We’ll Do It Live: Finding Vital Modernity in Medieval Drama
Danger lay at the heart of our modern-medieval theatrical praxis. To the modern yeoman, the phrase “medieval drama” is unlikely to captivate. The fiery religiosity, antiquated language, and expository style of these plays can create distance between medieval scripts and modern practitioners. However, by examining the playtext not just as a literary inscription but also as a handbook for holding a civic event, our production was able to harness the social polemic and fiery lifeblood that lives inside the Chester Antichrist.
After our back-and-forth translating the playtext, everything changed when we started to actually make this piece of theatre. On the very first day of staging, we made a directorial decision that unlocked a new layer of meaning and established the tone of the piece going forward. The ensemble decided Prof. Albin himself would read the Antichrist’s opening lines, which remained in Latin at the end of the script development phase. This dramaturgical crux recontextualized the rest of the show. Introducing a character beyond those scripted by the playtext does away with its strict formalism. The gesture recognizes the confines of the plot and draws the audience’s attention beyond the story to the performance itself. Even so, having The Professor speak with the authority of formal Latin establishes a power dynamic, as it did in the original script. When, in our production, Antichrist ousts The Professor and takes the performance over, it not only signals a sharp tonal shift into grotesque showmanship, it also upends traditional authority in a way that raises interesting questions about the nature of the Antichrist’s mission.
Dramaturgically, the inclusion of Prof. Albin engaged the audience on a metatheatrical level. Stepping out in front of the dramatic plot draws the audience’s attention not just to the content of the show but also to the doing of the show itself. It was at this level, which pays only minor attention to the substance of the plot, that much of our production’s performances value exists.
One way to understand where this value came from relates to what Peter Brook calls the “Rough Theatre.” In his seminal text The Empty Space, Brook describes the Rough Theatre’s links to the populist, folk-driven theatrical traditions to which medieval drama belongs. Brook evaluates this kind of theatre as a vivid and pragmatic theatrical approach: “The science of theatre-building must come from studying what it is that brings the most vivid relationship between people—and is this best served by asymmetry, even by disorder?” (65). In the Rough Theatre, establishing an immediate, consequential relationship between performers and spectators takes precedence over narrative clarity. This usually results in a clownish, vaudevillian style. However, the Rough Theatre also creates a space for meaningful discourse. During the early twentieth century, practitioners like Bertolt Brecht turned to populist “rough” traditions like circus and burlesque as formal reference points for revitalizing their narrative forms. Brecht capitalized on the highly entertaining, attention-grabbing nature of what are often considered “lower” dramatic forms and used them as platforms for incisive social critique.
When it comes to grabbing attention, the Rough Theatre is an ideal tool because it is rooted in easily comprehensible physical engagement: “The Rough Theatre deals with men’s actions, and because it is down to earth and direct—because it admits wickedness and laughter—the rough and ready seems better than the hollowly holy” (Brooks 71). Performances in the Rough Theatre are defined by a gritty realness, not artful illusion and poetic flourish. Performances of this sort revel in mortal flaw and grotesque imperfection. This style matches the Chester Antichrist especially well. The play’s message of doom through deception and its antagonistic treatment of the audience respond well to the raucous grit of the Rough Theatre.
Though the Rough Theatre does deliver a narrative, its primary focus is on the social agitation performance can produce. It is often fueled by the chaos that can results when social norms dissolve. From the moment we planted our crosses in the plaza soil, we broke Fordham’s normative campus experience and drew our audience into a liminal space where social norms could move to the wayside. The Antichrist entered and spurred the audience and actors to indulge their wildest impulses, including a thirst for human sacrifice. This altered theatrical environment is characteristic of the Rough Theatre, which also creates a breeding ground for more profound dissent: “Lightheartedness and gaiety feeds it, but so does the same energy that produces rebellion and opposition. This is a militant energy: it is the energy of anger, sometimes the energy of hate” (Books 70). Obstructing space through performing our story conflated public with private, character with actor, in ways that could call into question the social norms and constructed identities that scaffold society.