Wisdom in Performance: Comparing Modern and Medieval Performance
“I am no stranger to the stage. Yet, our performance of Wisdom was the most unique dramatic production I have experienced.”
With four plays as an actor, two as director, and four years of acting classes under my belt, I am no stranger to the stage. Yet, our performance of Wisdom was the most unique dramatic production I have experienced. With a playtext roughly 600 years old and a historically unique approach to the creation and performance of plays, it differed from any other show I have been part of. The process of creating the show asked me to abandon a lot of my preconceived notions about medieval drama and how it’s made, culminating in a performance that was thoroughly strange, funny, and fascinating. With many discoveries occurring behind the scenes as we prepared, the differences between modern and medieval dramatic performance are visible in our performance.
Every other show I have been in took place on a stage with the house lights down—for all intents and purposes, the audience did not exist while we performed. The actors could not see them, nor did they acknowledge or interact with them, save for allowing their laughter to die down before continuing with dialogue. Wisdom, however, takes place not on a stage but in open, public space, where anyone could (and did) come and go as they pleased. Removing the conventional division between the audience and the actors made for plenty of interaction—actors moved on and off stage freely, taking audience members up into the playing space and acting among them. Shows that I have seen in similar open air settings, like the Hamlet I saw in Central Park a few years ago, did not involve the same degree of audience interaction. This lent the show a feeling of unity with the audience, a feeling that the playtext supports.
The script is full of lengthy monologues, mostly for Lucifer and Wisdom, who speak on various theological concepts. Wisdom’s original playtext centers on the three Faculties, Mind, Will, and Understanding, who preach to the audience, only to be corrupted by Lucifer, have some fun, and be redeemed by Wisdom, a type of Jesus Christ. On paper, the play seems to lack the qualities that make for good theatre, like character arcs or conflict. Playing these scenes straight would be incredibly boring for an audience as these characters lecture them about their faith and God. Reading deeper, however, there is complexity here. By including audience interaction, the play’s material and message become much more involving. Incorporating the audience into the Vice’s dances and other parts of the show meant that, rather than listen to lectures or hear about reckless behavior, the audience directly experienced the fun these characters discuss. Even when not directly interacting with individual audience members, the dialogue of the play was almost always directed at the audience, rather than towards the other characters. This strengthens the play’s message through direct participation in the action, which forces the audience to be part of the play, and part of the message.
Another unique aspect of our performance was our attitude toward the script. Though we were of course encouraged to memorize the script and perform it as written, there was little pressure for the final product to adhere perfectly to the script. Several actors changed lines or shortened monologues the day before performance and even during the show. While in some instances due to forgetfulness, there was also a degree of choice in what was left out. The script offered a loose guideline for performance, rather than a commandment. A similar approach shaped the staging of the play: save a few scenes with more complicated action, there was no strict blocking for us to follow. The dance scenes and subsequent fight scene were blocked, for example, to support audience involvement and choreographed slow-motion movement. The staging of nearly every other scene was loose, giving actors a general direction rather than completely controlling their movement.
“Despite appearances, our performance did not differ all that radically from the original play… Our liberal interpretation of the play is what made it unique.”
This freer approach to script and action is quite unique. In modern performance, the script is everything. Unless the director says otherwise, actors are expected to perfectly reproduce what is written. Our performance of Wisdom followed the translated script for much of the show, but several moments were devised during rehearsal or improvised on the spot. Much of the audience interaction, for instance, was unscripted, as was the actors’ heckling from the audience. Moments like Mind giving Corruption the middle finger during her monologue or Perjury and Wisdom lobbing foil-covered chocolate coins at one another were new elements that added to the comedy of the show. When an actor forgot their line, rather than hide it, they simply stated that they forgot it, adding to the joyful, almost irreverent nature of the show. Though the original script had many comedic moments, especially involving sexual innuendo, our modernized version added many more through improvisation during the rehearsal and performance process. Despite appearances, our performance did not differ all that radically from the original play: the writing team left little out of their translation, including its humor. Our liberal interpretation of the play is what made it unique.
Much like our performance, the original Wisdom playtext is keenly interested in costumes. The clothes characters wear help contextualize their moral alignment: Mind, Will, and Understanding wear monk’s habits when they’re on Wisdom’s side and change into fashionable grab once Lucifer corrupts them to act as Vices. In our production, we opted to split these characters in two, making sure that the outfits reflected their difference. We turned Anima from a frilly white innocent into a dominatrix, and embraced a mostly gender-bent cast. We had fun with designing our characters, throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what stuck. By the end, we had a strange amalgamation of different, sometimes conflicting ideas that came from a collective creative exercise with almost complete freedom.
This collectivity is also a product of the medieval original. We, as a class, created the entire show almost from the ground up—we rewrote the script, cast it, created costumes, staged it, everything. But we did it as a group, much as medieval plays were originally performed by groups who adapted their productions to take advantage of the skills their actors brought to the performance. And we did just that, we played to our strengths, adapting a play that calls for nearly all male characters to a class with only three men. Gender became a characteristic to play with, as when Mind, played by a woman, was replaced by Corruption, played by a man. We cast the play according each of our strengths and adjusted casting in dialogue with each performer’s abilities and comfort level. The final performance was a culmination of that work and those decisions, for which everyone was responsible.
In all of these ways, our performance of Wisdom was unlike any modern play, from beginning to end. The final show was thoroughly irreverent and shamelessly strange. But underlying everything we did was the sheer fun of it. We made our decisions for fun and performed for fun. We wanted to make sure that our audience had fun, while affording them a glimpse of medieval drama. And in this, I think I and the rest of my castmates succeeded.