Medieval Theatre Loves You: Doing Theatre that Makes People Happy
An interview with Peter Schumaan about the Bread and Puppet Theater
A unique theatre experience has been occurring in Glover, Vermont since the 1960s. Started by German artist Peter Schumaan, the Bread and Puppet Theater combines a festival of politically charged puppet theatre with a feast of homemade bread. Discussing the ideas behind his project, Schumaan remarks in an interview that “the bread eating is the motive for the puppet show, the puppet show is just the vehicle to make that possible. People wouldn’t eat bread together unless we created an occasion for it.” It’s the making and sharing of the bread that inspires Schumaan to create the art that’s paired with the bread. Schumaan is exceptional in his singular dedication to this artistic tradition, and bringing his ideal of theatre to the masses is a difficult task given the current state of the theatre industry. Theatre made in this spirit does not only happen in Vermont, however. Our production of the Chester Antichrist was a reminder that performance in the name of communal celebration is one of the most vital activities one can share in.
For us, this sense of communal celebration was also organized around the making and sharing of food. One early class assignment tasked us to prepare food that may have been eaten during the Middle Ages. The dishes were simple and modest, but there was no denying the powerful impact our food brought to the table. We gathered to taste, and the class transformed into a giddy celebration of our attempts at medieval cooking. The fact that we were eating dishes we’d made with our own hands felt like a victory in itself. This feeling that emerged in the classroom directly correlated to the style of performance we executed in our production of the Chester Antichrist, which we designed as a way to celebrate the human ability to gather, eat, and laugh together.
Medieval drama was first and foremost a social experience, not an artistic performance weighed on a scale of good or bad. This sharply contrasts with the ruthless performance climate of New York City: the joy of simply gathering together to be framed by a performance is rare among actors who struggle day in and day out to carve a little place inside their small professional bubble. None of this applied to our production of the Chester Antichrist. In fact, our production should be seen as a direct rebuttal against the system that professional theatre is made in. The process of making our Antichrist followed an overwhelming commitment to creating an environment of relaxed exploration. In the end, we were there to bring people together—the fact that we were putting on a performance was a secondary concern.
Our medieval material lent itself well to this approach to performance. In translating the play, there was rarely a need to embellish the main action. Almost everything was already in place. The action the text called for was often so juicy and ripe with the possibility of dramatic irony that our writers could often translate the text into modern English while keeping the Middle English sentence structure in place. For example, when the Antichrist raises himself from the dead, the original text reads, “And after my resurrection / then will I sitt in greate renowne / and my ghooste send to you downe / in forme of fyre full soone. / I dye, I dye! Nowe am I dead!” (ll.129-133). Our writers translated this as, “Okay, so after my resurrection, I will sit in great renown and I will send my spirit down to you in the form of fire, alright? It’ll happen soon, I promise, so just be on the lookout. Ok here we go Look! Ok Uh Ok look I’m dying! I’m dying! Now I’m dead!” Besides some modern colloquialism, the difference between the two texts is minimal. Our Antichrist still spoke about his soul returning as fire (at which point Antichrist’s Body shot flames into the air using a small hidden fire gun) and spoke virtually the same dying words to end his speech.
In translating the text, our writers often focused on inviting the audience into the play. This was one of several ways that the audience was taken into consideration. Another major breakthrough occurred through experimentation during rehearsal, once we realized we could use Andrew Albin, our professor, to read the Latin that begins the play. Prof. Albin is soon interrupted by Antichrist, who takes over the speech and later kills off Prof. Albin to stop him from interjecting with more Latin. Through this device, the students immediately took power away from their professor and let the audience know that they would be in control of the show. In enacting the death of Andrew Albin, we simulated the momentary death of academia. Scrupulous research and specificity gave way to the joy of not getting it right. In many ways, academia and stereotypical modern theatre have much in common, an alliance our Antichrist brilliantly destroyed. Albin’s speech in beautiful Latin immediately separated him from the other performers and the audience. His scholarly skill worked against his relatability in our performance context, so that Antichrist’s interruption could allow the performance to assert itself as something adamantly uninvolved with scholarly posturing. This invited the audience to take joy in this production as an experience meant for them.
Our performance invited our audience into the dramatic world in ways related to but different from dramatic performance in the Middle Ages. Hans Jürgen Diller explains the nature of audience interaction in medieval theatre as a means to keep the audience connected to the dramatic world: “Addressing the audience even from within the play may not have been a threat to the integrity of the dramatic world, but rather a way of keeping the audience hooked” (157). Though a modern audience may recognize audience interaction of this sort, it also understands it as a theatrical device. Breaking the fourth wall becomes a choice, and in doing it the actors free themselves from having to obey the demands of naturalistic acting. Instead, they can ease the audience into a constant state of engagement. For medieval drama, no performance exists outside its audience, in the modern day and in the Middle Ages alike.