisfy the histrionic ambitions of their members. This new feast, dedicated to the "Body of Christ," was formally instituted in 1311 by Pope Clement V and became the occasion around which many of the mystery cycles and Passion plays of Europe were performed. This new focus on Christ's corporeality, his mystical body as well as his physical humanity, and on the manifestation of his miracles in the world, tied in beautifully with the conventions of medieval theater.

The Corpus Christi Play.

From the liturgical dramas of the early church to the moralities of the later Middle Ages, medieval performers and audiences had developed a shared vocabulary that used symbols, spatial orientation, and sophisticated storytelling techniques to convey meaning in direct, immediate, even visceral ways. Biblical events were not treated as part of the past, but as aspects of a continuous present that affected the actions of men and women in the here-and-now. The fact that an episodic staging of the gospel narrative might require dozens of actors playing the role of Christ is already a profound theological statement in the making (as Jesus himself had taught, all men and women should be treated as though they were Christ). These civic exhibitions of piety often began with the Creation and ended with the Last Judgment, and were produced over several days. In England, some communities attempted to perform this feat in a single day, beginning at dawn with the prehistory of mankind as described in Genesis, and ending late into the midsummer night with the bodily resurrection of the dead, the eternal damnation of sinners, and the salvation of the righteous. This was the case in the ancient city of York, where the pageant wagons carrying the actors and the scenery for individual plays followed a route that can be traced even today; each play would be performed several times at certain key locations. The props, costumes, and special effects were the jealously guarded property of the guilds that performed the plays, and particular roles may have been passed on from father to son over several generations. Moreover, the subject matter of a given play often said something about the guild, or its craft. At York, "The Last Supper" was performed by the bakers, whose bread became the body of Christ during their re-enactment of the first Eucharist; "The Crucifixion" was performed by the pinners or nail-makers, samples of whose wares were on prominent display when Jesus was nailed to the cross.


introduction: One of the most elaborate pageants in the York Corpus Christi cycle was The Last Judgment, performed annually by the Guild of Mercers (cloth merchants). This was the finale of the day-long theatrical event, and was therefore expected to be particularly impressive—and to require significant expenditure on the part of the guild's members. The mercers therefore accumulated an impressive array of costumes, props, and set-pieces, which they inventoried in 1433. The list (given below) suggests that the pageant wagon represented the Earth, on which Christ and his apostles were enthroned as judges. It may also have featured trap doors for the graves out of which the righteous and the damned souls could have risen to receive their sentences. Heaven would have been situated on a higher scaffolding rigged out with moving mechanical angels, and the mouth of Hell on the street itself, in front of the wagon.

First a Pageant [wagon] with 4 wheels, Hell Mouth, 3 garments for 3 devils, 6 devils' faces in 3 Visors [i.e., masks], Array [i.e., costumes] for 2 evil souls, that is to say: 2 Shirts, 2 pairs of hose, 2 visors & 2 wigs, Array for 2 good souls, that is to say: 2 Shirts, 2 pairs of hose, 2 visors & 2 wigs, 2 pair of Angels' wings with iron in the ends, 2 trumpets of White plate, & 2 reeds, 4 Albs for 4 Apostles, 3 diadems with 3 visors for 3 Apostles, 4 diadems with 4 Wigs of yellow for 4 Apostles, A cloude and 2 pieces of rainbow [made] of timber, Array for God [i.e., Christ], that is to say: a Shirt wounded, a diadem, With a visor gilded, A great coster [i.e., hanging] of red damask painted for the back side of the Pageant, 2 other lesser costers for the 2 sides of the Pageant, 3 other costers of linen broadcloth for the sides of the Pageant. A little coster 4-squared to hang at the back of God. 4 Irons to bear up Heaven, 4 small cotter-pins & an Iron pin, a grate of Iron that God shall sit upon when he shall rise up to Heaven, With 4 ropes at 4 corners. A Heaven of Iron, with a hub of wood, 2 pieces of red clouds and stars of gold belonging to Heaven, 2 pieces of blue clouds painted on both sides, 3 pieces of red clouds, with sun beams of gold & stars for the highest of Heaven, with a long small border of the same Work. 7 great Angels holding the Passion of God [i.e., the symbols of Christ's Passion: crucifix, nails, crown of thorns, and so on], One of them has a vane of copper & a cross of Iron in his head, gilded. 4 smaller Angels, gilded, holding the Passion. 9 smaller Angels painted red to run about in the Heaven. A long small cord to make the Angels run about, 2 short rollers of wood to put forth the pageant.

source: "The Mercers' Indenture of 1433," in Medieval Drama: An Anthology. Ed. Greg Walker (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 2000): 159. Text modernized by Carol Symes.


Clifford Davidson, ed., Material Culture and Medieval Drama. Medieval Institute Publications: Early Drama, Art, and Music Monograph Series, no. 25 (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Western Michigan University, 1999).

Hans-Jürgen Diller, The Middle English Mystery Play: A Study in Dramatic Speech and Form. Trans. Frances Wessels (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

Alan Hindley, ed., Drama and Community: People and Plays in Medieval Europe. Medieval Texts and Cultures of Northern Europe, no. 1 (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1999).

Gordon Kipling, Enter the King: Theater, Liturgy, and Ritual in the Medieval Civic Triumph (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998).

Martin Stevens, "From Mappa Mundi to Theatrum Mundi: The World as Stage in Early English Drama," in From Page to Performance: Essays on Early English Drama. Ed. John A. Alford (East Lansing, Mich.: Michigan State University Press, 1995): 25–49.