Plays on the Cutting Edge

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Plays on the Cutting Edge


introduction: In his chronicle history of the Baltic region, completed around the year 1225, a priest called Henry of Livonia described what happened when a play was performed for an audience that had no prior acquaintance with the conventions of medieval European theatre. In the excerpt below, Henry describes an incident that took place at Riga, on the coast of the Baltic Sea in what is now Latvia. He and his fellow German-speaking missionaries had been sent to convert the native peoples to Christianity, and they decided that putting on a play was the most effective way of doing this. However, the assembled audience did not understand that the violence in the play was not directed toward them; perhaps they were far too well acquainted with real violence to be able to grasp the meaning of theatrical violence.

Concerning the big play put on in Riga

That same winter [of 1205], an extremely well-produced play of the prophets was put on in the middle of Riga, in order that the folk might be taught the rudiments of the Christian faith as though through eye witness. The subject-matter of this play was most carefully explained to new converts, as well as to the pagans who came to see it, through an interpreter. However, at the place where Gideon's soldiers were fighting with the Philistines, the pagans began to run away, fearing that they would be killed—and could only be coaxed back with some care. But finally, after a while, the congregation grew calm and quieted down. Indeed, this very play was like a prelude or foreshadowing of the future, for in the play there were wars, such as those of David, Gideon, Herod; and there was the teaching of the Old and New Testaments. And in fact, through the many wars that followed the folk were going to be converted, and through the teaching of the Old and New Testaments they were to be instructed in such a way so as to arrive at true peace-making and eternal life.

source: The Chronicle of Henry of Livonia, 1225. Translation by Carol Symes.

Airing Difficult Issues.

Medieval theater could simultaneously instruct and challenge its audiences. It would be a mistake to assume that just because a play contained an important religious message, and may in fact have been performed as part of the liturgy, that it could not also be funny or "edgy." Even liturgical dramas could be controversial, depending on how they chose to represent the power of kings, how much they emphasized the importance of the vernacular, or how they depicted the relationships between men and women, lords and servants, sinners and saints. King Herod's tyrannical behavior is held up as a warning to contemporary rulers. The pagan wisdom of the Magi, which includes

detailed knowledge of mathematics and astronomy, is depicted as both glamorous and dangerous. Satan's temptation of Eve, in The Service for Representing Adam, suggests that women can easily succumb to flattery and ambition, but it also acknowledges their intelligence and their influence over men. One of the liturgical dramas associated with the monastery of Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire in France, The Service for Representing How St. Nicholas Freed the Son of Getron, describes the capture of a beautiful Christian boy by the pagan king Marmorinus, who takes the boy into his household and treats him with great tenderness. When the child is miraculously restored to the care of his grieving parents, the play does not go on to show the punishment of the king, but instead leaves the viewer with a sense of his probable grief over the loss of his treasured companion (his last words to the boy are: "No one can take you away from me, so long as I do not wish to lose you"). A respected modern scholar of medieval theater has suggested that this play confronts the problem of homosexual desire within the closed community of the monastery.


introduction: The Service for Representing Adam (1180), also known as The Play of Adam, is one of the earliest surviving dramas to have been written in a vernacular language—in this case, the French dialect known as "Anglo-Norman," because it was spoken in Normandy (northern France) and in England after the Norman Conquest of 1066. Like other biblical plays in the vernacular, it was designed to "update" the stories of the Old and New Testaments, making them accessible and relevant to a contemporary audience using vivid, colloquial language and familiar situations. In this scene, the Devil has just failed to tempt Adam into eating the forbidden fruit of Paradise (a scene that is not in the original story, as told in Genesis 3), so he turns his attention to Eve. Note that while the play is in rhyming octosyllabic verse couplets (reproduced in this translation), the rapid-fire exchange of dialogue between the characters creates a very naturalistic effect.

Devil: Look, Eve, I'm here to talk with you.

Eve: Tell me, Satan, what you're up to.

Devil: To do you good, that's why I'm here

Eve: God grant it, then.

Devil: Oh, have no fear.
For many years, I've kept my eyes
On what goes on in Paradise.
Do you like secrets? Should I tell?

Eve: Yes, go ahead: I'll listen well.

