Theatre History Podcast #39
Dr. Matthew Sergi and the Surprising Truth About Morality Plays
The phrase “morality play” often comes off as pejorative today; it’s a phrase that we use when we want to dismiss something as dull and didactic. But Dr. Matthew Sergi of the University of Toronto begs to differ. He’s been studying and, most importantly, staging these works, and he’s come to some unexpected conclusions about how these plays function and what performing them today can tell us about our own world.
- Connect with Matt and ask him about morality plays on Twitter at @tersergi. You can also reach a team of early drama scholars, including Matt, at @EarlyDramaNet on Twitter.
- Find out more about REED, the Records of Early English Drama, at their website, and follow them on Twitter.
- Learn more about Poculi Ludique Societas (PLS, or “The Cup and Game Society”), the Toronto-based theatre company that produces medieval and early modern drama, and follow them on Twitter.
- Read online editions of the morality plays Mankind and The Pride of Life via the University of Rochester’s Middle English Texts Series.
- Watch the PLS production of Mankind at the Festival of Early Drama in Toronto, 2015, and check out a teaser of their performance of the same play at the University of Leeds in 2016.
Michael Lueger: The Theatre History Podcast is supported by HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community. It's available on iTunes and howlround.com.
Hi and welcome to the Theatre History Podcast. I'm Mike Lueger. Medieval drama could be hard for us to understand today. What are we to make of plays that seem to come from such a drastically different era? Today's guest argues that perhaps we're thinking about these works in a way that's too closely tied to our modern theatrical practice. Dr. Matthew Sergi is an assistant professor of English at the University of Toronto and his work focuses on how performing medieval drama in a way that's true to its original staging practices helps us to better understand it. Matt, thank you so much for joining us.
Matthew Sergi: Thanks a lot, Michael. I'm logging on here from the University of Toronto and I'm actually currently logged on from the Records of Early English Drama offices. The Records of Early English Drama is a very, very unique and special project that we have here at the U of T. Its job is to locate, transcribe, edit, and publish historical documents from England, Wale, and Scotland containing all evidence that we know of drama, secular music, and other communal entertainment in the Medic Ceremony from the late Middle Ages until 1642. That means that any evidence that we have for drama, dance, or music from England before 1642.
Michael:We think of going to the theatre in this very specific way. You go to a structure that's purposefully been built for staging plays. You sit down. They turn out the lights on you. Then, you're supposed to shut up and watch whatever happens on stage. Medieval theatre didn't work like that. You say that it was "site-specific". What do you mean by that?
Matthew: Absolutely. That's a great way to start. When you think of a site-specific performance now, we generally think of performances that are built for sites other than purpose-built theatres. When I say purpose-built theatres, I mean buildings whose primary purpose in being built was to host theatrical performances.
If I were to name a site-specific performance from the familiar range of plays right now, I might talk about Sleep No More which is done at the McKittrick Hotel, which although it has been adopted strongly for Punchdrunk's performance there, it is a performance that is specific to the unusual site where it's set. That's the starting definition that we might work with.
For Medieval performances, which happened in England at least before purpose-built theatres have entered the picture at all, I think about site-specificity as plays that are open to and porous for the passage in and out of the play of non-dramatic material. A performance, say, of The Castle of Perseverance, which is one of the more famous morality plays from the early fifteeth century, happens in an open field that is bound by, we think, some kind of barrier, but that for the most part, it's outdoors. It has the influences of weather, the influences of people that might pass by, that might affect or change the way that the performance goes. That's what I mean by site-specific.
When I say that Medieval performances were all site-specific, I'm specifically saying that there was no sub-space in Medieval England, at least, that was set aside for performance. Which means that all performances in Medieval England are always already site-specific, always already take the form of whatever non-theatrical space they find themselves in.
Michael: When we talk about morality plays, you just mentioned "The Castle of Perseverance", I feel like that's this term that if you don't know anything about it, might maybe has this pejorative connotation. This idea of something that's very self-serious, maybe a little bit boring. I take it you disagree pretty strongly with that.
Matthew: I do. I disagree really strongly. To sort of open up the conversation, I'm going to ask you, Michael, to name a morality play, if you can.
Michael Lueger: Everyman. I think that's one many people have encountered in their undergraduate studies.
Matthew: Yep, it's always Everyman, isn't it? The thing about Everyman is that it's come to stand in for a general experience of what most non-specialists in the Medieval period think of as pre-Shakespearean drama, right? You have a set Shakespeare company or a university theatre company and it somehow dawns on them that there's 1,000 years of English history more that precedes Shakespeare. They think, "Why don't we do something that precedes Shakespeare, but that's English?" They open up a book of drama, an anthology, and they turn to the pages before Shakespeare and they find Everyman. They say, "Oh, this looks boring. We know that the past was boring, so let's do this one." Right?
That's the problem. The problem with Everyman, there are a few problems with it. A few problems with how Everyman has established a general idea of what we think of when we think of morality plays. It is indeed morality play, but I would say it is an atypical morality play, especially for England for a number of reasons. One, it's not really English. Everyman, as we have it in the English tradition, is a translation of a Dutch scholarly play. I can't pronounce the Dutch. I'll try, but I know my colleague, Mandy Albert, will kill me for trying to pronounce it, but Elckerlijc, I think is how you pronounce it, which is probably Dutch for everyman. They are using, in this case, the play to think through fine points of theology, which might explain why it's, if I may, so fucking boring.
