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  • Keynote AddressWhose Space Is It, Anyway?
  • Marvin Carlson (bio)

The normal image of a theatrical performance is one that takes place inside a space particularly created for such activity. Almost all theatrical cultures have developed some sort of performance space set apart from the normal world of human activity, a space that serves as a site of imagination subject to certain rules, a fundamental one being that the audience agrees to serve as spectators and accept the fictive world the actors present to them. The performance space itself thus serves as a kind of “frame” emphasizing this dynamic (indeed, an alternative name for the proscenium arch theatre is the “picture-frame stage,” and some late nineteenth-century British theatres in fact surrounded the stage on all four sides with an ornate frame). In most cases this performance space, the stage and auditorium, is not even entered directly from the outside world, but is separated from that world by a liminal area, as a kind of mimetic airlock, the theatre lobby, which allows audiences to move by stages into the illusory realm of the theatre.

Theatrical performances that were not “protected” by this house of illusion have been much more susceptible to incursions from the physical world. Even the classic Greek stage, forming a partial enclosure, could and apparently did take advantage of the “real world” accessible to its audiences, the open sky above them. Thus, many of the extant plays, among them Oedipus and Antigone, begin at or near dawn, and it is difficult to imagine that the plays which were presented at that time of day did not take advantage of this contribution from the real world.

In the very earliest liturgical dramas of the Middle Ages we find already a complex mixture of theatrical elements and real spaces. Early liturgical drama was staged in parts of medieval cathedrals, but although these were real locations, they were accepted as suitable symbolically, reinforcing the effect of the performance on an emblematic if not on a realistic level. When religious dramas began to be performed outside the cathedrals, [End Page 9] the utilization of the physical surroundings became much more complex. Often these plays remained in the vicinity of the cathedral, particularly on its wide front platform and steps, and the cathedral performed not merely as a rich decorative background, like the classic Roman scenic façade, but also in its “true” role as the abode of God and the angelic choirs.

In some cases this “theatricalization” of real places could involve a large part of the city, most notably in the Passion processionals that are still echoed in the widespread Via Dolorosa process of modern times. As early as the fifteenth century, the city of Vienna staged the public humiliation of Christ in the city marketplace, and then the actor bore his cross through the winding streets of the city to the distant cemetery where the crucifixion and resurrection were to be enacted. The market, the streets, the cemetery, and even the watching public were thus elements of the real world imaginatively refigured as parts of the universal city, Jerusalem.1 There is still of course a certain slippage between the Vienna cemetery and what it represents, because although it is a real cemetery, it is not the site it imaginatively represents. This distinction is of particular importance in reference to sacred sites, which inevitably take on some aura of the actions that reportedly occurred there.

In fact the most ancient records that we have of theatrical activity are ritual observances carried out in specific sacred locations, which are essential to the event. The ancient Egyptian text from Abydos, whose “passion play” of Osiris is often cited as the earliest known theatrical text, was performed annually for some two thousand years, beginning in the second millennia bce. These were presented at the most sacred site in Egypt, the island where Osiris was reportedly buried.2 Jerusalem also witnessed theatrical activities at its major sites from very early times, as may be seen in the first detailed reports that we have from a pilgrim to that city, Egeria, in 381–84 ce. She reports a number of commemorative activities at...


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