Saturday, September 18, 2010

Medieval Theater: Notes

Medieval Theatre
 Time frame: 5th c- mid 16th c
 Secular theatre died in Western Europe with the fall of Rome
 Theatrical performances were banned by the Roman Catholic Church as barbaric and pagan
 Most Roman theatre had been “spectacle” rather than literary drama

Roman Literary Drama
 2nd c. bc - 4th c. ce
  Origins in Greek drama and Roman festivals
 Tragedy: Seneca
 Comedy:Terence and Plautus

Roman Spectacle
Gladiatorial combats
Naval battles in a flooded Coliseum
“Real-life” theatricals
Decadent, violent and immoral
All theatrical events were banned by the Church when Rome became Christianized

Byzantine Theatre
 The Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium)  with its capitol at Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) flourished until 1453.
 The Byzantines kept Greek and Roman theatrical pieces alive and saved manuscripts and records of Classical playwrights.

Drama in the Early Middle Ages
 Small groups of  traveling performers – minstrels, jugglers, acrobats, bards, mimes, puppeteers -- went from town to town entertaining.
 They performed in taverns and at festivals for the commoners and at court for the nobility
 Festivals usually contained both pagan and Christian elements ( e.g. Halloween and Christmas celebrations )

Liturgical Drama
 The Roman Catholic Church was responsible for the rebirth of European theatre in the 10th –12th century.
 All Europe had been converted to Christianity
 The Church needed ways to teach illiterate parishioners: cathedrals, stained glass windows, sculpture, painting and drama
Religious rituals ( the mass, baptism, etc.) embody theatrical elements.  
 Priests began to incorporate such elements into the gospel lessons of the mass.
 The first short plays were called tropes
 Written in Latin, these tropes were performed by the clergy during the mass.

Religious Vernacular Drama
 Vernacular: language spoken by the people
 To reach the commoners, the clergy began to translate the liturgical plays into vernacular languages
 As the plays became more elaborate, they were moved from the altar of the church to the church yard.
 As more roles were added, commoners were used as amateur actors

The 3 M’s of Religious Vernacular Drama
 Mystery plays: Biblical stories

Miracle plays: saints’ lives

Morality plays: allegories

Mystery Plays
 Mystery:  from French mystere -- secret.  The term could refer to Biblical truths or to the secrets of the crafts held by the guilds who were responsible for producing the plays.
 In England, these Biblical plays were produced in cycles: a series of plays depicting Biblical history from the Creation to the Last Judgement.  Also known  as Cycle Plays.
 The cycles were usually performed at the religious festival of Corpus Christi -- in the spring or early summer.

Mystery Plays performed by Trade Guilds
 While the plays were written by the clergy and overseen by the Church, the performances were produced by the guilds of each town and mostly performed by amateur actors.
 Productions were considered a religious duty, and each guild invested considerable resources into productions.
 Plays were often assigned to guilds associated with the subject matter of the play and became a kind of “advertisement”
The Flood:  Shipbuilders or Barrelmakers
 The Nativity: Shepherds
 The Magi: Goldsmiths

Miracle Plays
 Miracle plays were similar to mystery plays in dramatic techniques
 Dramatized the lives of Roman Catholic saints
(in order to become a saint, a person had to perform 3 documented miracles)
 The most popular subjects were the Virgin Mary (plays usually written in Latin), St. George (dragon slayer and patron saint of England)  and St. Nicholas ( associated with Christmas festivities)

Morality Plays
 Theme: how to live a Christian life and be saved.
 A story told on two levels: the literal and the the symbolic
 Plot: a journey through life or to death
 Emphasis switches from Biblical and saintly protagonists to the common man: Everyman, Mankind
 Focus on free will
 First major use of professional acting companies  

Dramatic Techniques
 Theatre was performed in found spaces: town squares, taverns, churches, banquet halls -- no specifically designated theatres
 Theatre was intimate -- audience interacted with performers
 Elaborate special effects
 Characterization was often dependent upon costume and makeup