It's a really boring play. I try to teach it. I always groan when I have to teach it. I think there's a lot that "Everyman" has to offer as a play in terms of provoking thought. In terms of fun, it doesn't have much to offer at all. In fact, it actually just tells you that fun is bad and you can't take it with you. Number one, it's not representative of the English tradition, because it's not really part of the English tradition. It comes to England later.
The second reason why "Everyman" is a bad example is because it's not really that Medieval. Or better to say, and again Mandy will get on me for that, it comes to England during a period where we are transitioning out of the Medieval. The earliest editions of "Everyman" that we have in England come from the second decade of the 16th century. When Tudor power is starting to rise and displace the more pluricentric idea of power that characterized the Medieval period, right? It's the Tudors that take England and focus it and streamline it and turn England into, eventually, the global power that it is today. Only Elizabeth was able to beat the Spanish Armada for instance and make England a naval super power. Only Henry VIII was able to take on the position of the king of, not only, secular England, but of its church, right?
The sixteenth century is marked by all of these changes in culture that make room for what sometimes we call the English Renaissance. This is a roundabout way of talking about why morality plays are not boring. When we talk about the English Renaissance, right? The English Renaissance is in so many ways a product of this centralizing of power. "Everyman" comes to England halfway through Henry VIII's father's reign and starts to get disseminated through what we might call early modern copying, right? It's a function of the technology of the printing press. We only have printing press copies of "Everyman". That's one of the reasons it doesn't strike me as a particular Medieval play, at least in English terms.
When we look to Everyman for a Medieval English play, it isn't really quite Medieval. It isn't really quite English. What precedes "Everyman" in the morality play tradition, at least in the English traditions, are four very un-"Everyman"-like English language plays that precede 1500 in England. Now, there are other morality plays or plays with morality tinges to them that come later as well in English. These four can be better taken as exemplary of the genre.
It begins with The Pride of Life, a play that I directed recently, which is from the late 14th century. It's fragmentary. You don't know a lot about it. We move from there to The Castle of Perseverance", which is the early fifteenth century. Then, during the 15th century, we also get plays known as Mankind 's sort of wisdom. Each of these plays, if you ask me, is way more entertaining than Everyman. For starters, people think of morality plays as pejorative because they only know the one and that one isn't that representative of the field.
Michael Lueger: Okay. You just mentioned a couple of, shall we say, better examples of morality plays. Could you tell us about a few of those? I know you just said you staged The Pride of Life. You've also done Mankind .
Matthew: Yeah. I'd really like to stage all four of these pre-1500 English morality plays. I like morality plays a lot. I have directed The Pride of Life and Mankind . We did both plays on the same six-person non-male cast. That was important for us to not use male performers, because misogynistic jokes just don't play as well when actual cis men make them. Actually, the truth is we don't know the gender of the original performers behind any of these plays contrary to popular belief. To go back to that same soap box, as my colleague Jim Stokes, has most recently pointed out, the idea that we have of early performance not using women performers is again a function of the sixteenth century controls that the Tudor era laid onto English performance.
We have tons of evidence for women participating in performance prior to that period, and indeed, lots of evidence during the Tudor period of women's rights both in performance and out being systematically reduced. That's a sidebar, but anyway, we did an all non-male performance of The Pride of Life and Mankind . I learned quite a bit from staging those shows.
I'll start with Mankind , because we spent the most time with it. We took Mankind to The Cloisters in New York. I was about to say in the 1500s. In 2015, which is not the 1500s. We took the Mankind to The Cloisters and then we took Mankind and "Pride of Life" both on the same team of performers on a tour through the UK, where we visited Stan's Café in Birmingham. We also went to some academic venues, Queen Mary University of London. We did it at Durham University and also in Durham Town Square and at the University of Leeds. On this tour of Mankind and Pride of Life, we learned a lot.
One of the most telling experiences that we had was when we did Mankind in the town square of Durham. Durham is a northern city that has a minor's gala once a year. That minor's gala, like many celebrations, tends toward many European celebrations. Tends toward public drinking rather quickly. Already, by the time we were presenting our play, the Durham Town Square was teeming with people, cars passing by, people being loud, people drinking public, and just having a grand old time, in a disordered old time. We started doing a Medieval play right in the middle of that.
Now, if this were Everyman, it would not have gone well, because Everyman seems to rely on a sense of piety, solemnity, gravity. In order to create gravity, you kind of need silence or at least consistent attention. Mankind , to the contrary, thrives on diverse levels of attention that might be given to it during a given performance. One of the things that we discovered was that most of our audiences for outdoor performances of Mankind sort of coalesced around us during the first third of the performance. Unlike a ticketed performance, which of course, which would generally not happen. We don't know that much about it, but we don't have evidence for ticketing much in early England.
