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Theatre Journal 56.2 (2004) 331-332
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In numerous churches throughout Europe from the tenth to the sixteenth century, important religious services were often punctuated by dramatic performances that reenacted such events as the Adoration of the Magi, Daniel in the lion's den, the raising of Lazarus, and, above all, the story of the three women visiting the Tomb of Jesus, only to be told by an angel "He is not here. He has arisen as has been foretold." Our earliest textual source from circa 965 indicates that such performances were restricted to fairly limited monastic audiences, but they were no less plays for that. Snatches of dialogue and descriptions of costume, stage, and prop directions indicate that already in the tenth century monks and priests sought consciously to imitate action and conceived of these performances as plays. From humble beginnings in the tenth century, liturgical drama expanded in scope and complexity, often existing side by side with the more familiar, and public, so-called mystery and Passion plays that were performed outside the church and without connection to the liturgy. In the sixteenth century, finally, the ban on liturgical drama issued by the Council of Trent (1545-63) marked a transformation in the spiritual sensibilities that had driven such drama for some six hundred years.
The problems facing scholars of medieval drama are manifold. First and foremost, as for any medievalist, is the relative paucity of primary sources, compounded by the often ambiguous nature of those sources. Second, with regard to drama in [End Page 331] particular, the material available for study is by definition always indirect. That is to say, one can collect texts, transcribe musical notations, glean costume descriptions, and recreate architectural spaces, but one can never inspect a medieval dramatic performance. It is not surprising, therefore, that most previous studies of medieval church drama have been limited to detailed examinations of one of the above components, primarily the texts. In The Staging of Drama in the Medieval Church, Dunbar Ogden has done a remarkable job of collecting and analyzing all these kinds of information and more in "an endeavor to set forth staging principles and document practices in a kind of theatrical performance" (17), that is, in plays that were connected intrinsically to medieval religious services and were enacted in and around church spaces. Ogden's goal is to penetrate the texts to convey, as much as is possible, the actual settings and staging—the mise-en-scène—of medieval religious drama. While the book's chapter headings indicate the principal types of evidence under consideration (texts, set pieces and special effects, costumes, acting, and music), what animates Ogden's book is the idea set forth in the acknowledgments: "One must play it to know it." It is important, then, to note that Ogden has served as the stage director for numerous performances of religious drama in Amsterdam, Maastricht, and New York. Although I have not been privileged to experience any of these performances, it seems clear that they have been informed by research on the historical sources and consequently have had a reciprocal influence on the interpretation of those sources as set out in this book. This is not meant as a criticism. Rather, Ogden's own experience has made him sensitive to the practical requirements involved in staging drama and he is thus able to breathe remarkable life into otherwise fairly dry texts. For example, Ogden offers detailed and subtle interpretations of the songs sung by Herod in Magi plays, and by the Jew in The Image of Saint Nicholas (both of the eleventh and twelfth centuries).
In his most extensive chapter, Ogden provides an exhaustive analysis of the layout of space and the patterns of movement for specific plays within specific churches. To the extent possible, Ogden matches texts of a known provenance with the actual buildings in which those dramas would have been performed (e...