Devil: You hear me?

Eve: Yes, I said I do. I'll trust that what you say is true.

Devil: Then you'll believe me?

Eve: By my faith!

Devil: And you'll not tell?

Eve: The secret's safe.

Devil: You've given me your guarantee; That's fine, that's good enough for me.

Eve: Oh, you can trust me, as a rule.

Devil: You've clearly been to a good school! But Adam, now: he's pretty thick!

Eve: He's a bit slow …

Devil: You'll make him quick. Now, iron's not as hard, or rock—

Eve: He's noble.

Devil: He's a laughing-stock!
That's why he can't take care of you.
He should do as you want him to.
You are so dainty (may I say?)
More lovely than a rose in May
As white as crystal, or as snow
That falls on icy streams below.
That was a bad day's work for God
When he matched you with that big clod.
You're soft, he's hard; he's dumb, you're smart—
You have great courage in your heart.
I knew we'd get along, we two.
So now let's talk.

Eve: I'll listen well.

Devil: You'll tell no one?

Eve: Who would I tell?

Devil: Not even Adam?

Eve: Very well.

Devil: All right. Let me just take a glance
To see that no one's come by chance—
Save Adam, who's just over there.

Eve: Speak up, he'll never overhear.

Devil: There is a great conspiracy
Against you in this garden, Eve.
The fruit that God gives you for food
Is not enough to do you good;
But that on the forbidden tree
Has powerful efficacy.
If you eat that, you'll never die
You'll have God's power, majesty,
Know good and ill—eternally.

Eve: How does it taste?

Devil: Oh, heavenly!
And with your body, and your face,
You should be ruler of this place—
Of all the world you'd be the queen,
Surveying what no man has seen.
You'd know what all the future brings, You'd be the master of all things.

Eve: Is that the fruit?

Devil: Yes. Go and see.

Then Eve should very carefully consider the forbidden fruit and, after having admired it for a long time, say:

Eve: Just looking at it pleases me.

Devil: And if you eat, what happens then?

Eve: How can I know?

Devil: Don't you listen?
You take it first, and then Adam:
That done, you'll wear the crown of heaven.
You'll then be your Creator's peer,
He'll have to share his powers here.
The instant that you taste the fruit
You'll be transformed; he'll follow suit.
You will be gods in your own right,
With equal graces, equal might.
Come, taste the fruit.

Eve: I think I may—

Devil: Don't trust Adam—

Eve: —but not today.

Devil: When?

Eve: Let me be.
When Adam is asleep, maybe.

Devil: Eat it right now! Are you afraid?
You'll lose this, if it's long delayed.

source: Jeu d'Adam (c. 1200). Translation by Carol Symes.

Faith Versus Reason at Benediktbeuern.

It is arguable that the Latin dramas developed and performed by monastic communities could be more explicit in their treatment of controversial issues precisely because these were close-knit communities. Theater provided an outlet for the discussion of disturbing ideas. At the monastery of Benediktbeuern, where the Passion play's surprisingly extensive use of the vernacular suggests that it was geared toward the entertainment and edification of the local German-speaking population, the Christmas play is striking for a very different reason. It makes no use of the vernacular, and does not appear to have been designed primarily as a vehicle for popular piety. Rather, it addresses—at some length—the sophisticated intellectual concerns of well-educated churchmen who, by the end of the twelfth century, were trying to come to terms with Aristotelian philosophy, which had recently been re-introduced into the medieval West via increased contact with Jewish and Muslim scholars. In this context, the celebration of the event of Jesus' birth is subordinated to the problem of believing in the Virgin Birth, a phenomenon that can only be accepted through arguments based on faith, rather than by rational proof. The spokesman for these new, disturbing arguments in the Christmas play from Benediktbeuern is a character called Archisynagogus, "the leader of the synagogue" or "the head Jew." While Archisynagogus is described in some of the stage directions as a comic character, behaving in ways that a medieval Christian audience might have considered stereotypically "Jewish," he is also the character who represents scientific truth and intellectual rigor—qualities very attractive to the community's scholars. Initiating a debate over the Old Testament prophecies of the Virgin's miraculous conception, Archisynagogus defeats all of his opponents single-handedly, confidently refuting the pious arguments of the prophets, the Boy Bishop (a choirboy appointed to preside over the Christmas festivities), and even St. Augustine. In the end, faith does triumph over reason—but only by virtue of superior numbers and the "proof" offered by the gospel story. Moreover, Archisynagogus is not vilified for his "great arrogance" but is brought back on stage toward the end of the play to advise Herod in his dealing with the three Magi, speaking "with great wisdom and eloquence." Even the shepherds in this play fall prey to doubts, and are nearly convinced by the devil that the angels' glorious proclamation must be a lie. This is no simplistic re-enactment of the Christmas story, but a serious attempt to come to terms with the central problem of religious belief. The Middle English Second Shepherds' Play provides another example of the degree to which medieval plays allowed audiences to express their doubts, and challenged them to think about their faith in new ways.