Some people might make an argument about Castle of Perseverance, but that's for a different conversation. Without ticketing, for a play that's in a public square in a public space, which is what most plays were, there's no way of ensuring that audience members stay at the beginning, start at the beginning and stay until the end. Which meant that the moralizing parts of a morality play, in Mankind , the parts where the character Mercy comes out and tells us all the things we are supposed to believe, rather than taking joy in the vice, horrible stuff that makes up maybe 85% of the play, all that a lot of the audience got was the horrible, vice stuff that they are not supposed to enjoy, but enjoy it anyway. Not just that, but the throbbing of the crowd ... "throbbings" the wrong word. The buzz of the crowd completely flattened any of the verbal subtleties that we thought we were perceiving in the play and made much more apparent the physical comedy, the stupid fart jokes and poop jokes that saturate this play, the sex jokes, the slapstick.
We realized, through that production at the Durham Town Square, how much of the play is built for a space like Durham Town Square. The problem with morality plays, just to jump back to your prior question, because this is what we learned about morality plays from doing Mankind is that our modern sensibilities tell us that a play's defined by its beginning and end. This is a very modern idea based in the idea that a play is something you attend to consistently throughout. Mankind , it takes joy and a modular, random array of stupid stuff. There's a football game that happens in the middle. There's a shit song that happens in the middle. You should really, by the way, directors who are listening to this, do Mankind . If you are thinking about doing a Medieval play, do Mankind . Not Everyman. It has a lot of fun stuff that are extremely un-boring that are vaguely bracketed by pious sermons at the beginning and end that justify all this fun by saying, "Well, it's good for you to know that that's the wrong thing to do."
From that performance, we've learned primarily how fun morality plays can be and indeed how a play need not be defined by its beginning and end almost all when you don't have a purpose-built theatre around it. As for which is the other performance that we staged recently, this is our earliest example of a morality play. The trick about it is that each morality play, and I should say this at the get-go, because maybe not everybody knows this. A morality play is defined simply by being a psychomancy allegory. What we mean by that is well, an allegory is a sustained metaphor-driven representation of two stories, one on a literal level and one on a figurative level. There's a literal level of say, in The Pride of Life, you have a king who believes that he is invincible. His queen is worried about the fact that he's not invincible and tells him to get more religious.
Eventually, he realizes that a rival king may indeed defeat him one day. He has knights and he has his messenger, et cetera. On the figurative level, on the allegorical level, the king represents life itself, the king of life. His knights are called Strength and Health. The idea that life thinks it will live forever as long as it's strength and health remain loyal to it, right? Of course the knights swear fealty to him forever at the beginning, and we all know that your strength and health don't stay with you forever, right? He has his mirth, his messenger, et cetera, all of these characters then tell a literal story, while at the same time, telling a more widely applicable figurative story.
When I say it's a psychomachic allegory, the psychomancy of it, psychomancy very broadly a battle for the psyche or a battle for the mind. Most morality plays, at least in the tradition that I'm talking about, use their allegory to depict the struggle for being a better person, using the conflict in the story as a way of acting out the struggle for being a better person. That's why so many of these characters have a character that's an Everyman character. In Mankind , the character's name is Mankind . In the Castle of Perseverance, the character’s name is either Mankind or HuMankind , depending on the translation, et cetera. The star characters meet along their way different possible influences, right?
In The Pride of Life, the nice thing about The Pride of Life , and I'm all over the place with apologies, The Pride of Life opens with this King Life, who has never met the King Death, before, so he thinks he's going to live forever. Everybody tells him over and over again, "You had a beginning once", his wife says. "You had a beginning once. You have to remember that you'll also have an ending." Everybody reminds him again and again, "Your ending will come", "Your ending will come". We only had one manuscript of this play. Remember this was before the printing press was invented. Every text that we have is a text that we written by hand, by somebody, word by word. The only manuscript we have of The Pride of Life is written in the margins and blank spaces in, I think, it's a record of a priory in Dublin.
Because of that, it's damaged. What we believe to be the second half of it is lost forever. In a play where the king is reminded over and over again to think toward his ending, there is no ending. We use that in our performance to allow... We chose performers that have a good amount of improv background, Second City trained here in Toronto. Each time we did the performance, rather than drawing on scholarly ideas of what must have happened at the missing end of this play, we let our audiences decide what the ending might be. We do have the prologue at the beginning of the play that tells us what to expect, but the prologue is more suggestive than straightforward. People got to tell us the best way that they thought a morality play should end.
It sometimes got very, very weird in very, very productive ways. The truth is, this play from the second half of the fourteenth century, kind of stands on its own and is related to a culture that has become obscure to us for the most part. Anybody's guess is almost as good as an informed scholarly guess. That's the other thing that we've learned about staging these morality plays. Not only are they far more fun than my scholarly predecessors have led us to believe, and way more fun than Everyman, but also they leave a lot more room for the things we don't know about culture to infiltrate our performances, rather than telling us hard facts about what the Medieval past might have been.
Here in Toronto, there's actually an over fifty-year old independent theatre company. It's affiliated with the University of Toronto, but it is an indie theatre company here called PLS, Poculi Ludique Societas, which stands for the "Cup and Games Society", which is translatable as the "Cup and Game Society". Notice the emphasis, even in its name, in the idea that theatre is about drinking and fun. PLS has been one of the few entities I know of, maybe the only entity I know of, that's dedicated entirely to producing plays from the Medieval and early-modern period that are not so frequently performed. It's always a struggle to get people interested in PLS's work, because people have so many pre-conceived notions about early, non-Shakespearean drama. They've been doing fascinating work since the 1960s.
