Thursday, December 8, 2011

Original (Medieval) Staging Conditions

Something new and exciting this year is that the company will perform The Second Shepherds' Play in a church, which sort of makes sense if you keep in mind that churches were where the play would have been originally performed. At the home of the world's only re-creation of the Blackfriars Playhouse.... oh... wait... no.... something isn't right about that first sentence. Like mostly all of it.

The truth is that we know very little about early modern stage-craft, and while the Blackfriars Playhouse is the worlds only re-creation of Shakespeare's original indoor playhouse, a lot more guesswork went into that than most are comfortable thinking about. Keep in mind we have some very detailed paperwork describing the space (Burbage's original lease), and yet we still don't really and for truly know what the theatre looked like.

Of course, we know even less about medieval stagecraft.

While it is possibly true that plays in the medieval period sometimes performed in churches, by the time you get The Second Shepherds' Play (c. 1400-1450), we're pretty sure that the plays were elaborate affairs sponsored by guilds and presented on wagons or scaffolds, or perhaps in front of them, or maybe some combination of both. It's possible these plays were performed as part of a cycle annually, but it's also possible they were performed individually at certain times of the year. Possibly inside guild halls, parish halls, or any building with a hall large enough to accommodate players and an audience.

Based on our touring experience to Philly last year with Merry Devil, really, you don't need that much space at all. Have you ever been to one of those bars/cafes with a small stage for open mic nights? You could probably perform one of these plays there. But I digress....

It's a little bit hard to talk about original medieval staging conditions because even fewer people were literate in the medieval period than in the early modern period, and the first permanent playhouses weren't constructed in London until the 1560s ("The Red Lion," for those who are curious). That means that, at the latest scholarly estimate of composition, The Second Shepherds' Play was written a hundred years before playhouses were permanent structures in the capital of England.

Through the miracle of Google Maps, I can easily show you how far away Wakefield is from London:
View Larger Map

According to Google Maps, that's a two and a half day walk, and that's accounting for paved roads. Lets just say that there's a reason why all those rebellions you read about in Shakespeare started in northern England: it was too far away for the crown to exert much direct authority. By the by, all of those rebellions and insurrections that Shakespeare writes about in his history plays take place during the time period that The Second Shepherds' Play was probably written.

But, again, I digress....

Any playing space the original performance of The Second Shepherds' Play would have used would have been temporary, and while we cannot preclude performance in a church, churches tended to be used more regularly for other things. Likewise with guild halls, or any other indoor or outdoor space. Since plays were basically a trivial form of entertainment for the great unwashed, illiterate masses, no one with the ability to write much about them paid much attention to them.

Essentially, the anonymous monk who wrote The Second Shepherds' Play was writing the medieval equivalent of Cliff Notes.

Of course, we have sophisticated sensibilities, and can appreciate The Second Shepherds' Play as the work of art it truly is.


Anyhow, one of the reasons I'm writing this is that I have been asked to talk a little bit about how our church-performance at Emmanuel Episcopal is reminiscent of the Wakefield Master's original staging conditions, and the truth is that, for all I know, that is 100% true. And for all I know, the Wakefield Master imagined that, someday, someone like me would be able to write this brilliant commentary and share it with the entire world through a magical, glowing rectangle.

Tom Berger, the Shakespeare and Performance Scholar in Residence, has a saying I'm very fond of: "I don't know." I think, in this case, I'm going to have to go with that; with the addendum that I also don't think it necessarily matters as long as we all have a good time.

No comments:

Post a Comment