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Drama and its intellectual climate: the roles of Mary and Christ in some German miracle and eschatological plays In late medieval German religious drama we find a number of plays which involve the intercession of the Virgin Mary on behalf of sinners who have asked her to represent them before Christ as the Heavenly Judge. The development of these heavenly court scenes is fairly similar in all cases, seeing that they are based on a common religious and dramatic tradition, and we find much the same motives and epithets for the Virgin recurring again and again. The outcome of these contests between Mercy and Justice differs however, depending on the theological problem or exemplum involved. Certain conditions must be fulfilled if a sinner is to be saved at all, and it would seem to have been unthinkable for the clerical authors to fly in the face of orthodoxy simply in order to provide their audiences with a happy ending. There is no point therefore in accusing the author of the Zehnjungfrauenspiel (i.e. the Ludus de Decern Virginibus, the "Play of the Ten Virgins")l of excessive severity in having the fatuae (the foolish virgins) consigned to Hell despite their own and the Virgin's pleas. The parable in Matthew 25:1-13, on which the play is based, is designed to warn us that there will be no second chance for those who have not prepared in time for the hour of judgement. Similarly, we may be amazed to see such abject sinners as Theophilus, who sold his soul to the devil, or the wicked Pope Joan, who died giving birth to her bastard child, admitted to the ranks of the blessed. But again it is not for us to argue against such unjustifiable clemency, but to acknowledge the fact that they repented in time and could therefore be saved. The questions we are entitled to ask though are: Why was a play as severe as the Zehnjungfrauenspiel staged at a certain time and place? Why was the theme of damnation developed quite so relentlessly; in other words, why introduce the Virgin as Mediatrix when her intercession was destined to fail? And conversely: What didactic point did the authors of the Theophilus or the Juttenspiel pursue in letting their audience witness the success of Mary's intercession, particularly in the case of Pope Joan, where such intercession and the sinner's salvation were by no means an integral part of the legendary tradition? Can we speak of a softening of attitudes between the early fourteenth century, when we first hear of the Ludus de Decern Virginibus having been performed,2 and the 1 Karin Schneider, Das Eisenacher Zehnjungfrauenspiel, Berlin, 1964 (hereafter, Schneider). All references to the text in this paper are based on this edition. 2 Ibid., 8. 118 E. von der Helder late fifteenth century, when the Pope Joan play was written?3 I do not presume to give an answer to all these questions, but I hope to throw at least some light on the issues involved. One of the major difficulties we encounter in trying to establish the presence or absence of "trends" in German medieval theatre, particularly with respect to plays written before the last quarter of the fifteenth century, is the very uncertain information we have to rely on. Only a few manuscripts have been preserved; most of them are corrupt, and we can only guess at a play's original form and the time and place of its first staging, not to mention the anonymous author's motivation in producing it, or the audience's response. Chance references in chronicles or other contemporary sources tend to concentrate on some incident or mishap connected with the occasion rather than on the play itself, and they provide few clues concerning the extent and popularity of dramatic activity in the localities concerned. We have in fact very little to go on in deciding whether a given play is in any way typical of its time or region, and in what way it contributed to subsequent dramatic developments. It is all the more regrettable, therefore, that so little advantage appears to have been derived from the one...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1832-8334
Print ISSN
0313-6221
Pages
pp. 117-133
Launched on MUSE
2013-04-03
Open Access
No
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