Michael: Okay. There's all this almost blank space that you have to fill in. From a practical standpoint, that raises the question for me, what do you do with your actors? How do you train them to act like a Medieval performer?
Matthew: That's a good question. This has been a subject of, I don't want to say controversy or debate, but disagreements in the field of Medieval drama studies. First off, not everybody believes that doing these plays necessarily is helpful to the research we do in better understanding how the plays work. Part of the hang up that those skeptics have, our way of thinking about a performance might be so different from the way that they gave out performance on the ground in, say, fifteenth century or fourteenth century, that anything we do live would be so necessarily anachronistic that it would be more misinforming than informing. That's a problem.
While I don't agree that makes practical performance not useful, actually I find it very useful, I do agree that it's a problem. What I've been doing with my actors has specifically been trying to regress us to a kind of performance that feels more Medieval. There are two possible ways of going about approaching Medieval style and performance. One way that has been largely covered by scholars like Phil Butterworth and Sharon Aronson-Lahavi, I call a positive approach, which is taking evidence... Mostly Phil Butterworth, actually, taking evidence of Medieval performance, based on the very, very sparse records that we have, not only of acting style, but primarily of stage effects, of staging, of mise on scène. Using them to piece together a rough sketch of what Medieval practice might have looked like just based on the evidence we have. That's a sort of straightforward way of doing it.
My approach, and to some degree Sharon Aronson-Lahavi's approach, I call a negative approach, which I take from Grotowski's Via Negativa, the idea that the truth of what we are trying to do in theatre is not a matter of building up a technique, but rather getting back to a technique. What I've realized about modernity, or at least the rise of English modernity, is that it functions through a series of restrictions that were put on a nature human instinct for play and for role play, that on its own is very unbounded. As the early modern Renaissance, and then eventually modern period progressed, the idea of making theatre, the idea of making performance becomes a much more restrictive thing.
James Simpson is called the second half of the Medieval period, or rather the transition out of the Medieval period, a "narrative of diminishing liberties". He calls it that because he sees the rise of early modernity for all of its amazing contributions to art, to culture, to policy, he sees it as a period that takes a human range of multiple forms of expression and starts to snap those into what we might now consider artistic or, in this case, theatrical forms.
The negative approach that we take in performance is a kind of retrofitting. I make my actors more aware as I can, using Mary Overlie's use of a difference, for instance. Making my actors as aware as I can of how many conventions of modernity that they take for granted in the way that they think of theatre. There's a very long list that we work with, but just for a few cases, think about venue. We talked earlier about purpose-built theatre spaces. There's so many conventions that we have that are based on the idea that a purpose-built theatre space always underlies a play.
For instance, sight lines. If you don't have audience seats, if you don't have a permanent stage, and you don't have the surety that your audience is going to stay in one place, you don't have to worry about sight lines, because if your audience can't see something, they can move. Which completely changes your idea of what a director does, let alone what an actor does, in terms of the director's vision, right? If you think about sight lines, it means that the director must have a unified vision for what she wants everybody to see. The idea that everybody who comes to a performance, being paying customers, should get exactly what the people who came before them should get. Without purpose-built theatre, most of your theatre being outdoors, possibly in busy city streets, that's not even on the table. Let alone the assumptions that we make we are in a venue, controlled and small enough, that no vantage point will prevent people from seeing most actor's facial expressions, right?
Even in big Broadway theatres, the assumption is that you're not going to sit so far away that you can't see the look on actor's faces or the subtleties in their voices, right? This is not true of Medieval period, as far as I can tell, which means that the style, if you're doing a play that you're watching from down the street, that means that the style of your actors, given that the audience is moving, given that the audience's attention may vary throughout and given that there's no need for a permanent stage picture, that's the same from every venue, you get a lot more tendency to do the things that present-day actors, particularly realistic or naturalistic factors, consider bad habits. Like mugging, like indicating. Indicating's great in Medieval theatre...or Medieval drama, rather.
It's all about indicating. In fact, it's really productive to indicate. We think about plays that surprise everybody by breaking the fourth wall, right? When we break the fourth wall, that creates a sense of intimacy. There is no fourth wall constructed yet in the period we study to even break. That's another thing that I have to get my actors to let go of, the idea that the audience is not right there with them. A lot of what we call post-modern theatre theorists or technique technicians write about presence. I'm again thinking about Mary Overlie and her presence work.
Presence, in this case, means a general acknowledgement that the audience is there with you at all times, regardless of what you are trying to do or pretending to do. With that kind of presence, that means you can't really create a suspension of disbelief. Indeed, suspension of disbelief is a convention that is dateable. I would probably put it with Vaughner in the nineteenth century. Vaughner writes about developing theatre techniques and technologies, or theatrical techniques and technologies, that create what he calls a "mystical abyss". He's one of the first theatre theorists, at least that I know of in Western tradition, that tried to create theatre as something that is transportive that takes you somewhere else. Before that, you have drama and performance as something that makes you very, very aware that you are right here.
