2019 Theater History Class notes / weekly

Abraham and Isaac
by an anonymous author  / Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry  / Miss Julie by Strindberg  / Henry VI, part 2 by Shakespeare  / short plays by Samuel Beckett  / Our Town by Thornton Wilder A Month in the Country  by Turgenev /  A Funny-Thing-Happened-on-the-Way-to-the-Forum by Stephen Sondheim, Burt Shevelove, and Larry Gelbart  / Sweeney Todd by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler

Abraham and Isaac by an anonymous author
Everyman by an anonymous author

It’s important to remember that history is not what happened. History is what was recorded and how we interpret what we find as evidence of the past. When we speak of the Medieval mind, we are drawing inferences from what physically survives from a time long ago, five hundred to fifteen hundred years in the past: paintings, woodcuts, music, architecture, writing, bits of ivory, pieces of stone, embroidery, indentations in the dirt, and scraps of sheepskin. That these relics survive is the power of fate and, often, the power of politics and wealth.

Some scholars call four lines, the Quem Quaeritis, which mean “Who are you looking for?” the first theatre in Western Europe. This was when priests or altar boys impersonated the Three Marys: Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Martha and Lazarus —the last Mary unimportant to be sure, out of the B list of Biblical characters, but you can see how much the audience enjoyed threes. Certain modern scholars include the Priest and come up with Four Marys, but we know from the dialog the fourth priest spoke the words of the Angel at the Tomb.
The Three Marys stood up in the aisle, perhaps in drag. “Who are you looking for?” the angel (presumably not in drag) asked? “For Jesus,” the three Marys say, chant or sing. “He’s not here, he’s gone up to Heaven. Go and tell people.” This was all in Latin as was the Mass, but it was an addition to the Mass, and so called a trope: not unlike a little jazz riff. One imagines their words done, the three Marys moved down the aisle enacting the spread of the gospel. If you think the Quem Quaeritis counts as theater, I don’t. It seems more to me like a knock-knock joke, but if we stretch we can sniff in the use of dialog and impersonation and symbolic actions like walking down the aisle (and men or boys dressed in women’s clothing) the start of something.

[In AD 476 warriors attacked the city of Rome and ended the Roman Empire. The period between then and the start of the Renaissance in Italy around 1450 is known as the Middle Ages
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We have only to listen to their music, to understand what the function of their art was to smother, to overwhelm, to envelope, to lift spirits high, to leave the gross material world behind, their singing voices an accumulation of sameness where the individual is bent to praise god and obey orders.

If they could see with our eyes and hear with our ears, they’d probably complain that our senses are dulled. If they could look into our hearts, they would be startled at our lack of spiritual life, as they would understand the life of the spirit.

We study them not as cul de sacs of experience, but as a mode of being human, and a mode that will always rise, the same as a fart. Their way of thinking, we now know, repeats itself.


“In the Middle Ages both sides of human consciousness–that which was turned within as that which was turned without– lay dreaming or half awake beneath a common veil. The veil was woven of faith, illusion, and childish prepossession, through which the world and history were seen clad in strange hues. Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation–only through some general category. ”
Jakob Burckhardt “The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy” 1860

“Theirs was no faith of abstractions and generalities. For them, heaven was very near to earth, touching and mingling with it at many points. On high, God the Father sat enthroned; and, nearer to human sympathies, Divinity incarnate in the Son, with the benign form of his immaculate mother, and her spouse, St. Joseph …. Interceding saints and departed friends bore to the throne of grace the petitions of those yet lingering in mortal bondage, and formed an ascending chain from earth to heaven.”
Francis Parkman,   “The Jesuits in North America” 1867

“The Middle Ages never forgot that all things would be absurd, if their meaning were exhausted in their function and their place in the phenomenal world, if by their essence they did not reach into a world beyond this. This idea of a deeper significance in ordinary things is familiar to us as well, independently of religious convictions: as an indefinite feeling which may be called up at any moment, by the sound of raindrops on the leaves or by the lamplight on a table. Such sensations may take the form of a morbid oppression, so that all things seem to be charged with a menace or a riddle which we must solve at any cost. Or they may be experienced as a source of tranquility and assurance, by filling us with the sense that our own life, too, is involved in this hidden meaning of the world. The more this perception converges upon the absolute One, whence all things emanate, the sooner it will tend to pass from the insight of a lucid moment to a permanent and formulated conviction. ‘By cultivating the continuous sense of our connection with the power that made things as they are, we are tempered more towardly for their reception. The outward face of nature need not alter, but the expressions of meaning in it alter. It was dead and is alive again. It is like the difference between looking on a person without love, or upon the same person with love … When we see all things in God, and refer all things to Him, we read in common matters superior expressions of meaning.’”

– J. Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages, 1919
– (quoting William James, Varieties of Religious Experience) 1902

Mystery plays:  
The word probably relates to the old Latin word for trade or guild, or occupation. It might relate to the Latin word meaning: to do, to act, which would put it in a line with more recent thinking about theater and performance, but that seems to me to be wishful thinking. As “mystery” plays they might be called in English equivalent, the guild plays, the union plays. What the mysteries do is enact the stories from the Bible.

Miracle plays:The miracle plays are the stories of the saints. Along with relics, the saints left behind their inspirational life-stories. The miracle plays dramatize moments when the miracle of the saint is revealed. Performing a miracle play turns the audience into witnesses of miracles, in the role of Christ’s disciples.  Through an accident of fate, the earliest example of a medieval play we have is a miracle play, and odder still, we know the author: the Saxon nun named Hroswitha (though there’s indication her real name was Helena). Her dates are roughly 915-940. Obviously educated and with some freedom of thought, she copied the form of the Roman playwright Terence, whose plays she found in the convent library. There is no record of the plays being performed at the time they were written.

Morality plays:  They have a moral: a lesson of how to live one’s life. They’re acted-out parables or sermons, with actors taking the part of personified ideas: Faith, Good Deeds, Family, Everyman. The play called Everyman is the most famous in English, though it now seems to be a translation from Dutch. Everyone forsakes Everyman: family, friends, wealth, beauty, everything but good deeds and knowledge. The story is an example of the medieval habit of using art to see the abstract rather than the specific. The character named Family is not anyone’s mother or even third cousin, but simply the concept “Family.” This is what’s called an allegory. It’s interesting to look at the root of that word, too. It’s Greek, from the agora , the market place, itself derived from an earlier word that means herd and by extension crowd. Allegory: what one says to the crowd or herd.