03.01.23, Enders, Death by Drama and Other Medieval Urban Legends

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Richard Firth Green

The Medieval Review baj9928.0301.023


Enders, Jody. Death by Drama and Other Medieval Urban Legends. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. Pp. xxx, 324. ISBN: 0-226-20787-0.

Reviewed by:
Richard Firth Green
Ohio State University

Theaters are magical spaces, and those who inhabit them are apt to take on (in their own eyes as well as in ours) an aura of enchantment, danger, and mystery, so that is hardly a surprise to find that in medieval France (no less than in twenty-first-century America) they provided a fund of anecdotes, some doubtless true, others almost certainly apocryphal. In Death By Drama, Jody Enders has mined this largely neglected vein to provide us with a highly entertaining introduction to the theatrical lore of the late middle ages and early renaissance. In its pages we encounter a few tales of good fortune (an actor whose entrancing performance secures her an advantageous marriage, another whose starring role sets him on the road to ecclesiastical preferment), but many more of disaster or even death (two actors -- one playing the crucified Christ, the other the suicidal Judas -- who nearly asphyxiate themselves and have to be cut down on stage, for example, or two stagehands unwisely entrusted with actual cannon for special effects -- one of whom shoots himself in the foot (literally) while the other manages to maim someone in the audience. It is rare to catch oneself describing a scholarly monograph as a page-turner, rarer still to be able to report that one laughed out loud while reading it, but I did both with Death by Drama.

The book has many other virtues. Since Enders' sources are generally brief, often incomplete, and sometimes self-contradictory, they offer her ample incentive to exploit a fashionable mode of post-modern indeterminacy, particularly since they are magnified by the make-believe world of the theater itself. It is to her credit that she tries to resist this temptation, insisting that, yes Virginia, there really is an hors-texte, there really is a there there: "Jehan's and Perrin's are real stories of real deaths, and neither man died because of any politics of representation. So this is no time to revel in any Baudrillardian confusion about the signs inclining neither one way nor the other. Even the most hardened habitués of phenomenology must acknowledge that there simply has to be a difference between a special effect, a close call, a lethal accident, and a murder" (76). I'm far from sure that they must, but I certainly honor Enders for supposing so.

Where there is so much to admire I feel somewhat churlish criticizing two of the fundamental premises of this book.

Firstly, I'm far from convinced that Enders herself is totally at home with the practical world of the theater. Let me gives two examples, one comparatively trivial, the other more serious. Our incompetently crucified Christ was indubitably cut down before he suffocated to death, but the text is frustratingly silent on who did the cutting down: il fut estés mort, s'il ne fut estés secorus (207), and the same is true of the incompetently hanged Judas: il fut bien hastivement despandus. Enders (though, in other places, she is only too happy to fill in her texts' lacunae with a multiplicity of possible realizations) is at this point preoccupied with Stanley Cavell's speculations about the metaphysics of a permeable boundary between audience and actors, and accordingly offers us only one vraisemblablisation, conjuring up a good samaritan in the front row to rush to her expiring actors' aid (56-57). This is of course a possibility, but no one who had spent much time on stage herself could doubt that a far more likely one is that Christ was saved by one of his fellow actors; these men would have rehearsed the scene with him -- probably many times (a crucifixion is technically complicated, not something you would leave to the last minute) -- and they would have sensed instantly (and certainly long before anyone in the audience) that something was going wrong. Moreover, a troupe of actors quickly develops an esprit de corps (they must learn to trust one another or the whole enterprise becomes impossible). Thus, the notion that actors would ignore the suffering of one of their fellows on stage and leave it to an audience member to rescue him is barely credible.

The more serious example comes from Enders' chapter "of Madness and Method Acting" (43-54), an extended analysis of an anecdote from the second-century writer Lucian of Samosata about the "exaggerated mimicry" of an actor portraying the madness of Ajax. Anyone who had spent any time on stage would instantly recognize this particular pest. He is surely not, as Enders supposes, a method actor avant la lettre, identifying so closely with his character's psychological instability as to put both himself and his fellow actors at risk. He is quite simply over-acting, and it strikes me as somewhat naive to regard this as a symptom of the celebrated Method. Stanislavsky developed his ideas in conscious reaction against the melodramatic style of nineteenth-century Russian theater, and when they were introduced into America they gave rise to a naturalistic acting style that was diametrically opposed to the kind of self-indulgent histrionics that Lucian describes. One has only to watch such products of the Actor's Studio as Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, or Dustin Hoffman to realize that over-acting is anathema to the Method, and it is perhaps worth recalling that an actor as restrained as Gregory Peck was trained in this school.

