Apples and Oranges: How I Reconciled Modern and Medieval Theater
PATRICK SWAILES CALDWELL
“Let’s have the lights dim right at this moment.”
“No, no, let’s tweak that line.”
“Step down stage. Cross right. Hit that beat.”
Theater makers are specific because we correlate specificity with hard work. Projects often drop unexpectedly into your lap, only to trap your attention and time for months on end. Countless weeks go into crafting performances that last an hour or two, only to be carefully scrutinized and refined for the next performance. The sense of how rewarding a project is often depends less on what you’re working on than on how hard you work on it. That kind of arbitrariness can be overwhelming, and it often leads to a certain preciousness in which projects move forward. You can only work on so many projects that “fail” before thinking carefully about committing yourself for a year or more. If you are going to spend a considerable amount of time on something, it might as well be something you really think is worth the effort. It’s only natural, then, that you would want to try to make the performance you work on as “good” as possible.
“You try to fit a modern square peg to a medieval round hole, one that looks like it wants to be square but retreats to roundness when you try to fit the peg in.”
Medieval theater, however, is not trying to be “good,” at least in this modern sense. Medieval theater does not seek out catharsis, emotional revelation, or intellectual stimulation, though it welcomes those as rewards along the way. It follows a much different path towards “good” theater, one that always calls itself into question. Its notion of “good” leaves you skeptical of your own skepticism. You bite your own philosophical tail trying to hold it to more familiar theatrical standards. You try to fit a modern square peg to a medieval round hole, one that looks like it wants to be square but retreats to roundness when you try to fit the peg in. You yourself retreat to a corner, yelling, “Well, why does anyone do anything at all?” only to have your shape shifting round-hole of a professor reply, “I don’t know!” with an infuriating smile, then insist that you go back to laboriously translating a long-forgotten Middle English text, for some presumably good reason. Harrumph.
I was baffled by modern adaptations of medieval plays we watched, whose elements we were encouraged to emulate. What struck me was just how terrible they were. They were unfunny in a fascinating way: gesturally self-referential, reminiscent of bad sketch comedy, marred by an academic, self-congratulatory tone, and entirely amateurish in execution, with none of the charm of Peter Brook’s Rough Theater. What was worse is that the people in them had clearly worked incredibly hard on them. Despite my experience working on the strangest of materials in the plays that had made up my college acting career, I couldn’t fathom the arbitrariness of our endeavor.
* * *
“Why this play?”
Because we picked it.
“Why plays from this period?”
Because plays from this period have an inherent potential for subversion, given how they refute modern social hierarchy by enacting cultural icons and disrupting public space.
“Oh, ok. That’s cool. I like that.
But why not make a NEW play that accomplishes that same thing?”
A play that’s made now cannot accomplish the same thing.
Also, this is a medieval theater class.
“Well, fine. No arguing that. Well, alright! Let’s make it the best damn Antichrist anyone has ever seen! We’ll create these bits, and we can buy oranges from the magic shop for when Antichrist does miracles, and we can make it a musical, and it’s gonna be just great! Five, six, seven, eight!”
No, no, no. You must craft the script based on the play as it was written. All production interpretations and decisions should emerge from the text and from the collective efforts of the makers, not from a place of imposed decision.
“Hmmmm. Ok. Why?”
* * *
Even with these explanations, I was still unsatisfied. If medieval theater refutes the capitalist and marginalizing structures that our modern American theater can never escape, which I’m all for, it at the same time refuses to admit that it falls short of the most optimized version of itself. It aims to be “good” but doesn’t quite reach; it undercuts itself by refusing to dive all the way in. If medieval characters were so fluid and game-like, why not improvise the entire play? If medieval theater creates an apparatus for social subversion, why not provoke that subversion directly? It seemed to me that for all of its lofty claims, the constraints of our current socioeconomic regime imposed a timidity on the publicly enacted form: if we couldn’t pour blood across the plaza courtyard, why bother? Playing at the form was a pedagogical exercise that would never fully realize the potential of the practice. We would be doing medieval theater-lite. If we sought communal exercise and social subversion, we should instead be doing Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed—significantly more practical, without any of the inherent Church propaganda or anti-Semitism.
