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  • Radical Theatricality: Jongleuresque Performance on the Early Spanish Stage
  • Christopher Swift
Radical Theatricality: Jongleuresque Performance on the Early Spanish Stage. By Bruce R. Burningham. Purdue Studies in Romance Literatures, vol. 39. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2007; pp. xii + 260. $43.95 paper.

It is a common trope that the writing of theatre history is haunted by the ultimate irretrievability of the instant moment and the phenomenon of embodied performance. For scholars of medieval Iberian theatre this historiographic dilemma is compounded by a number of concrete obstacles to inquiry. Evidence of European medieval performance is famously scarce, and peninsular performance history in particular—often dismissed for a regrettable lacuna of textual evidence of liturgical tropes and plays—has long lived in the shadow of the English and French traditions. New approaches to the study of European medieval theatre have opened up channels of investigation by redefining and expanding the performance archive, but these methodologies have yet to be applied in earnest to the study of Catalan, Castilian, Galician, Portuguese, and Andalusian cultures. It is this historiographic void in theatre studies that Bruce Burningham begins to fill with Radical Theatricality, principally by arguing that performative phenomena of embodiment can, in fact, be identified in the Iberian jongleur tradition.

Radical Theatricality describes medieval and early modern oral traditions through the culture of “jongleuresque” performers: juglares, trovadores, and other itinerant players, who have been relegated to the fringes of theatre history. In order to overcome the barriers presented by the lack of traditional forms of evidence, Burningham analyzes “performance as a process rather than as a product” (3). He rehearses familiar theories from anthropology and social ritual (the work of Bakhtin and Schechner are particularly influential), laying the groundwork for an analysis of nonliterary forms presented on flexible stages, as well as literary and dramatic texts that contain traces of improvisatory, popular practices. Throughout Radical Theatricality, Burningham conjures names of performance artists from across the historical spectrum, each of whom have embraced a “poetics of jongleuresque performance” encompassing “a performative aesthetic and set of praxes that underpin a wide range of performance traditions” (4). Some readers might take exception to this synchronic exegesis, which, in effect, suggests an essentialized brand of street performer. However, archival evidence describing the tradition of early itinerant players in detail remains elusive, thus novel research methodologies are required to revive this obscured culture. In addition to trans-historical [End Page 663] analogues (Homeric bards, Richard Tarleton, and vaudevillians are a few examples), Burningham culls evidence for the jongleuresque from Spanish romances, epic poetry, dramatic theory, and plays. The jongleuresque is epitomized by acts committed on “simple stages,” defined as an everyday space that is radically transformed into a space for popular, multiform spectacles “at the behest of the performer” (27).

Although he is not the first to deconstruct the evolutionary explanation of ancient and medieval drama, Burningham dismantles the common assumption that early theatre was born out of less complex ritual forms (i.e., the moment the quem quaeritis trope unglued itself from the Christian rite). Next, he argues that many medieval and early modern Spanish texts need to be re-situated in their performative contexts. Burningham correctly points to a pervasive oral tradition that was responsible for the dissemination of musical and linguistic culture: ballads and stories underwent continual modification through the bodies and voices of minstrels and troubadours. An example of a text that has received more philological than performative analysis is Calisto y Melibea. Burningham argues that in the absence of staging evidence for Calisto y Melibea, questions of performability and genre are beside the point: what really matters is that a poetics of street performance is firmly embedded in Rojas’s work.

The next four chapters proceed in chronological fashion, effectively supporting Burningham’s argument that jongleuresque performance transgressed the medieval/modern divide. In chapter 2, Burningham conducts a close reading of the poetry and music of Spanish romanceros and villancicos in order to highlight their dialogic meanings, as well as the multiple talents of the jongleurs themselves who were required to hold their audience’s attention by employing a myriad of expressive forms. The following chapter describes radical theatricality in...


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