All of these things then, you get actors who have been trained their whole lives, if they've been trained their whole lives, have been trained their whole lives toward repeatability, toward getting yourself into a position that no matter what your mood is that day, you can do the same thing you did last night. You don't need that in Medieval drama. Indeed doing that creates what Brooke would call "deadly theatre". It does it in the present-day theatre too, right? It's much more interesting.
Oh, I'm going to go on a tangent, but I really want to. Hilton Al's recent review of Hello Dolly in the New Yorker talked about the power theatrically of what happened when Bette Midler had a coughing fit that she couldn't control in the middle of playing Dolly. Because that Midler is such a present performer, she allowed us to share in the vulnerability and truth of that moment, right? That's something that now, in the present day theatre, only the greats seem to be truly capable of.
In the Medieval performance world, that was par for the course. There was no reason to pretend that you were anywhere but here, even when you were taking on a character. You were doing what Sharon Aronson-Lahavi says is, what she calls the "deixis", or contrariety and simultaneity in performance. I'm going to quote her here, "The impossibility of and unwillingness to create omnimesis based on similarity or emerging of the performing and the performed." The idea is that we are all just friends here. We are all fellow people here. We are putting on a story and telling a story by acting it out, but we don't need to convince you that it's somehow not real. We certainly don't need to do it the same way every time.
Getting my actors to let go of repeatability is a long, slow process. Let alone, wait for it, motivation, right? That's the sort of typical actor-y question, "What's my motivation?" I say, "Well, you need to walk over there because you won't be seen because you'll be behind a horse's ass or whatever" or "You won't be seen by most people unless they move, so you have to move over here". The actor's response is, "Why? What's my motivation for doing this?" In Medieval performance, the answer is, "Because you won't be seen. Because you are here with us."
If Michael is the actor, "Michael, you're playing the character Mercy. We know who you are. We know that you want to be seen. If you move closer to us, you're moving closer to us because you want to move closer to us." The idea of requiring a motivation for any given action that you take, I'm going to quote something here so sorry, "The idea of needing motivation for every action that you take assumes that a play is a simulation of reality in which every object on stage serves primarily as a sign of something else." This, for Medieval performance, doesn't really apply, (they) assume that the only things that are acceptable in a play are movements and vocal or physical gestures that are meaningful with respect to, and derive their meaning from, the emotional logic of an overall narrative. That's the idea of motivation, right?
The idea that story, itself, that a narrative itself should always rule over what a performance can be is again, something we take for granted as "traditional theatre", but is not a given before the Renaissance. The idea that a performance always needs to communicate to you exactly what's going on, you need to know why everybody's doing everything, fundamentally makes logic sovereign over play, and that's not good for plays. It certainly wasn't the case in Medieval performance.
In short, convincing my actors to retrofit their performance technique, convincing them to let go of what they think they know about repeatability, about motivation, about minimizing unpredictability, about minimizing indicating, about not mugging is a slow process, but it ends up freeing them considerable. There's one more thing to say, also, about freeing actors in this kind of performance from the idea of show business, which is probably the most freeing thing we can do, but I think, another question we have will lead me into that. I'll pause there.
Michael: Yeah, I understand that you have been able to draw some larger conclusions, not just about the Medieval theatrical world, but about our own world, by staging these performance.
Matthew: I feel that that hasn't happened yet. Something that's come out of this performance basically is that we have been doing that I didn't expect. I thought that doing these plays would help me learn how these texts work in a way that would supplement the research that I'm already doing into the literary, or archival, background of these plays. What I didn't expect was that doing these plays would teach me and teach my collaborators something about how performance can work, how experimentation and performance can work. That theatre from the Renaissance and later just doesn't seem to have the capacity to accommodate.
I trailed off in my answer to your last question by saying that among the things that I try to retrofit my actors from doing is trying to get them to let go of conventions that come from the idea of show business, right? The idea that the performers involved in any given performance, unless specified otherwise, are either performers that should consider their acting craft to be a life's work or by what we now call amateur performers, who generally are striving to imitate those who consider acting to be their life's work, right? There are very few North American models of non-professional theatre that are not also dominated by professional paradigms of what theatre can be.
One of the retrofitting's that we also do are not only taking our performers back before there were purpose-built theatres, but also taking them back before there were purpose-built people. Before there was the expectation that in order to participate in drama, you not only have to dedicate your life to it in almost a self-subsuming way, but that you have to make your living at it. Again, not everybody who participates in performance in North America... Actually very few people who participate in performance in North America make their living at it, but almost all of them often position their performances as subordinate to a model that holds up the idea of making a living at performance.
The things that that does to performance can often be detrimental. When we think about the professionalization of acting ... Again, I don't know if I've actually said this. I think I've danced around it. The idea of a professional narrative actor is not something that we are working with in England in the period that these plays were created. I do not want to say on the record that there were no professional performers, because then some colleagues of mine will probably physically smack me in the face. Under the patron model and those who are working the Records of Early English Drama Patrons and Performers project will certainly attest to this... Under the patronage model, there were a good few troops in England who did do performances and got paid for it. I would argue that not only was that model not as common at all before say 1485, which is the period that we might call strictly Medieval in England... In fact, we can see in the records of early English drama a rise of patronage happening in places like East Anglia over time, right?