This was largely my experience of working on the play of the Antichrist, until it wasn’t.
“This theater rejects our modern understanding of theatrical ‘success’ and ‘failure.’ These texts are very interesting, just not in the ways we expect.”
When you point out its flawed optimization to medieval theater, medieval theater simply responds, “You’re right,” then flatly refutes the good of optimization in the first place. This theater rejects our modern understanding of theatrical “success” and “failure.” These texts are very interesting, just not in the ways we expect. They contain the complex social DNA of a distant moment in time whose sense of the individual was entirely different from ours, a pre-modern era where communal gathering and social ritual were not yet overtaken by the Enlightenment’s mind-body split or the selfishness of modern capitalism. Staying true to the text was like extracting DNA from Jurassic Park’s amber-encased prehistoric mosquito—or rather, Jurassic World’s amber-encased prehistoric mosquito, because in Jurassic Park the goal is historical replication. In Jurassic World they use the old DNA to breed new forms of dinosaurs, a much better metaphor for the kind of medieval theater we were doing.
* * *
So, what kind of medieval theater were we making? For one, our process prepared an event that would be a unique experience, never to be replicated. This was a fundamental departure from my experience of American theater practices, which work towards iterability. This is not to say that spontaneity or the spirit of “doing it for its own sake” is unique to the Middle Ages. But by essentially outsourcing the dramatic content to our medieval writers who had imported the complexity of their era into their texts, by holding the content true to what the writers originally crafted and resisting the modern adapter’s agenda, we were able to highlight the changes in the social and cultural variables that concerned those writers after so many centuries had passed.
The arbitrariness behind this process of outsourcing the content of the play in many ways also outsourced the preciousness in choosing repertoire that can make working in the modern American theater so stressful. Our only commitment was to the writers, not to the commercial or artistic success of our efforts. Rather than argue over what to build, we simply tried to follow the play’s instructions. Oddly enough, this allowed the actors to have much more fun in the actual performance. With modern notions of “success” setting such high stakes for the actor’s work, you pray you don’t lose the fun you stumble into during rehearsal. by contrast, with medieval theater, the fun keeps appearing in the most unlikely of places to surprise and delight you. If you lose it, it always turns up again, so long as you don’t try to force it in. Fun, as it turns out, is riper for the picking in the medieval theater, with its lack of twelve-hour tech days in a damp, dark basement, outside the cerebral dojo of the classroom. Fun is best proven through fun; it must be encountered through the doing—which is why medieval theater never made sense to me until we did it.
And we had a ball. I had the most fun I’ve ever had on stage. Even though the process rejects the cultivation of catharsis, it arrived there nonetheless in the form of laughter and relief. Through performance, it all made sense; the profundity of the ritual was clear. (And alcohol certainly helped to expedite matters). At the end of it all, was the Chester Antichrist worth the effort? Was it a success? Let’s take stock:
- This play had the most diverse audience of a show I’ve ever worked on.
- It was the most subversive act I had ever performed on school grounds, despite all our roguish undergraduate talk.
- It was more fun and less stressful than any show I’d ever been in.
“Performing this play demonstrated to me, in real time, what’s lost by letting our current theatrical architecture go unchallenged, and what may be gained by freeing ourselves from its constraints.”
Suddenly, my former definition of success seemed rather absurd.
Admittedly, I won’t be devoting my life to the medieval theater any time soon. I still have unresolved conflicts with the time period and some of its thematic content. My skepticism has and will always cause friction between me and this work. But now, I have better tools to translate that skepticism into a dramatic language that can productively dialogue with a fundamentally different kind of theater. I am also entirely humbled to admit that this practice has shattered my previously limited perspective of what constitutes “successful” theater. Performing this play demonstrated to me, in real time, what’s lost by letting our current theatrical architecture go unchallenged, and what may be gained by freeing ourselves from its constraints.