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Positional Symbolism and English Medieval Drama Clifford Davidson Research in the dramatic records of England strongly suggests that religious pageants and plays presented by local guilds and civic authorities, as opposed to productions by traveling players, were more often than not associated with an important festival such as Corpus Christi, Whitsunday, or a saint's day.l In such cases, the drama functioned as adjunct to the festival itself, and hence the theatrical event needs to be regarded as a ritual which helped to focus attention in ways consistent with the sacred meaning of the day in die liturgical year. Concerning this kind of ritual, the anthropologist Mary Douglas has observed that it "enlivens the memory and links the present with the relevant past,"2 in some sense making the past to become present in the experience of the participants and/or audience. Since plays with religious content were so frequently regarded as existing within a context which was larger than mere theatrical display considered apart from the larger meaning of the festival, their texts and their visual appearance on the stage were not likely to strive for innovation in either dialogue or iconography. Study of the latter, as many of us have argued in recent years, has done as much to illuminate the medieval drama as scholarship which has focused on the text alone. Connections also have been established with other ritual objects such as cult images, relics, and various additional representations that illustrate aspects of religious devotion in an age for which seeing was more important than hearing. Indeed, the sense of sight was crucial in establishing one's place in relation to the events of the sacred stories, to the heroes and heroines of history, and to the very meaning of history itself.3 Medieval drama tiius is badly served when considered merely in terms of its literary value alone—i.e., as texts to be read privately by individual readers—for the texts of these plays 66 Clifford Davidson 67 fare far better when understood as dialogue to be fleshed out and made visible on the stage. The play in the case of this drama deserves to be differentiated from the play-text. It will be possible here to agree with Hans-Georg Gadamer that a "drama exists really only when it is played,"4 and in making the drama visible to an audience we need to understand that the text is in fact subsumed into the play.5 The play therefore is more than its linguistic components. The visual side of the performance of the medieval religious play—a side which, when compared to the text, may seem ephemeral and for the Middle Ages (lacking the kind of documentation diat today would be possible through film or video recording) largely lost to us—cannot, in my view, be cavalierly set aside if we want to recover such drama for modern audiences. Aside from the phenomenological context in which the drama was embedded, the play itself should be seen in terms of a minimum of three formal structural levels. At the bottom and forming the skeleton of the action is ( 1 ) the text, extant prior to the earliest performance but subject to alteration tiiereafter. The text, divided into speeches assigned to each actor, both limits the action and infuses it with its primary meaning, though further gradations of meaning will be assigned by the visual levels that are present in the play as acted. These levels are (2) gesture and (3) iconographie tableau, both of which add significance to the bare text and bring the action to life. The three formal structural levels may be represented as follows: StageVisual Picture -> Effects Text ----->¦ Verbal Effects Iconographie tableau Gesture Spoken dialogue r * THE PLAY Interestingly, even sometiiing so crucial to critical and scholarly discussion as genre may depend less on die text than on the visual effects of the play. In our consideration of the question of the genre of die early music-drama of the Middle Ages, for example, we have usefully come to realize that, without a word or a single note being changed, a play may be 68Positional Symbolism transformed into ceremony or vice versa...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 66-76
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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