Patronage goes from being a non-dominant model to being a dominant model and eventually takes form in what we call the Lord Chamberlain's Manor, the King's Manor, the Shakespeare, et cetera. Around that is a far more widespread tradition of dramatic performance as something that people do. Not that everybody does, but that people do. In the same way that people play basketball. Not everybody plays basketball. Some people don't like it. Some people aren't good at it. I'm not good at it. I don't play a lot of it. I don't like it that much, right? Not every basketball game that gets played is played with it's eyes on the NBA, right? If you think about theatre in the same way, right now, I got to a high school performance and they are doing plays that were written for Broadway. I go to a church performance and they are doing plays that were written for Broadway. I go to a church pageant performance and they are doing a Christmas pageant, but they are doing it in a style that was developed for Broadway.
Everything seems to fall toward this hierarchy of show business. Doing these performances according to the practices, doing these Medieval performances according to the practices that we're starting to discover through this process of retrofitting has been really productive in freeing us from a lot of conventions that come out of that economic hierarchy of performance. Indeed that's been a lot of the research we've discovered from doing these performances about how much money talks. For one thing, and this is when I work with my student actors in particular, we come up with four adjectives that often describe present day theatre that would, I don't want to say would never happen in a public Medieval performance, but if they started happening in a public Medieval performance, people would just leave. Maybe performers would just leave. No one would be interested anymore. Those four words are precious, insecure, boring, and serious.
When I work with my actors, I try to push them to be un-precious, un-insecure, un-boring, unserious. Only in an art form that has been co-opted by commercialism would you have an idea of play, right? Think about play as something that's precious, as something where someone's cellphone goes off, everybody has a hissy fit, and talks about them. You think about corporate theatre or you think about commercial theatre and professional theatre. Indeed, the way that professional theatre has come...The way that what we call professional theatre has come to dominate what we think of as theatre at every level in North America, from the experimental through the amateur through the educational, right? It always seems to be subordinate towards professional model.
I suggested that one of the things that professionalism does to theatre is make it possible that people involved in it will be precious, insecure, boring, or serious. I think about what Donald Trump says. Donald Trump, I don't know if you know him. He's a really respectable theatre theorist.
Michael: The name rings a bell.
Matthew: Yeah, the name rings a bell. Good. He has told us that theatre must always be a safe and special place. I think this is really telling about what post-medieval theatre looks like. Because the truth is, as much as people responded due frustration at the way that Trump handles what happened at Hamilton that evening, the Broadway model fundamentally does aim us toward safety and specialness, right? It better be special. How much money did I spend for this ticket? Right? That really stands against Medieval ideas of performance.
Like I said, with Mankind, people come and go as they please it seems. It's not like these things didn't make any money. It's not like these performers didn't make any money. They did. We have tons of records of members of the various Craft Guild of Chester, for instance. We are talking people who are shoe-makers or smiths for a living who get small stipends for their time in working on guild drama in Chester, right? They also weren't amateur in that sense. They did get paid for their time. The difference is that they weren't making a living or livelihood at this play that they were doing. Rather than thinking of it as "Art", they seemed to think of it as "play", in which if you were doing something that was boring, people would leave, as maybe they should. It frees you up from the assumption that theatre is something that you have to sit through. Because that's the etiquette, the polite thing to do.
It frees you up from the assumption that if something boring is happening on stage, you shouldn't boo or urge them to do more. In fact, the need that we have for audiences to sit silently and thanks to Vaughner, who is one of the first to do it, I think, darkness, right? The idea of a silent, darkened audience is no matter where it's enacted, an inherently kind of commercial capitalist model of theatre that is all about, again, reducing the number of voices that can be involved and ensuring that a repeatable, commodiable product is delivered.
I think about that in contrast to a play like Mankind, where we would do it in the Durham city street, or in the Durham Town Square, and people would cat-call our actors and they would cat-call them right back in character. People would get in their way, they would move, right? It was not a very safe feeling, but maybe safety in the theatre is a little bit overrated. I don't know. Trump seems to like safe theatres. The number of things, then, that we learned in doing these plays has to make us conscious of how thoroughly saturated the rest of the performance that we do and make is, by inherently, capitalist ideas of what performance can be, right?
My wife and I, we make experimental performance on our own time. We had always made experimental performance under the assumption that audiences, who are well-behaved, should always sit still and quietly in the performance. It never occurred to us that that was even a variable that we could change. Not like that. Even in Sleep No More, you have to wear masks, you have to shut the fuck up. Of course you do, because everybody paid so much for this. Because of course you do, because they'll kick you out if you run ruly. Medieval performances. Kick you out of what, right?
Where this became most clear in the Medieval performances that we did was in the way that we were policed. I mentioned earlier this performance in Durham Town Square where the utter rebuttal and misbehavior of local people turned out to be the perfect venue for a Medieval morality play, because it meant that...Oh, one more thing that's interesting about these plays is that they are very repetitive, which is one of the things that makes Everyman feel so boring. Same thing over and over again. What you learn from doing these plays live, which is sort of a baseline, is that they are repetitive because you can't count on the audience paying attention the entire time or listening the entire time or not be talking the entire time. Important factors you have to say over and over again. Nobody minds that much. It's like a parade, right? You do the same thing over and over in a Pride Parade, for instance, because not everybody's always looking at the same time. That's a sidebar.