The Journey of a Soul at Gandersheim.

A very different type of challenge is offered by another play from a German monastic community, composed and performed around the middle of the twelfth century. This is the Ordo virtutum (The Service of the Virtues) by Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), abbess of a convent that she herself founded at Rupertsberg on the Rhine river. Hildegard was famous in her own day for her scientific and medical knowledge, her preaching, her tremendous literary and artistic productivity, her mystical visions, and her highly unconventional approach to worship. Visitors to the convent reported that her nuns often wore elaborate costumes on special occasions and were encouraged to find new and creative outlets for the worship of God, celebrating the feasts of the church with


introduction: The Second Shepherds' Pageant forms part of the Corpus Christi play known as the Wakefield cycle (from the Yorkshire village mentioned in the play) or as the Towneley cycle (the name of the family in whose private library the manuscript was preserved). It is literally the second of two pageants devoted to the Christmas story—or, more specifically, to the role of the shepherds in that story. The biblical shepherds were popular characters in northern England during the Middle Ages. Many of the local people would have made their living in similar ways, and would have identified with the shepherds' plight: their poverty and loneliness, the terrible wintry weather they endured, their fear and surprise on hearing the angels' greeting, their joy at the Christ Child's birth. They would also have enjoyed the shepherds' irreverent attitude toward authority in this pageant, which goes so far as to poke fun at the doctrine of the Virgin Birth by introducing a plot which parallels that of Jesus' Nativity. A pair of unsavory characters, Mak and his wife Gill (Jill), steal one of the shepherds' precious sheep and hide it in a cradle, pretending that Gill has just miraculously given birth. When the shepherds come to look for their lost property, they are fooled into thinking that the creature in the manger is really a baby—until one of them is overcome with sentimental feelings and returns, intending to give the child a gift. The sheep is discovered, and so is Mak and Gill's deception. This is the scene excerpted below. The language of this play is the Middle English of the North—the language of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343–1400), but with a strong Yorkshire accent. The verse is the work of an anonymous poet known as the "The Wakefield Master," who favored a distinctive nine-line stanza and complex rhyme scheme. Some words have been modernized, but for the most part the text is as it appears in the play's fifteenth-century manuscript.

Shepherd 2: Mak, friends will we be, for we all are one.

Mak: We? Now I hold for me—[Aside] For amends get I none.
Farewell all three!—[Aside] All glad were ye gone.

Shepherd 3: Fair words may there be, but love is there none
This year. [The shepherds depart.]

Shepherd 1: Gave ye the child anything?

Shepherd 2: I trow, not one farthing.

Shepherd 3: Fast again will I fling—
Abide me ye here. [He goes back in.]
Mak, take it no grief if I come to thy bairn.

Mak: Nay, thou does me great reproof, and foul has thou fared.

Shepherd 3: The child it will not grieve, that little day-star.
Mak, with your leave, let me give your bairn
But six pence.

Mak: No, do way! He sleeps.

Shepherd 3: Methinks he peeps.

Mak: When he wakens, he weeps.
I pray you, go hence! [The other shepherds enter.]

Shepherd 3: Give me leave him to kiss, and lift up the clout. [He lifts the cloth covering the sheep.]
What the devil is this? He has a long snout!

Shepherd 1: He is markèd amiss. We wait ill about.

