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'The Rights of the Player": Evidence of Mimi and Histriones in Early Medieval Scandinavia Terry Gunnell In the past, Scandinavia has tended not to figure very highly in the history of drama in medieval Europe.1 Only one paragraph in the recent Companion to the Medieval Theatre is dedicated to Scandinavian drama prior to 1500, and that is limited to the few liturgical plays that have been unearthed in Sweden.2 The implication is that for some reason medieval Scandinavia was, to all intents and purposes, void of any other dramatic activity. The Scandinavians were allegedly not interested in such antics. The essential problem is that for most theater scholars, including E. K. Chambers, Old Norse seems to have remained a relatively closed book. The majority have had to rely on the Old Norse scholars of the past, for whom, in many cases, the concept of drama continued to be based on Aristotelian definitions and confined within the decorative frame of the proscenium arch. Notable exceptions to this rule were Bertha S. Phillpotts, whose underrated book The Elder Edda and Ancient Scandinavian Drama was published in 1920, and the Norwegian scholar Anne Holtsmark, who in the years after the last World War wrote several important articles on the early evidence for the existence of drama in Scandinavia.3 Neither scholar's arguments, however, made much of a lasting impression in the field of Old Norse studies. The hard facts remained that the sagas contained no obvious descriptions of dramatic performances, and that there was little evidence of liturgical drama outside southern Sweden. When the first signs of formal playwriting at last began to appear in Scandinavia, they seemed to be based wholly on foreign models. In recent years, the increasing interest in the implications of the oral tradition that provided the material for the Eddie poems and sagas has encouraged a re-examination of the evidence for early dramatic activities in Scandinavia. In a book published in 2 Comparative Drama 1995, The Origins of Drama in Scandinavia, I argue that the Scandinavians not only were engaging in elementary ritual drama as far back as the Bronze Age but were still presenting some form of spoken and acted folk dramas based on these earlier rituals as late as the thirteenth century. How widespread such activities were is uncertain, but it seems that Iceland produced two of the earliest manuscripts in northern Europe containing folk drama in the vernacular: the Codex Regius and AM 748 manuscripts from the late thirteenth century, which preserve the dialogic Eddie poems Skírnismál, Lokasenna, HárbarOsljóO, Vafpr úonismál, and Fáfnismál.4 The Icelandic sagas might seem to remain silent on this matter, but we should pause before drawing overly hasty conclusions . The narrative conventions and working methods of the saga authors need to be taken into account. For example, the conventions of saga narrative seem to dictate that no distinction should be made between a named character in a saga and any disguise that he or she might adopt: thus, in accounts involving disguise , a character becomes the role that he or she plays, and is named accordingly for the duration of the disguise. Typical examples of this are found in Njáis Saga, where Gunnar Hámundarson "becomes" "Kaupa-HeÖinn"; in Örvar-Odds Saga, where Örvar-Oddr "becomes" "NaeframaÖrinn" ("the Barkman"); and in Mágus Saga where Mágus "becomes" "SkeljamaÖrinn" (the "Shellman") and "HalflitamaÖrinn" (the "Particolor Man").5 According to such narrative conventions, there would have been little difference between a mythical account and the description of a dramatic ritual performance based on a myth. A greater problem for us is that the early Scandinavians had no definitive word for "drama." For them, the only expression available was leikr ("play"), a word which had a wide breadth of meaning, ranging from ritual activities and magic to sport, and from children's games to battle and love-making.6 Naturally, when the Scandinavians eventually came to designate words for professional dramatic performers, one of the three that they adopted in the Middle Ages (and still use in Iceland today) was the word leikari (literally, "player"). Like...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 1-31
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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