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PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 25.1 (2003) 48-60

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Franciscan Performance
A Theatre Lost and Found Again

Antonio Attisani
Translated by Jane House

EDITORS' Note: This essay is part of an ongoing PAJ series on "Art, Spirituality, and Religion" in which we plan to explore artworks and art practices circulating around this theme. The digital performance text, The Birth of the Christ Child, also appearing in this issue, is another approach to the subject, as is Karen Wilkin's essay on Pat Lipsky's new work. The series was initiated in PAJ 72 (2002) with publication of "Art as Spiritual Practice," a panel discussion featuring Meredith Monk, Alison Knowles, Erik Ehn, Linda Montano, Eleanor Heartney, and moderated by Bonnie Marranca, held at the SoHo gallery, Location One, in November 2001.

Trasumanar significar per verba non si poria . . .
(Passing beyond the human cannot be worded . . .)
—Dante, Paradiso, I, 70-71, translated by Allen Mandelbaum

If Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) had been considered as the initiator of modern theatre and not just as an eccentric saint, Western theatre would never have been the same. He would have started a completely different performing tradition. What I wish to outline here is not the story of that "if," but simply the Franciscan idea of theatre, or, rather, of performance. Franciscan theatricality does not consist of the illustration of an ideological statement (a concept or a text, that is, a discourse), nor can it be reduced to the simplicity of the exempla. In other words, it has nothing to do with representation, the foundation of Western post-Renaissance theatre. His theatricality consists of an incredible variety of poetic actions with the purpose of creating a communal experience of transformation. His theatricality is essentially ecstatic, as actors and spectators have an intimate comprehension of a religious event, or experience a state of peaceful pleasure. However, one has to acknowledge that the transformation is obtained through the activation of the senses and the creation of an aesthetic structure, that is, the creation of form. Another important issue to point out is that the participants in this theatre do not experience or conceptualize the event to the same degree but, rather, each has his or her own unique experience, taking part in the event as one "character" among others. [End Page 48]

One of the purposes of this essay is to suggest that although Francis's conception of "theatre" was neglected through the passage of time, it nevertheless remained fertile ground for Western theatre and reappeared with some force in the twentieth-century avant-garde, which fought, as we know, against recitation and representation. Thus, I am led to consider Franciscan performance as fundamental to Western culture, although it is still largely unknown and undervalued as such, and to contemplate a Francis who is far removed from the popular view of him as patron saint of pan-ecological protest movements.

Since Western civilization based its construction of modernity and the societé disciplinaire (Michel Foucault) on the conspicuous duality of the text and its representation, the Franciscan Weltanschuaung was beyond comprehension. And even if Francesco di Bernardone, as he was also known, had described himself and his brethren as "actors" rather than "jongleurs of God" (joculatores Domini), 1 it would not have altered the fact of his censure and his subsequent canonization by the Roman Catholic church—or the fact that his Cantico delle creature (Canticle of Creatures) is now considered one of the precursors of vernacular literature.

Nor is it likely that this revised description would have influenced the work of scholars. In our own time, Ioan P. Couliano in his Spiritual Journeys, a brilliant study of ecstatic methods and their shamanistic roots throughout the world, never mentioned Francis because he did not leave behind any texts that addressed such topics. 2 While Erich Auerbach did include him in his tract on realism in Western literature, he limited his comments to Francis's scanty writings. 3 And Ivan Illich 4 wrote on "lay alphabetization" and "religious alphabetization...


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