Secondly, there is the question of the designation of these theatrical anecdotes as "urban legends." Much ink has been spilt in recent years in the definition of what constitutes an urban (or, better, contemporary) legend; probably the best we can do is the working definition suggested by Gillian Bennett: "contemporary legends [are] untrue stories which are nevertheless believed by the community which transmits them because they resonate with their life circumstances and address their social and/or moral concerns" (Contemporary Legend: A Reader, xxiv). By this definition, almost none of the stories in Death By Drama is an urban legend. The title story (the tale of a 1549 performance in Tournai of a play about Judith and Holofernes in which a condemned criminal was induced to play the luckless Assyrian and was put to death in good and earnest during the course of the production) has apparently circulated among credulous French theater historians and their readers ever since 1878 and might thus I suppose be described as a scholarly legend (if not an urban or contemporary one), but of the rest, only two ("the devil who wasn't there" and "burnt theatrical offerings") look anything like medieval contemporary legends. The first, concerning a real devil who appears among a group of actors who are playing devils on stage, is widespread and turns up in a variety of different guises, as does the second, an anti-semitic tale of a Jew who is burnt at the stake for blackmailing a Christian widow into obtaining a host for him to mutilate. All the rest are simply theatrical anecdotes, many quite probably true, but none inherently improbable or, more importantly, circulating in significantly varied forms. We need more than two written accounts (whose only significant difference concerns dating) to turn into an urban legend the tale of an actor whose affecting portrayal of Saint Catherine wins her a rich husband.

Modern studies of urban legends, hardly any of which appear in this book, would make a sizable bibliography (indeed, one was published by Gillian Bennett and Paul Smith in 1993). Bennett and Smith's 1996 anthology of critical essays, Contemporary Legend: A Reader, is also missing, as are the five volumes of conference proceedings from meetings of the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research (published between 1982 and 1990), and even the landmark collection American Folk Legend, edited by Wayland Hand in 1971. Only one of Linda Dégh's numerous articles on the topic is included, and none of Georgina Smith's; given the context, the last is especially regrettable, since Smith focussed on the performance aspects of legends. Indeed, virtually the only writing on urban legends that is cited here is the work of such popularizers as Jan Brunvand, Paul Dickson, and Joseph Goulden. A little more attention to the work of more rigorous and scholarly folklorists might have lessened the analytical weaknesses of Death by Drama.

Finally, I have a stylistic quibble. At its best, Enders' style is lively and entertaining -- it rattles along with a refreshing lack of jargon and obscurantism. There are times, however, when it seems to go into verbal auto-pilot, multiplying clauses with little regard for their meaning. Consider, for example, this passage about the audience's reaction to the representation of miracles by clever stage effects:

One thing was clear: Regardless of what they were seeing or hearing, mis-seeing or mis-hearing, or were thought by theologians to be seeing or hearing, mis-seeing or mis-hearing, it was dangerous when they believed what they saw or what they thought they saw, or when they believed nothing at all. It was also dangerous when they disbelieved what they saw or what they thought they saw, or when they disbelieved nothing at all (161).

Surely, believing what you see and hear (or think you see and hear), is the same as disbelieving nothing, isn't it? or conversely, isn't disbelieving what you see and hear (or think you see and hear) the same as believing nothing? Could not these two convoluted sentences in fact be simply rewritten: "audience members, whether credulous or skeptical, risked the wrath of theologians, whether catholic or protestant, by attending the theatrical representation of miracles" ?

I do not wish to end on such a carping note. Passages like this are thankfully in the minority. If it were not so I would certainly not have found myself reading this enjoyable book well into the night.

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Author Biography

Richard Firth Green

Ohio State University