Medieval Drama 101

Hi again! In this post, I give an overview of medieval theater and how it plays into The Second Shepherd’s Play. Happy Learning!

  • Medieval drama was religious. After theater was essentially destroyed by the Christianization of Rome, and after the throes of the dark ages, the Catholic Church began to incorporate theater back into the liturgical services and mass, first through call and response, known as Quem quaritis and later through further established plays, non known as liturgical drama.
    • Staging within the church took place on the platea: a big open central space.
      • Mansions depicted different locations and were located around the church in little enclaves. A scene would begin in front of a mansion, to denote location, and then would use the entire platea. It was the audience’s job to use their imaginations and extend the location of the mansion to the entire platea. (This is important!)
      • Over time religious dramas were written in contemporary language, as opposed to Latin, known as vernacular dramas.
      • Vernacular dramas incorporated contemporary anachronisms – such as references to the feudal system – making them more accessible to the general public. We see this in the play!
      • Comedy, particular low comedy, is incorporated into shows too.
      • The appearance of vernacular drama corresponded with taking theater outside, incorporating different types of staging.
      • Processional Staging: the audiences assembles in various places and the actors move from location to location on a pageant wagon, thereby watching the story literally move chronologically forward.
      • Some critics believed that a silent tableaux of the action would move through town on the pageant wagon (think parade), and then arrive at the stage for the performance.
  • Stationary Staging: a series of small mansions are set up side by side, with a large stage area in front. The actors begin in front of a location and then move to the larger area (as we saw in church dramas), thereby forcing audiences to use their imagination to extend the location to the entire playing area.
    • The audience’s comfort with the presence of multiple locations in broad daylight as well as using their imaginations to apply one location to the stage gives a little insight into their cultural mindset:
      • All times and all places are interconnected in God’s eyes and his plan for our lives. Seeing them side by side and jumping from one location, and often, from one time to another is not confusing or odd, it’s simply a reflection of God’s way of life.
      • The Second Shepherd’s Play is an episodic drama, which is more flexible than traditional crisis drama of Greek and Roman theater.
      • Rather than focusing on one problem (or crisis) that we see develop to climax, episodic drama can have seemingly separate plots that each highlight the other
      • In TSSP, we shift from the Mak plot to the Jesus plot, but they inform the other
      • Mak steals a lamb, Christ is known as the lamb of God
      • The Shepherds travel and pay tribute to Mak’s “baby,” and try to give gifts, and then do so to the Christ child.
      • The two separate plot lines come together and make one powerful image: the coming of the Christ child.
      • The flexibility of plot in episodic drama allows for a more relaxed view of genre blending, time period blending, high v low comedy etc.
      • Again, this shows the medieval mindset, all of life is part of God’s time continuum. The past is part of the medieval present.

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