Shepherd 2: Ill-spun weft, I wis, aye comes foul out.
Aye, so! [Suddenly, realization dawns.]
He is like to our sheep!

Shepherd 3: How, Gib, may I peep?

Shepherd 1: I trow kin will creep
Where it may not go.

Shepherd 2: This was a quaint gaud and a far cast:
It was a high fraud!

Shepherd 3: Yea, sirs, it was.
Let's burn this bawd and bind her fast.
[Pointing to Gill.]
A false scold hangs at the last.
So shall thou.
Will ye see how they swaddled
His four feet in the middle?
Saw I never in a cradle
A horned lad ere now.

Mak: Peace, bid I. What, let you be far!
I am he that him got, and yon woman him bore.

Shepherd 1: What devil [name] shall he have, Mak?
Lo, God, Mak's heir!

Shepherd 2: Let be all that. Now, God give him care,
I saw—

Wife: A pretty child is he
As ere sat on a woman's knee
A dillydown, perdy,
To make a man laugh.

source: The Second Shepherds' Pageant, in Medieval Drama. Ed. David Bevington (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975): 402–405.

unusual songs and liturgies composed by Hildegard herself. The Service of the Virtues may have been intended to celebrate the dedication of the convent around 1151; it could also have been performed more frequently, to honor the monastic profession of a new postulant, or simply to commemorate the challenges and rewards of the monastic life as it was experienced by women. Anticipating the morality plays of the later Middle Ages, it tells the story of a single (female) soul, Anima, and her journey through life, beginning with her embodiment in the "beautiful garments" of the flesh and the happy innocence of her childhood. Early on, Anima is introduced to the (female) Virtues and, through them, is made aware of life's temptations and difficulties. But living in God's created world is delightful to her, and Anima unabashedly revels in the delights of her body—until her encounters with the Devil leave her bruised and terrified. Calling on the Virtues to rescue her, Anima flees from the evil influence of her sins and eventually succeeds in escaping from the embrace of the Devil, yet not before she is reminded of how difficult her chosen path will be and how many earthly joys she is missing, including the pleasures of sexual intercourse and the joys of motherhood. Although there are few stage directions, the language of Hildegard's play is full of action verbs, sensuality, and violence. The virility and power of the Devil is underscored not only by the masculinity of the actor portraying him (the role was probably assigned to the convent's chaplain or to Hildegard's male secretary) but also by the fact that he is the only character who either cannot or does not sing. Instead of communicating through melody, like the female characters played by the nuns, he speaks or shouts his lines, by turns insinuating and threatening. It would be anachronistic to call this a "feminist" play, but it is certainly a play that does not shy away from dealing with the special concerns of women vowed to lives of celibacy, poverty, and domination by men.

Apocalypse Plays.