When we did Mankind in this crowded Durham Town Square, the fact that it's repetitive made it more understandable. The fact that it's big and muggy and indicate-y and huge and fun and scatological made it generally enjoyable for diverse ways of attending plays. That's a strong contrast to when we try to do these plays in specific types of venues. Those venues are museums, like at the Cloisters, universities, and a Renaissance fair at one point, which was a different production that I did, but I did do a production at a Renaissance fair. In these spaces, once in each of them, my casts actually had run ins with security or police that came in and interrupted our performances, because they were so not recognizable as the way you're supposed to act during a performance that the cops showed up. The cops kept showing up in one way or another.
At the the Cloisters, it was more we got a little more warning, right? We were told at the Cloisters, which is in many ways supposed to be most layman's exposure to the Medieval period. We were forbidden in our production of Mankind at The Cloisters not only to...We were forbidden to touch anything, to run, to move in ways that were not choreographed. The only performance venue that we could actually work in was a chapel, so we had to be in a church in which seats were relatively permanent. We could only be in a space where people had to pay to get in and leave. The museum educators insisted that in order to frame the piece, that I stand up and give an educational intro to the play, which meant that there was no wandering in or wandering out. Even the play that so often mentions "shit" and is about "shit", we were told that because children were present, we couldn't say the word. Even though in the Medieval periods, it's not a profane word at all.
As opposed to Queen Mary University of London, where we did Mankind, it was actually on campus, but it was sort of on campus near the street, but it was definitely campus space. We did the performance and we were speaking in our outside voices because you have to be fucking loud for these plays. Everybody was doing their own... Some people were paying attention. Some people were having lunch. That's the way it should be, but campus security came in and grabbed one of my actors notably. All my actors are non-male and notably this actor is a woman, who was the youngest woman on the team and of slightest frame. He grabbed her roughly by the arm, got in her face, and told her that she was going to have to keep it down, keep it down, keep it down. This is while our play is happening. Notably he won that confrontation. He kept threatening us. He kept saying, "I don't care." I think he kept saying, "Or else". The answer to "Or else" can only be a threat of violence, a threat of implicit violence around all of the spaces that tend to host most of our theatre and most of our ideas of the Medieval past.
If you have that underlying threat running under all of the spaces in which you can do these plays, you're going to get a more subdued idea of a past than what it really was. In fact, once he won, and once he convinced us to be more appropriative, Mankind, the way we ended up doing it after he intruded seemed a lot more like the traditional way of interpreting it. It suddenly became the play where all of the fun stuff is just to teach the real morality at the end.
The reason I bring up all this policing is because I, at least, through doing these projects and also in general am of the belief that generalized policing of space in North America and the generalized spread of capitalistic ideas of what art can be are directly connected. We discovered this very, very clearly in the performances that we've done. We've discovered how the assurances provided by a police-state are a lot of why our theatres are assumed to be silent, still, unmoving, non-dialogues. You never get to talk back. You never get to be unruly during a theatrical performance. Indeed, if you are in the theatrical performance, every single move you make has to be choreographed, has to be cleared by equity, has to be cleared by safety precautions. That's good to keep the body safe, but there are gradations of safety. Indeed, even if you try to say one thing off-book, at the end of your performance, because the second worst man in America is sitting in your audience, you get chastised because your theatre is not safe and special enough.
These are all functions of the same system and it's a system that, again, at least in the English tradition, with Shakespeare is part of why he was so popular, right? A lot of the reason that people turned away from Medieval drama is because it seems pious. All of the plays I'm mentioning do mention Jesus an awful lot. It's true. Not as often as modern performance mentions money.
When my students get put off by Medieval performance because of the Catholic content, I ask them to go home and look at all of the drama they are exposed to, be it on TV, at the live theatre, et cetera, and to stop tuning out all of the references that are made to money or to the exchange of things for money. All of the ads, all of the signs on your program, all of the moments that your actors do things that are clearly there to sell "tickets". There's nothing wrong with spectacle to sell tickets, but when your actor, rather than ending his play with a prayer, Shakespeare ends Twelfth Night with "We strive to please you every day," right? It's almost like you are saying goodbye to the greeter outside a Hilton. I think that that does something to what plays are.
We've discovered all of that through doing these plays live. I guess I want to take this opportunity to say, since I know that there's pretty wide listenership to this, I really wish that present day theatremakers would turn to pre-Shakespearean drama more. The reason that we do Shakespeare is so often-actually, maybe the only defensible reason for doing Shakespeare, other than to stage Julius Caesar as Donald Trump...I keep turning to Trump. I'm so sorry about that. Anyway, the primary reason why we do plays by Shakespeare, and again Shakespeare dominates obviously early English drama that's currently produced, is because we are trying to learn something from a past that is different from us. That surely must be the reason why. Even if we are trying to turn to the past and find out commonalities of the human experience between now and then, we're turning to the past to find out a way of thinking and a way of being that is distinct from our own, in order to understand the capacity of what plays and performance can be.
