05.02.14, Dox, The Idea of the Theater

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Carol Symes

The Medieval Review baj9928.0502.014


Dox, Donnalee. the Idea of the Theater in Latin Christian Thought: Augustine to the Fourteenth Century. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004. Pp. xi, 196. ISBN: 0-472-11423-9.

Reviewed by:
Carol Symes
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

At long last, a scholar of medieval drama has written a book about The Idea of the Theater in Latin Christian Thought: that is, about changing understandings of ancient theatrical practices, and their theoretical appropriations. Donalee Dox focuses on what the theatre we call "classical" meant to medieval intellectuals over a thousand-year period, and how these meanings are reflective of larger trends--especially the deliberate construction of a Christian world- view and cultural program in the decades after the Council of Nicea, the cataloguing and codification of learning from Isidore to Charlemagne, the canonization of the liturgy in the centuries of monastic reform, the embrace of ancient models brought about by the new urbanity of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and the impact of Aristotle's Poetics and its scholastic interpretation in the fourteenth. In other words, this is an intellectual history of a concept, not an attempt to reconstruct the performance conditions of either the ancient world or the Middle Ages.

Those who work on medieval theatre will recognize at once how different, and how very welcome, this approach is. A handful of haphazardly-excerpted and ambiguous theological texts have regularly been plumbed for practical information, with little regard to the ways in which references to plays and players may function symbolically or metaphorically in these texts. And because the resulting "evidence" is equivocal, it has been used to sustain mostly negative arguments about the nature of medieval drama: that it was nonexistent or (perhaps worse) just incredibly boring; that it was wholly controlled by a Church supposedly hostile to levity of any kind; that it is accessible only through the yawning silences of the historical record, which suppresses references to indigenous varieties of entertainment transmitted along folkways; that it displayed a regrettable or willful ignorance of the "real" purposes and methods of ancient performance. One could go on and on. This is a story that everyone knows, or thinks they know. That is why accounts of the Middle Ages in most standard histories of the theatre are so narrow, vague, and deracinated--unlike the versatile medieval players lauded by Hamlet as the "Abstracts and brief Chronicles of the times." (And having recently completed a short history of medieval theatre, I am aware of the challenges faced by those who attempt to revise the prevailing narrative.)[[1]]

Intellectual historians, too, will find this a useful case study, although it yields few (if any) surprises. It almost goes without saying that the spectre of pagan religion which still haunted the worldly theatres of Augustine's day, provoking so much anxiety, had been pretty thoroughly exorcised by the twelfth century, when those theatres were in ruins. It needs no ghost come from the grave to tell us this. Similarly, it makes sense that comparisons between the sacramental workings of the Mass and the effects of tragedy on the audiences of long-ago Athens would be more or less fraught with controversy, depending on the handling of this topic, the authority behind it, and the temperature of ongoing doctrinal debates over representation, embodiment, and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist--not to mention the status of priests, and their individual efficacy in the performance of their sacramental and pastoral duties.

In fact, most of the important questions raised by Dox's study remain implicit, and call for further articulation. Some are of interest to all medievalists. How do we assess the relationship between high theory and common practice, particularly in the epoch prior to 1100, when most of what we "know" about what was going on comes from specialized written sources that were often responding to other specialized written sources, and not necessarily to the conditions of the world outside? How do we tease out degrees of similarity and difference in these accounts, when vocabularies and opinions are so readily recycled, and the nuances inherent in their re-use and reformulation largely hidden from us? How do we gauge how medieval intellectuals may have been influenced by their own experiences--in this case, by what we might see as the pervasive theatricality of daily life in the Middle Ages? How, for instance, did Hugh of Saint- Victor square his readings of Jerome, Cassiodorus, Boethius with his own closely-observed knowledge of political protocol and rhetorical gesture, his own role(s) in the performance of the liturgy, possible participation in classroom productions of romanesque plays, witness of outdoor processions and spectacles?