Yet another Latin play created by a monastic community in twelfth-century Germany reveals that withdrawal from the temptations of the world did not necessarily imply a retreat from interest in worldly affairs. The Play of Antichrist from the imperial abbey of Tegernsee probably dates from the years around 1160, which marked important developments in the political career of Frederick II "Barbarossa" (c. 1123–1190), who had been elected emperor of the Romans in 1152. Nicknamed "red beard," and as hot-tempered as he was redheaded, Frederick was extremely ambitious, and spent his long reign attempting to exercise control over a vast and diverse region, which included the principalities of Germany, the city-states of northern Italy, and parts of Eastern Europe. Constantly in conflict with the pope, and jealous of the success of his contemporary, Henry II of England, Frederick saw himself as the rightful successor of Constantine and Charlemagne—and seemingly believed that he was also destined to unify Europe; in fact, it was Frederick who coined the term "Holy Roman Empire" to describe the loose configuration of territories that made up his domain. The Play of Antichrist dramatizes Frederick's political pretensions, and may have been performed in his presence at Tegernsee. It draws upon Christian teachings about the Apocalypse—the second coming of Christ—suggesting that Frederick might well have seen himself in the role of the triumphant world leader whose restoration of Roman power would eventually bring about the coming of the Antichrist, thereby ushering in an era of fear, hypocrisy, and false miracles. But this time of uncertainty is a necessary precursor to the salvation of the human race, since the duplicity of the Antichrist is destined to be revealed by the prophets Enoch and Elijah, who will also succeed in bringing about the conversion of the Jews to Christianity, which is necessary to pave the way for the Second Coming of Christ, the Last Judgment, and the End of Days. This is hardly a comfortable subject for a play, and it is difficult for a modern reader to understand the messages that may have been conveyed in its performance. But the staging must have been a revelation in itself. Like the liturgical dramas devised for Christmas and Easter, The Play of Antichrist was designed for performance at various stations or sites, with some of the action taking place in several locations simultaneously. In this case, however, the relatively simple requirements of The Visit to the Sepulchre, or even the plays of Herod and the Magi, are replaced by the full-scale deployment of armies, the negotiations of ambassadors, and the ceremonious subjugation of kings; the stage directions in the manuscript reveal that The Play of Antichrist required seven "thrones" or scaffolds representing the major powers of the known world, each of which is vanquished by the emperor of the Romans and then reconquered by the Antichrist and his minions. The trickery of the Antichrist also calls for special effects of a more subtle kind, since it must be made evident to the audience that he is not the real Christ, and that his promises are lies. Accordingly, the actor performing this role is directed to wear armor that is only partly concealed by his outer garments, while the performer playing the part of a man whom Antichrist will pretend to raise from the dead is carefully instructed to make it clear that he is only "faking death." But the very theatricality of the Antichrist's "miracles" is itself disturbing and potentially subversive, since it brings to mind the overt theatricality of the church's own performance of sacramental miracles, notably in the daily celebration of the Mass.

Acting Locally in Arras.

The surviving plays dating from the years prior to 1300 suggest that the theater of the Middle Ages was well equipped to address timely issues through the retelling of timeless stories. Even when performed in Latin, and as part of the liturgy, plays could contribute to ongoing debates within a community, or provide incisive commentary on the world outside. When performed in the vernacular, such plays worked even more powerfully, and could reach a wide audience. The thriving mercantile center of Arras in northeastern France provides scholars with the first vernacular plays written specifically for an urban population and developing plots that owe little to biblical models. The Jeu de saint Nicolas (The Play of St. Nicholas), composed after 1191 by Jehan Bodel (a professional entertainer and town clerk whose written works contributed new vocabulary to the language now called Old French), is based in part on stories of the saint's many miracles, but its real purpose is to describe a set of recent and momentous occurrences in the life of the town. In 1191, Arras became part of the expanding kingdom of Philip II "Augustus" (r. 1180–1223), the medieval architect of the modern French state; prior to that date, it had formed part of the independent county of Flanders. Jehan chose to tell the story of his town's changing political, cultural, and economic climate through the lens of saintly legend. In the play, a greedy pagan king wages war against a wealthy town, easily identifiable as Arras, and takes one of its official representatives captive. He also captures an icon of St. Nicholas, which the man from Arras tells him is capable not only of safeguarding treasure, but increasing it. Intrigued, the king places the icon in his treasury and advertises the fact that the money could easily be stolen. But when three thieves from a tavern in the marketplace of Arras try to make off with it, they are confronted by the angry St. Nicholas himself, who forces them to return the gold. When the king counts his money, he finds that there is more of it than ever before, so he converts to Christianity. Medieval Arras was renowned for its strong currency and its banking industry; Philip Augustus was famous for taking advantage of every opportunity that came his way, using the raw ingredients available to him, and Jehan created his own allegorical reading of the situation. About 75 years later, another famous son of Arras, the composer and poet Adam de la Halle, would imitate the artistry of Jehan Bodel in Jeu de la feuillée (The Play of the Bower), which would make even greater use of local settings, characters, and controversies. In fact, the humor of this later play is so specific to Arras around 1276 that it is very difficult for modern readers to understand what it is really about, let alone to laugh at its jokes.


Charles Burnett and Peter Dronke, eds., Hildegard of Bingen: The Context of Her Thought and Art. Warburg Institute Colloquia, no. 4 (London: Warburg Institute, 1998).

V. A. Kolve, "Ganymede Son of Getron: Medieval Monasticism and the Drama of Same-Sex Desire," Speculum 73 (1998): 1014–1067.

Barbara Newman, ed., Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998).