Our Wise Ass Show: Turning Christian Teaching to Societal Critique
Before I began this extraordinary process, I found myself dreading the idea of performing medieval religious theatre. Not only had it been a full year since I had been on stage, but I knew very little about the period whose plays I was going to be reading. In fact, if you had told me at the beginning of the semester that our performance would be at 9 in the morning on a windy Saturday in April, I probably would’ve dropped the course right then and there. At the time, though, I did not grasp how medieval drama and all that comes with it cannot be confined to a modern framework. As I came to realize, rather than a vessel for biblical regurgitation, medieval drama uses Christian materials to spread a message to its audiences that does not always reflect what we now identify as Christian values.
When we think of medieval drama now, we tend to imagine it to be less advanced, less professional, and therefore less effective than modern theatre, the experience of which culminates in catharsis through the skillful performance of a novel story. Medieval drama rejects these expectations, reaching its superior aspect through its use of well-known religious materials. Because the Bible and its teachings are accessible and palatable for nearly all audiences, medieval drama uses its narratives unconventionally to create a space for progressive discussion, sometimes even arguing in favor of those disadvantaged by society. Beyond Christian doctrine and commandment, medieval drama is able to address societal issues in unique ways through reinterpretations of biblical stories. Though more loosely based on scripture than the cycle plays of York or Chester, Wisdom still cites the Bible frequently, at the same time that it focuses on the dangers of wrongful conviction under the law as well and of the concentration wealth in the hands of the few—issues as relevant today as they were in the fifteenth century, issues which modern-day Christians still tend to overlook in their social awareness.
When I think about the main goals of Catholicism worldwide today, I think of anti-abortion work at the forefront of the Church’s “activism,” and I think of how the Church discriminates openly against the LGBTQ+ community. As a young queer woman who attended Catholic school and a Jesuit university, I am all too familiar with hearing the dominant values of a white-cis-hetero society reiterated in the “word of the Lord.” This was certainly the case in the Middle Ages as well; then as today, the Bible was a text consumed by many individuals on different scales. Medieval drama uses this wide readership to its advantage, however, to tell the story it wants to tell through a lens that readily appeals to a mass audience.
It was only through our performance of Wisdom that I realized medieval drama’s capacity to perform this important work. The play works to portray religious teachings in relation to societal critiques of legitimate issues in a way that I had previously never encountered. Where before I had only grasped the morally skewed surface of religious teachings—the notion that God is ready and willing to punish those who do not conform to society—this performance allowed me to come away with a new understanding of the greater versatility of these religious ideas and works.
A compilation of adult jokes hidden in children’s programming
Wisdom manages to spread its more searching social gospel in a variety of ways. The collective experience and accessibility that performing Wisdom facilitates is unmatched by any modern production on Broadway or the West End. Medieval drama is meant to be performed in outdoor spaces, open to outside interference (noise, visuals, etc) that creates creative opportunities for interaction. Medieval drama is thus able to reach a wider and more diverse audience, as wealth is not a determining factor in audience attendance. The play also manages to address religious teachings through comedy and entertainment, in the form of inappropriate jokes, raunchy costumes, and spectacular content. (This is not only a medieval phenomenon: look no further than the inappropriate or “adult” jokes in children’s cartoons like SpongeBob or The Flinstones!) Such humor is very difficult to imagine in context of the traditional mass of the Church, which rarely changes. When it does, that change is almost always met with outrage and backlash from traditionalists. As William Dinges explains, few shifts within the Catholic Church “ignited as much discontent, anger, alienation, and outright opposition as did” attempted liturgical changes (138). Medieval drama, on the other hand, conveys biblical narrative and borrows from the liturgy in creative and unconventional ways, with content that is more directly relevant to those who actually inhabit the everyday world. Rather than change the words of the Bible, medieval drama adapts those words and reframes them in support of a more down-to-earth set of arguments.
Those arguments can sometimes even shift our sense of what’s sinful. In the case of Wisdom, the Vices who embody sin point out all the innocent and good people who suffer at the Church’s neglect, turning the Church’s teachings on those actually commit heinous acts. Our production took this even further: while murderers and thieves are clearly categorized as sinful, often women, people of color, and LGBTQIA+ individuals are similarly categorized simply for existing and leveraging their autonomy. Through translation, casting, and costume, we expanded Wisdom’s societal critique to point out these injustices, using the religious tools that so often perpetuate them.
“ [Wisdom] helped us recognize similarities with the struggles medieval individuals encountered in their day, at the same time that it helped us identify how societal struggles shift over time, prompting us to ask exactly why that is.”
Wisdom was my first encounter with this kind of repurposing of Christian teaching. Our translation of the Middle English play helped us recognize similarities with the struggles medieval individuals encountered in their day, at the same time that it helped us identify how societal struggles shift over time, prompting us to ask exactly why that is. The play outlines the dangers of greed and bearing false witness in ways that address real issues that society faces today. Rather than represent certain groups of people that the Church seeks to scapegoat, the Vices in our production instead addresses many of the unaddressed vices found in many of our world leaders, politicians, and the wider population. They define sinners as those who “let truth slip aside,” who “hoard up riches,” and who are “renowned for bribery” and perjury—a refreshing perspective, considering that these are truly the individuals with power who do the most harm to society, not those who simply seek to outwardly express their individuality.
Our production of Wisdom helps prove that medieval drama can still operate outside of its own time as a creative opportunity for repurposing the Church’s teachings for societal critique. I believe that the future will only bring the unique aspects of medieval drama in performance closer and closer to the surface, as more and more Christians find themselves socially aware and accepting of LGBTQIA+ identities and other currently excluded ways of living. Medieval drama resists conformity to the standards that the Catholic Church has set out for itself, yet it is still able to touch audiences in ways that resonate with the standards of the Church other kinds of performance are unable to accomplish. This marks medieval drama as an incredibly important and substantial form of theatre whose relevance deserves to be more deeply explored today.