ENGL 4148: Medieval English Drama in Performance
A note on Middle English
Class features and assignments
The rhythm of the semester
Experimenting with collaborative dramaturgy
A digital archive
In the English late Middle Ages (roughly 1350-1500), theater was a thoroughly local affair. Performances spanned from one-night-only entertainments, acted by lavishly costumed noblemen for their peers, to massive cycles of city-specific religious plays, performed annually over a period of days by an entire community. The architectural structures we nowadays call “theaters”—those public, profitable playhouses where troupes of professional actors perform their daily fare—wouldn’t be dreamed up until the 1570’s; in their absence, theater took place just about anywhere: in cathedrals, on churchyards, in manors and banqueting halls, on village greens, even on specially made carts lumbering through the everyday streets. Scurrilous scatology stood alongside the most divine of mysteries; the humble, menial struggles of Everyman had their place “on stage” just as much as the social and political quandaries of a king. In short, in studying medieval English drama, we gaze into a mirror of medieval English society and discover how that seemingly alien time and place represented itself for its own instruction and delight.
In this course, we will study medieval English drama for the rewards it offers not just as an ever-surprising, ever-moving body of literature, but more profoundly as evidence for historical performances and as script brimming with future performances. As we survey the range of dramatic genres, modes, and effects available to the English late Middle Ages, we will continually circle back to one central question: How are these dramatic works meaningful in and as performance? A series of assignments over the course of the semester will help us develop a thick context for understanding late medieval theatricality and will help us close read the playtexts themselves to tease out their resonances for medieval audiences. Alongside this historical concern, we will also ask what it means to read and perform medieval English drama in the 21st century—and we will put that knowledge to work, with our own creative staging and performance of a medieval drama at the end of the semester. In this way, we will make these plays local, make them meaningful, and make them our own.
Over the course of this semester, students will…
- read, pronounce, and understand Middle English.
- analyze and interpret medieval playtexts in their original language.
- evaluate the formal characteristics of medieval drama for their literary and performance potential.
- collaborate, exercise leadership, and share responsibility through small group assignments.
- experiment with theatrical praxis, both medieval and contemporary.
- practice creative spontaneity through open-ended play with vocal bodies in space.
- adapt, advertise, and publicly perform a work of medieval English drama at Lincoln Center.
- develop multimedia content for a digital archive of the end-of-semester performance.
A NOTE ON MIDDLE ENGLISH
All of the plays we read this semester are written in a form of the English language called Middle English, as distinct from Old English, an early form of the language closer to English’s Nordic and Germanic roots, and Modern English, the form of the language we speak today. As does Modern English, Middle English existed in a number of regional dialects. Some of the plays we read are written in dialects closer to our Modern English; others are written in more challenging and remote dialects. Be curious about and attentive to these linguistic differences, but fear not: our glossed and annotated editions, the Middle English Dictionary, and our classroom discussions will guide you towards clear understanding.
Though the language may seem daunting at first, I promise you, the more you read, and the more you read aloud, the easier it will get—but you must read the Middle English. You will not flourish in this course if you don’t. We will spend plenty of time in class working hands-on with the plays’ idiom, reciting lines together, and exploring linguistic nuances. Actively interrupt our conversation to ask about the words on the page. If you’re having difficulty understanding the text, so is everyone else, so let’s work through that difficulty together. Our conversations in the classroom will always go back to the original text; when you quote the playtexts in written work, always quote and analyze the Middle English.
This does not, though, mean that you shouldn’t avail yourself of every available resource to help you make sense of the texts we read. Become comfortable using our textbook’s in-text glosses and end-of-text glossary to help resolve roadblocks to comprehension. The Middle English Dictionary will help here, too. Most of our playtexts do not exist in modernized translations, so you’ll need to work through difficulties directly. When it does exist, there’s no shame in consulting a translation to verify your sense of the text, but only after you’ve wrestled with the Middle English text first. Keep in mind that a translation is never equivalent to its original: translation necessarily strips away the linguistic nuances of the source text, upon which close reading so crucially depends.
