The Bond between Wisdom’s Medieval and Modern Players
When I reflect on the work that went into Wisdom, I almost get emotional. It’s not because the playtext was hard to understand or because I have a lot of feelings, but because it’s so easy to underrate and judge the kind of community that makes medieval theatre. Before putting on our performance, I, like most, had prejudged what medieval theater entailed: the genre was old and boring, created by uneducated, simple people who spent most of their days dirty or drunk. Trying to imagine it called to mind my sixth grade school trip to Medieval Times, rooting for a man on a horse jousting for a princess, all while eating a chicken leg with my hands. It was all foreign, distant, and slightly greasy.
“The cloudy, dark, smelly people of my mind’s creation revealed themselves to be comedians, fun seekers, and careful thinkers… Our production of Wisdom humanized the people of medieval life and theater.”
Now, I get emotional because I feel strongly connected not only with my fellow actors, but also with people who lived centuries ago. As medieval theatre scholar Carol Symes writes, “A medieval play begins with a community” (1034), a statement that could not be more true. The cloudy, dark, smelly people of my mind’s creation revealed themselves to be comedians, fun seekers, and careful thinkers. They, like us, found humor in penis jokes, proudly expressed their joy for sex, but also took to the stage to speak about corruption, injustice, temptation, and greed. Our production of Wisdom humanized the people of medieval life and theater. They, just like our little community, were creative, intelligent, witty, and passionate. Our performance of this play created a powerful link between 1419 and 2019.
Symes articulates the grounds of this link when she asks, “What is the use of theatre history? The study of public interactions—some of which were conceived and received as fictions—adds not only to our knowledge of plays and players, audiences and performance conditions, but to our understanding of real people with real concerns” (1040). Our study of late medieval playtexts and our performance of Wisdom lifted the curtain of separation between us and the people of the time period. In our critical analysis of Wisdom, we came to understand parallels between the problems that faced medieval English society and selves and those we face today. Wisdom and Lucifer battle for the soul of man, exemplifying moral struggle with temptation, sin, and complex life choices. Much like us, people of the Medieval Ages cared and struggled to live virtuously, acknowledging that all fall from grace but can receive it again. “Now ye be reformyde by the sakyrment of penance / Ande clensyde from the synnys actuall” (1112-3: Now you are reformed by the sacrament of penance and cleansed of actual sins), Wisdom tells Anima at the end of the play. Then and now, Wisdom assures its audience that everyone can have a second chance at becoming their best selves.
Wisdom also touches upon issues of greed and temptation. In the middle of Wisdom, Mind, Will and Understanding succumb to Lucifer’s lures. They luxuriate in the world of lechery, bask in the bliss of vulgarity, and dance in the damnation of the divine. The three Wits love their time with Lucifer until they realize how unsustainable it is. When Mind suddenly remembers “that doutles man shall dey” (881: that man shall certainly die), he comes to the rational decision to live not in vice but peacefully.
A little surprisingly, political issues of the Middle Ages still linger with us today. Take, for example, the injustice of abuses of the prison system. In trying to rid Lechery of his lover’s husband, Perjury lays out a plan to arraign the man in multiple courts so he cannot effectively appear in his own defense. “Thou shalt hurle hym so that he shall have inow” (855: you shall harass him until he’s had enough), he declares, to which Corruption then replies, “Wat and thes wrongys be espyede?” (856: What if someone notices these wrongs?). Perjury then gloats over his ability to twist the judicial process without recrimination: “Wyth the crose and the pyll I shall wrye yt, / That ther shall never man dyscrey yt / That may me appeyere” (857-9: With heads and tails I shall conceal it so that no man shall ever perceive it, and I’ll never go to court!). Does this not resemble the abuses of our own prison system? Many innocent men are incarcerated under similarly unjust pretenses; though the details may be different, the issues of the past are still the issues of today.
Politics aside, it’s clear the medieval writers and performers of Wisdom liked to have fun, just like us! They might have had to deal with the plague, but they found the humor in life; they took time to make people laugh, poke fun at themselves, and simultaneously speak about issues impacting their day to day lives. They joked about prostitutes, penis size, the latest fashion trends, local gossip, even arousal and infidelity. No matter the year, audience members and actors can easily find the humor in these jokes, shrinking the seeming distance between modern present and medieval past.
“Wisdom… [created] a tight-knit community out of an unlikely collection of players. I have never in my time at Fordham been surrounded by so many hard working, dedicated, passionate people.”
Most importantly, Wisdom closed this distance through its amazing ability to create such a tight-knit community out of an unlikely collection of players. I have never in my time at Fordham been surrounded by so many hard working, dedicated, passionate people. The commitment to learning our lines, creating the costumes, and finding the right camera angles was unmatched in my undergraduate experience. We all came together in a spontaneous and powerful way, with the original storytellers looking over our shoulders, helping us cast aside any fear or worries while laughing the loudest at our jokes. Though it was very evidently 2019, during the performance I got so lost in the excitement that, for a moment, I could clearly see our group of performers in the 1400s acting on a mobile pageant wagon, yelling our lines to draw in passersby. We shared with our medieval forebears in the joy of performing this play.
As a story about humanity and life, Wisdom proved Carol Symes’s point that the study of theatre history reveals “the extent to which performance was central to every aspect of medieval life, and the extent to which many different kinds of texts can yield vital information about how people acted, not only in play but in reality” (1037). Our performance humanized a community that I formerly could only conceive of as greasy and sad. What’s more, our work on Wisdom took the play’s lessons and applied them to our modern, everyday lives. We all wanted to do right by each other. If we disagreed, butted heads, or had an issue, we worked through it. The most important and valued element in this process was, by far, the community we created. I have never worked so hard nor found myself forming such deep and special friendships in an academic setting. It wasn’t just for the good grade; I didn’t want to let my community down. Just like the medieval people who created these plays, I wanted to contribute the best I could for the collective cause, and thereby create lasting bonds in the present and even in the past.