We just keep turning to the same guy over and over again. That guy we keep turning to was a master capitalist. He was brilliant. Of course he was brilliant. He was a businessman. There's so much that can be gained from turning to sources, either contemporary or primarily, if you ask me, before him that were doing plays for a different reason. The term "play" and the term "theatre" were not synonymous in the Medieval period. Only in the early modern period, the Renaissance, right? We talk about the Renaissance as a rediscovery of Greco-Roman ideas of what performance can be. One of those Greco-Roman ideas is the word "theatre". Theatre refereed, before the Renaissance, to that specific set of culture practices that was done in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. It was actually pretty deeply misunderstood by the majority of people in Medieval Europe.
Only when we started learning more about it in the Renaissance did people start thinking about the plays that they could do now as a way of rebirthing or reviving what was done in the Greco-Roman theatrum. That's why the first, actually second, purpose-built building for this stuff was called "The Theatre". It was an amazing thing to recreate the idea of what theatre once was and could be, right?
The words that they had for this stuff beforehand, that we had for things like the Castle of Perseverance, Mankind, Pride of Life, the only words that were applied to these things in English were "play" and "game". We talk about a play, that means something distinctly different. It means playing. It means there is no reason to do it if you're not having fun in some way. The reason you do it is not primarily for business. I know this is a very long way of answering your question, but I do think that there's a lot to learn about experimentation from going back before Shakespeare to a time in English plays that were not dominated by the bottom line.
Again, like I've said, I, and a lot of people I work with on these projects, have done our own experiment live performance. I'm a huge fan of experimental performance. The problem with experimental performance in the present day is that it's very self-oriented. The source for most innovations in present day experimental and indie theatre is from your own imagination. Indeed that's why we get a lot of indie or experimental productions of, of course, Shakespeare play that set it in some random historical period, or that do something unusual with it. The thing is, when you're drawing all of your inspiration from your own mind, that means that you're assuming that your own mind is not always already colored by its acculturation. Which, again, as Grotowski would tell us, it definitely is...We are so distant from an idea of what plays can be that is not dominated by the bottom line that we enact it at some level no matter what, unless we have a way out.
I think that pre-modern performance, particularly Medieval European performance, at least in this case, actually Medieval Asian performance is also really good for this, but I'm not as much an expert of that. Medieval performance in particular, right? Performance from a period that's defined by being the Middle Ages. The period between the Classical and the Renaissance gives us an example of a way of being that is truly different from our own. A way of making plays that is not dominated by the bottom line. It's our way out. It's our way of getting exposed to ways of experimenting with plays that would not have occurred to us because of our acculturation.
You had asked about revealing lessons about our own time period and I really think that they are there. I really encourage anybody who is listening to this or knows somebody who is listening to this to next time you want to do a Shakespeare play or next time your subscribers demand you do something old in order to make your theatre company feel legitimate, is that not necessary? I think that it would be worth turning to earlier examples of plays, freer examples of plays in both sense of the word "free" and in the Medieval sense of the word "free", which means generous. When you do, it's important too that you don't just flip back in your anthology and find the nineteenth century translation of Everyman that is always geared towards supporting a conservative idea of the past, but rather that you get in contact with the raw original or as close to the raw original as we can, right?
The language of this stuff is really tough. That's a reason why people don't do it or a reason why people turn to a translation. It is so much more productive, especially if you are working with English drama, where if you really work at it, you kind of understand what's going on, where you can turn to the actual words that are on the manuscript page, or at least transcribe from the manuscript page and figure out for yourself like we do the Pride of Life what this text is saying to you about a different way of being. If you can't translate that on your own, you can go to your nearest university, you can contact, you can tweet at me, you can tweet at any of my colleagues, and we will jump at the opportunity to help think through these old texts with you.
If you want to work in Latin drama, go to Kyle Thomas, right? Who you just interviewed on this. Or his mentor, Carol Signs, right? French drama, Jodie Enders has just released a set of groundbreaking, new translations of French drama, where they are like "Fuck this, fuck that stupid shit, stupid cootch". All over the place. It's a totally different idea that's so different from the random, anthologized copy of Everyman that you picked up from the strand two days ago. If you want Dutch drama, and I'm worried that my picture of the Dutch drama has been unfairly biased, go to scholars like Mandy Albert. You can find all of the people that I've just mentioned have some kind of Twitter presence. You can contact us. Get in contact with us and talk to us. Try to open up ways of making plays that diverges more sharply from what I used to consider traditional drama than any experimentation I've seen in the twenty-first century.
Michael: We'll post a link to a video of Matt's production of the Pride of Life with PLS. As well as PLS REED, or the Records of Early English Drama, and Medieval morality plays in general. Matt, thank you so much for joining us.
Matthew: Thanks so much for having me.
Michael: If you'd like to continue today's conversation, please visit HowlRound.com and follow Howl Round and @TheaterHistory on Twitter and Facebook. You can also visit our website at theaterhistorypodcast.net where you can find links to all of our episodes. A big thank you to the staff at HowlRound, who make this show possible. Our theme music is "The Black Crook Gallop", which comes to us courtesy of the New York Public Library's libretto project and Adam Roberts. Thanks as well to Tip Crest, who designed our logo. Finally, thank you for listening.