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13.09.41, Aronson-Lehavi, Street Scenes

13.09.41, Aronson-Lehavi, Street Scenes

"Few things are more avant-garde and even postmodern." That's how Jody Enders described the religious drama of late-medieval Europe, particularly the Middle French plays that she aligned with Antonin Artaud's "theatre of cruelty." [1] In this slender but illuminating book, Sharon Aronson-Lehavi applies Bertold Brecht's preferred performance aesthetic, outlined in a famous essay on "The Street Scene,"[2] to the acting style on display in the Middle English "street scenes" of the York Corpus Christi cycle and other community-sponsored pageants. This is not a new comparison; V.A. Kolve drew it long ago, as she acknowledges.[3] But Aronson-Lehavi wants to go beyond comparison, to argue that there was an indigenous and sophisticated medieval theory of performance that undergirded contemporary practices and that long predated the theatrical trends of the mid-twentieth century.

She does this through a careful reading of a well-known source: one of the very few medieval vernacular critiques of dramatic praxis. Preserved in a single manuscript dating from the first quarter of the fifteenth century, A Tretise of Miraculis Pleying is an anonymous work divided into two parts, possibly composed by two different authors, and usually regarded as a Lollard (Wycliffite) attack on the dramatic representation of sacred stories and saints' lives. It is also invariably designated as the quintessential expression of "antitheatrical prejudice" that infused much official medieval (Latin) discourse, but which bears very little relation to the pervasive theatrical culture of the era. [4] Yet, as Aronson-Lehavi shows, A Tretise is actually a reliable witness: not only to real staging practices but to the very existence of a "dominant performance concept" (7) that shaped these practices and that was based on a constant dramatization of the difference between the actor and the character(s) he portrayed (on the one hand) and the convergence of the events being staged with the moment of staging (on the other).

This is important. From the end of the sixteenth century to the present day, medieval acting techniques have been derided as naïve, or just plain "bad." [5] Hamlet's advice to the players, or the antics of the "rude mechanicals" of A Midsummer Night's Dream, have been held up as mirrors to an outmoded, amateurish acting style that Shakespeare and his professional peers deplored. If medieval playwrights or actors managed to achieve anything theatrically interesting, this story goes, it was purely by accident. After all, they weren't adhering to Aristotle's Poetics or asking Stanislavsky's "What if?" They were bound to get it all wrong.

Instead, Aronson-Lehavi's dissection of A Tretise reveals that "miraclis pleying" refers to a deliberately cultivated aesthetic that obviously governed the scripting of extant pageants and that probably informed the way that actors were trained (Chapter One). In Chapter Two, she goes on to identify its four main "concepts of performance" condemned by this text: the actor's dialectical embodiment of a persona and of his own localized identity, the insistence on drama's effective power to do something even as it "merely" represents something, the simultaneity of the audience's emotional involvement in the performance and distance from it, and the importance of drama as a communal activity that also defines the community. In Chapter Three, Aronson-Lehavi demonstrates how these features combined to create the "epic acting" and "total theatre" exemplified by the York pageants. Her brief book ends with a very brief conclusion and an appendix which offers a modern English translation of A Tretise, as a supplement to the Middle English edition of Clifford Davidson. [6]

Although Street Scenes achieves its goal, I wish it had been a bit longer and much bolder, so that it could pack a big, winding punch to the gut of conventional theatre history and the bombastic narrative of modernity's rejection of medieval conventions. While discerning readers will see that this study's implications are significant, these implications deserve to be made obvious. To put it clearly: by establishing the pre-existence of a medieval theory and praxis of acting, Aronson-Lehavi enables us to contend that the rediscovery of Aristotle and the construction of professional playhouses didn't really do much to change the way that theatre worked, at least in England. Every aspect of the poetics she outlines is applicable to the plays of the Elizabethan theatre, too; the only difference is that those plays were ostensibly secular and the audiences constituted a temporary community enclosed by "wooden O"'s. But where she calls A Tretise a "foundation document" for the "poetics of religious theatre" (55), I would insist that is merely one surface manifestation of a massive, much older phenomenon. For if Aronson-Lehavi is right, medieval theatrical conventions and aims don't appear to have been that different from those of antiquity. So the Middle Ages aren't a departure from theatrical tradition, they are at the very center of that tradition. By the same token, the post-illusionist theatre of Brecht and Co. is not a revolution, it is a rediscovery. Viewed in this light, the era that begins to look truly aberrant is the modern one that supposedly defines normalcy, with its bizarre fixation on "realism" and its valorization of the collapsed identity of the actor and his role.

Aronson-Lehavi also misses the opportunity to say something interesting about her findings' relevance to the understanding of all kinds of performed activity. By limiting herself to a certain genre of religious drama--the type that seems most directly referenced in A Tretise--she forecloses the possibility that this medieval æsthetic must have had a deeper history and a more pervasive influence. Where else can we glimpse it, and in what earlier sources? How would it apply to allegorical drama, like morality plays? or to farce? What does it suggest about the craft of preaching, or about the complex performativity of political ritual? What, at the most basic level, does the manuscript context of A Tretise suggest about its intended audience(s) and reception? (It kept fascinating company in London, British Library, MS Add. 24,202). I could easily have dispensed with the pedestrian translation of the text in favor of some hand-to-hand engagement with its historical circumstances. Since I suspect that few Anglophone medievalists would need the translation, maybe Aronson-Lehavi's target reader is a present-day theatre practitioner or theorist. One can only hope that this sort of reader would bother to learn something about the rich medieval antecedents of postmodernity.



1. Jody Enders, The Medieval Theater of Cruelty: Rhetoric, Memory, Violence (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999), 201.

2. Bertold Brecht, "The Street Scene: A Basic Model for an Epic Theatre," ed. and trans. John Willett in Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), 121-30.

3. Notably by V. A. Kolve's The Play Called Corpus Christi (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1966).

4. Jonas Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981). Donalee Dox has traced the development of this discourse in The Idea of the Theatre in Latin Christian Thought: Augustine to the Fourteenth Century (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004); but see my review of that book in TMR 05-02-14 (

5. E.g. John R. Elliott, Jr., "Medieval Acting," in Contexts for Early English Drama, ed. Marianne Briscoe and John C. Coldewey (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), 238-251 at 240.

6. A Tretise of Miraculis Pleying, ed. Clifford Davis (with a commentary on the dialect by Paul A. Johnston, Jr.), Early Drama, Art, and Music Monograph Series, 19 (Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University/Medieval Institute Publications, 1993).