Then there are questions of more specific interest to those of us who really want to learn something about how the relatively few dramatic artifacts that have survived from the Middle Ages were performed, and how they were embedded in this larger culture of performance. What does it mean to study "medieval theatre"? What sources are at our disposal, and what methods do we use to find and interpret them? If many of the descriptions of ancient dramatic practices or contemporary ritual controversies enshrined in learned Latin discourse can tell us a great deal about how certain men thought about God, or the past, or the vexed relationships between signifier and signified, does this mean that they are unavailable to answer humbler questions? No, not necessarily: instead, we need to develop different, more finely-honed, modes of enquiry. We need to figure out how to use what we have to tell us what we want to know. We also need to start asking the kinds of questions to which the available evidence can provide good answers--that carry us beyond anachronism and teleology.

Again, these are questions begged by a close reading of Dox's book; and I venture to guess that some are questions that she wanted her readers to ask. By helping us to see that talking about theatre was part of the way that medieval intellectuals formulated and exchanged ideas, she has provided us with a much-needed context for a set of important writings, and in doing so has opened up a space for a radical reassessment of the historical and literary record.

Yet I have some significant reservations about this book. I was somewhat puzzled by the insistence on nice distinctions between "drama" and "theatre," and troubled by more categorical distinctions between the "representational drama" of the Middle Ages and the so- called "mimetic drama" ascribed to the early modern period. Until we know more about how medieval actors and audiences were affected by performances-- in plays or everyday life--we should shy away from confident postmodern assertions about how "they" must have construed such activities, in their own time or in past times. (The very fact that "we" continue to be mystified by what "they" did and thought is caution enough.) More seriously, it seems to me that Dox is far too accepting of the traditional definition of medieval drama, and of the received canon of plays that was constituted largely over the course of the nineteenth century--and which has recently been exposed as extremely problematic.

Moreover, Dox assumes that the intellectual tradition whose trajectory she traces was hermetically sealed at both ends: closed off not only from the realities of theatrical praxis, but from other influences and ideas also expressed in Latin, and available to the same groups of people. While she has taken care to round up the usual suspects (Augustine, Isidore, Rabanus Maurus, Amalarius of Metz, Remigius of Auxerre, Honorius Augustodunensis, Hugh of Saint-Victor, John of Salisbury, et alia), she does not extend her interrogation to contemporaries who were otherwise interested and engaged in the performance and inscription of liturgies and entertainments in Latin, or who have left lively accounts in Latin of the reception of Latin plays by audiences made up of men and women who were often the Latin-literate readers toward whom theoretical musings on theatre were directed. I refer to Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, as well as to the authors, actors, and audiences of the dozens of neo-Terentian comedies scripted in the late eleventh through thirteenth centuries; venturesome missionaries like Henry of Livonia, who were involved in the staging of elaborate Biblical dramas (with running vernacular commentary), to the sometime confusion of their intended converts; innovators who conceived edgy productions appropriate to certain communities (Hildegard of Bingen's Ordo virtutum, Abelard's dramatic hymns for the Paraclete) or on the cutting edge of current events and debates (the Ludus de Antichristo of Tegernsee, the dialectical Christmas play of Benediktbeuern); ambitious schoolmasters such as Geoffrey de Gorron, the future abbot of St. Albans, whose monastic profession was made in expiation for the loss of vestments borrowed from the abbey for his students' production of "a particular play about St. Catherine, the kind we commonly call a 'miracle'" ("quemdam ludum de Sancta Katerina--quem 'miracula' vulgariter appellamus.") There are many more examples, some of them so familiar for other reasons that we do not tend to think about them as having a bearing on our understanding of medieval drama. All suggest that it is a mistake to assume that learned reflections on the repeated re-enactment of Christ's sacrifice, or the dangers of Roman theatre, or medieval readings into the theories of Aristotle (which, even in their heyday, would have been regarded as an outsider's amateur critique), are irrelevant to our understanding of medieval theatricality.

Rather, we have our work cut out for us now. Thanks to Donalee Dox, we are better equipped to participate in the discussions that went on in all these texts, and to listen more carefully for the noises off.


[[1]] Carol Symes, "Theatre," in Arts and Humanities through the Eras (Volume V): Medieval Europe (814-1450), ed. Kristen M. Figg and John Block Friedman (Farmington Hills, MI: Thomson Gale, 2004), pp. 377-417.

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Author Biography

Carol Symes

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign