Medieval Community Theatre: A Model for the Future
“Medieval plays were not written for the theatre,” begins Meg Twycross’s essay on the theatricality of medieval English plays. “They were put on in city streets, in churches, on playing fields, in college halls and in private houses, and they exploited each of these venues in its own distinctive way” (26). In other words, Shakespeare may have been doing more than waxing poetic when he wrote “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players; / They have their exits and their entrances, / And one man in his time plays many parts” (As You Like It II.vii.139-142). He was potentially recognizing a legitimate fact about premodern theatre praxis, insofar as early English drama before the invention of the theater was a major artistic project that was fundamentally community based.
During the Middle Ages, theatre took place in what we now would consider non-traditional spaces like the ones Twycross mentions. Thus, no stages or theatres existed—and yet, simultaneously, every space carried the transformative potential to become a dramatic playing area by sheer force of imagination. Contemporary theatre, on the other hand, is so accustomed to being housed inside auditoriums and playhouses that any change from that modality is often seen as experimental or avant-garde, even in the restoration of original practices that were the norm seven centuries ago.
For the most part, medieval English theatre was primarily large-scale open-air theatre, which encouraged the production of plays, or pageants as they were called, during the summer, especially around the liturgical Feast of Corpus Christi held a few weeks after Easter. We attempted to recreate this repurposing of public space by also staging our performance of the Chester Antichrist outdoors and making creative use of our surroundings. We stationed ourselves on Lincoln Center’s plaza lawn directly in front of the looming figure of the Peter the Fisherman. In fact, Antichrist’s throne was set directly beneath the shadow of Peter’s net, which threatened not only to catch the Antichrist, but also to reach over and grab the audience as well. This environmental feature made the play’s religious symbolism immediately apparent, anticipating its dramatic design before any of the actors uttered a single line.
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Before the days of casual theater-going, the “civic cycles of mystery plays” were day-long dramatic events. Guilds presented a series of plays beginning with the biblical story of creation and ending with the final judgment, offering an artistic, communal, and religious celebration of paramount importance. As Twycross elaborates, “[E]ach of these plays was the centrepiece of a special occasion for a close-knit community” (26). It was an experience unlike any the modern theatre can offer because it did not belong to any one particular group of people but was the product of an entire community, both viewers and theater-makers.
Medieval theatre was not usually performed and produced by professional artists, actors, and musicians, but primarily by average members of the local community, in other words, amateurs. As Twycross explains, “Each episode was delegated to a separate group, a craft or religious guild, which was totally responsible for its production” (29). This explains why the Chester Antichrist is also called “The Diars Playe,” as this pageant was produced by the Chester dyers guild each year. Dyers were the craftspeople responsible for the dying of different fabrics. The three main dyes of the period were woad, used for various shades of blue, weld for yellows, and madder to produce reds. Used alone or in combination, these dyes could create a rainbow of colors. In fact, “[d]ye recipes were jealously guarded by the medieval dyers guilds and it was not until 1548 that a book containing dye recipes first became available to the general public” (“The Dyer”). All of this is to say that dyeing was a specialty that would have been exploited to great effect in original productions of Antichrist, a play that relies heavily on lavish costuming. Plays were chosen by or designated to specific guilds on the basis of functionality and utility, and with colorful figures like Antichrist, the Archangel Michael, the kings, the demons, and the dead to costume, the dyers would have had their work cut out for them. More than that, these pageants were prime opportunities for each guild to advertise the quality of their wares, in addition to simply putting on a great show that would ultimate improve their status within the community.
While the revival of the guild system would have been difficult for us to undertake for the purposes of our performance, that system does help us think about how medieval playmaking can be reinvented to bring together a community of people with different talents, abilities, and interests. Each of us who participated in the production came from different artistic backgrounds and fields of academic study, and we built a makeshift skills-based network of our own to draw on. In addition, during the very hands-on process of putting the play together, we split into three working groups: writing, acting/directing, and media. Like a guild, we worked collaboratively within these teams to achieve our goals, but each group also collectively built off the work of other groups. For example, once the writing group had completed a draft of the script, then the acting group could begin to conduct rehearsals more efficiently, and once the piece finally took shape, the media group, which had been working on promotions and advertising all the while, got the chance to film the performance.
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Even if we had a massive budget with unlimited time and resources, one element of medieval drama that we could never recreate is the relationship medieval people had to plays and theatre in general. As Twycross writes, “The mystery plays were at the same time a religious festival and a tourist attraction: their players could draw on a charge of heightened religious emotion and civic pride which we can never recreate” (26). To be sure, theatre was a profound source of entertainment in a world predating the internet and modern technology, but it was more than that. For medieval people, active participation in these theatre traditions was deeply tied to active participation in the community, and therefore was a matter of identity, communication, and connection. Thus, Twycross goes on, “Modern revivals have to face the fact not only that they cannot recapture this relationship, but that there is probably nothing they can substitute that will not do violence to or distort the plays’ premises” (27). We can never recreate exactly the understanding or relationship medieval people had to theatre. The most we can do is try to rediscover that relationship for ourselves.
“Allow the community to take back ownership of a mode of expression that once belonged to them, and we just may generate community theatre in the truest sense.”
As anyone in theatre will tell you, and as we quickly realized, putting on plays depends on collaboration and teamwork. Medieval drama demands this in unique ways that could provide a model for playmaking that contemporary theatre artists should seriously consider, in order to restore theatre to the game, the event, the celebration it once was. This would be a difficult endeavor in the modern age, when so many options exist for entertaining, occupying, or otherwise distracting ourselves at all times. The availability and scope of our technology has created an environment where people don’t even need to walk out their front door. And while communities have grown more heterogeneous than they were in the past, people have grown much more suspicious of one another.
The way I see it, medieval dramaturgical practices have the potential to rebuild a sense of community in a culture that threatens to cut people off from each other. Until theatre is back in the hands of the people—all people, amateur and professional alike—it can never actualize the function it once fulfilled. Allow the community to take back ownership of a mode of expression that once belonged to them, and we just may generate community theatre in the truest sense.