Some Principles to Keep in Mind When Performing Medieval Plays…

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by Chester N. Scoville

On one hand, medieval drama is no different from any other drama. Medieval producers selected the best actors they could find, who handled the text expertly and created memorable characters with voice and action. Technicians provided as much or as little razzle-dazzle as needed, and made whatever they did look as slick as possible. So in producing your pageant, use the same criteria for all decisions as you would for any play by Shakespeare, Moliere, Chekhov, O’Neill, or whoever.

On the other hand, medieval drama was a drama of religious devotion, and the religion of these plays was life itself in the Middle Ages. It was not sealed in a box that people entered for a couple of hours a week; it was the foundation of the community’s very existence. Indeed, medieval drama’s lifeblood is religion, and we have found that the only way to handle this aspect of the plays is to play it straight, with commitment.

As a result of these two aspects, we ask you to have fun with your pageant yet take it seriously. People sometimes think of children when they hear the word “pageant”: images come to mind of adorably incompetent Christmas shows starring Grade 3 classes. But doing a York pageant with that spirit is the surest way to kill it. Accordingly, we ask you to follow a few simple guidelines, and to avoid the mistakes that experience has shown can be fatal:

  1. Each actor should play her/his character as well as possible, to the hilt. Please do NOT have your actors play “a medieval bumpkin” (whatever that is) who is in turn playing a character; that method makes the actors look foolish and causes the play to lose all dramatic power.
  2. There is lots of humour in these plays; do not be afraid of it. But there is no cheap humour. Please do NOT impose “gags” where none are indicated. Gags make the play (and the players) look uncomfortable and uncertain; commitment to the script makes them look powerful and sure. The only way to make these plays work is to trust the text and NOT to impose things upon it; the playwrights were working within a very tight format, and they knew exactly what they were doing.
  3. Please take the verse seriously. These plays are written in stanzas for a reason; each stanza provides a fairly fixed temporal unit, and each form of stanza provides a mood.
  4. Please remember that this is outdoor festival theatre; make sure your actors have their voices in good shape, and make sure that their gestures read all the way to the back. TV acting, method acting, and so on do not work well with these plays.