Do what you need to do to feel at home with the language. Keep a running handwritten list of unfamiliar words on a sheet of paper you keep folded in your book. Bookmark the Middle English Dictionary and keep it open on your laptop while you read. Recite the text with a classmate or roommate. Get as far as you can with the original, then try to work through moments of non-comprehension; if you get frustrated, make a note to ask about the passage in class, and keep reading. Cultivate a habit that works for you.
The rhythm of the semester
This course divides into three phases. For the first five weeks, we will develop hands-on working knowledge of some of the basic elements of medieval theater in a historical context: voice, song, body, social life, and space. The following two weeks will turn to the theoretical writings of four key modern theater practices to explore how critical approaches to dramaturgy might shape our perspectives on, readings of, and relationships to pre-modern drama. Following Spring Break, the remainder of the semester will be devoted to crafting an approximately 40-50 minute performance of one of the playtexts we read this semester, to be publicly performed at Lincoln Center shortly before our last class.
For the first two phases of the course, the focus of our in-class work will alternate each Tuesday and Friday. On Tuesdays, we’ll work with the playtexts as literary texts, plumbing them for their nuances and performing close readings informed by secondary critical essays. We’ll consider the relationship between form and content; we’ll identify important literary and linguistic features and ask focused analytical questions to help reveal how the playtext generates a complex body of meaning.
On Fridays, we’ll build on our Tuesday discussion and, supported by critical studies of historical dramaturgy, we’ll approach the playtexts as performance scripts, as sites for experimentation, improvisation, exploration, and play. These classes will require you to be active, mobile, honest, and spontaneous—they will be our laboratories for developing the habits of body, mind, voice, and spirit that will inform your end-of-semester performance. The last third of the semester will be more free-form, making use of the time as needed to perform research, dig deep into the playtext, develop a dramatic language and style, workshop what needs workshopping, and rehearse your end-of-semester performance.
Course log book
You are required to keep a course log book, which I will review at midterm and at the end of the semester. The log book functions as a repository for your thoughts, questions, and flashes of inspiration across three areas of course activity:
Assigned readings. As you actively read assigned texts (see “How to read course texts” below), use your log book to take notes, pose questions, identify sites of confusion or non-comprehension, record Middle English words you don’t understand, speculate about realizing the playtext in performance, etc. Look over your jottings a few minutes before class begins and be sure to bring up at least one issue or question during discussion.
Class discussion. Use your log book to take notes during class discussion. The aim is not to produce an accurate transcript of the conversation, but rather to keep a record of ideas that strike you and the thoughts, reactions, questions, and insights that emerge in turn. Please signal these impactful moments during the discussion, so we can explore them together!
Workshop reflection. After we’ve completed a theater game/performance workshop in class, I will give you a few minutes to reflect on what you’ve just accomplished. Use your log book to help remember the workshop experience and to reflect on how it could be useful for performance. Record the decisions and discoveries you made; jot down ideas that you want to explore further and/or present to the group in a future class.
When I review your log books, I will be looking not for voluminous writing but for thoughtful, inquisitive engagement. A well-crafted question that demonstrates intellectual initiative with and deep reflection upon a text’s interpretive or performative cruxes is much more valuable than the outline of a secondary critical essay or the plot summary of a play.
You will each be responsible for two small group projects and a short, individually written essay during the first half of the semester. Each basic element of medieval theater we study during the first five weeks of class has a corresponding small group project associated with it, due in class on the Friday of that week. Each project asks you to engage hands-on with that week’s element of medieval theater, sometimes informed by research. Your small group will present the project in-class on Friday and prepare a three-page reflection on the experience of completing the project and how the element of medieval theater the project explores connects to the assigned readings for that week. The in-class presentation and written reflection will be assigned separate grades, but those grades will be shared among all group members.
By the time we shift to performance in the second half of the semester, each student will write a short 4-5 page essay (around 1600 words) that either 1) performs a close reading of a playtext examining its polysemous use of one Middle English keyword 2) performs a literary analysis of a playtext that applies one of the secondary critical essays we’ve read during the semester or 3) develops a performance study of a playtext that employs the critical dramaturgy of one of the four modern theater practitioners we’ve read.
By the end of spring break, each student will choose one of the plays we’ve read for our end-of-semester public performance and post their choice to Blackboard with a short paragraph explaining the rationale for that choice. Upon return to class, we will discuss these choices and collectively decide which play will become the focus of our work for the remainder of the semester. Over the following weeks, through a series of exercises, workshops, games, and rehearsals, we will discover the performance’s themes and goals, its style and site, and its social vitality.
Everyone must participate in the actual performance, without exception. Remember: medieval theater was fundamentally non-professional, with guilds and confraternities drawing from their own ranks to answer every need, on stage and off. There is no requirement that you have past stage experience. The only requirement is a willingness to be silly, to take risks, to challenge yourself, and to exercise trust.
Mounting a successful performance will require collaboration, responsibility, mutual accountability, and effective communication. It will ask you to draw on your strengths and to cultivate new skills. When we choose our end-of-semester play, you will also choose one of the following three production groups, themselves intended to be fluidly constructed and mutually reinforcing:
The writing group will adapt the Middle English playtext for modern performance and help compose any other performance-oriented media materials. Members will actively incorporate feedback from workshops into the evolving playtext and promptly provide updated scripts as needed.
The direction group will realize the conceptual vision we collectively develop in the real space and time of the play’s enactment. Members will be responsible for running rehearsals efficiently, keeping a prompt book, keeping track of properties and costumes, and hammering out the practical demands of a live performance.
The media group will oversee the advertising and recording of our performance. Members will populate our social media, liaise with Fordham media outlets, and develop and distribute publicity materials; they will also be responsible for determining how the performance can most effectively be filmed and produce the final video for our digital archive (see A digital archive below).
Each production group will turn in a collectively authored document along the way: a complete playtext (writing group), a thorough prompt book (direction group), and a storyboard/shot list (media group).
Experimenting with collaborative dramaturgy
During the English Middle Ages, there was no such thing as an actor, a theater, or a director. Dramatic happenings—plays, pageants, processions, royal entries, interludes, mummings, subtleties, and more—were thoroughly non-professional affairs. Players were drawn from the ranks of the community, the trade guild, and the courtly circle; playtexts were freely adapted to take best advantage of the local pool of skills, talents, and aptitudes. Decisions about and execution of productions, maintenance of properties and costumes, running rehearsals and coaching actors were all the responsibility of the players as a collective, not the prerogative of a sole director with a clear artistic vision familiar to us from modern auteur dramaturgy.
In this class, we model this medieval mode of play-making together. We function as a collective that reads, discusses, adapts, and creates performances of medieval playtexts in dynamic relation to the local pool of skills, talents, and aptitudes we bring to the playing space. Just as medieval players were not professionals, neither are you—and that should be a source of liberation, not anxiety! The end-of-semester performance you devise is your performance, built from the raw materials, energies, and enthusiasms you have to offer.
Thus, with regards to the performance you collectively devise, you will not be evaluated on the polish of your performance, and my role this semester is not that of director or dramaturg. I have no vision to offer. Instead, my job is to help you flesh out the ambitious vision that emerges from your collective exploration and experimentation with our course texts. In this way, I emulate the medieval clergyman or senior guildsman who provided knowledge, suggestions, and guidance to the players preparing a performance. My role is to facilitate; your role is to create something remarkable, together.
A digital archive
In place of a final exam, you will each contribute one webpage to a digital archive paying testament to our semester’s work together. The heart of this archive will be the video of your performance. You’re invited, though not required, to build from one of the assignments you completed earlier in the semester for your contribution. It’s unlikely your writing from early in the semester will directly address the play we choose to perform; part of your task, then, will be to explore how the knowledge you cultivated earlier in the semester informs your experience and understanding of our end-of-semester performance. Of course, you can also start from scratch and explore a new line of critical thinking based on your experience preparing for and performing the play. Your webpage should offer substantial content, must incorporate at least one multimedia element (an image, audio, video that is not the class performance), and should link to reputable sources and resources when appropriate. Keep in mind that the content you generate will be publicly viewable; keep your audience in mind as you seek to teach your readers something about medieval drama in performance.