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Techniques of Transcendence in Medieval Drama Robert Edwards Criticism of medieval drama has for the most part been Aristotelian. The categories of the Poetics as well as the struc­ ture Aristotle creates for them have shaped the manner in which not only scholars but the general audience view the plays. Im­ plicit in E. K. Chambers’ The Mediaeval Stage (1903) and Karl Young’s The Drama of the Medieval Church (1933) is a belief that the plays imitate action and character, and even so radical a study as O. B. Hardison, Jr.’s Christian Rite and Christian Drama in the Middle Ages (1965) recurs to Aristotelian bases. Hardison maintains that “in the ninth century the boundary . . . between religious ritual (the services of the Church) and drama did not exist. Religious ritual was the drama of the early Middle Ages and had been ever since the decline of the classical the­ ater.” As the Mass comes to be viewed as a drama by commen­ tators from the ninth century onwards, the framework of liturgy also becomes dramatic so that “in one sense, at least, the Easter liturgy is a transitional phase between the sacred drama of the Mass and liturgical drama.” “Its descending action begins with Lent. The point of crisis is reached on Good Friday, and Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday are devoted to the entombment and Resurrection, respectively.” The model for this larger struc­ ture is Gilbert Murray’s concept of the ritual form of Greek tragedy whose Aristotelian orientation Hardison calls “obvious from its terms.”! Although Hardison does not go so far as to break down his study into such parts as plot, character, thought, diction, music, and spectacle, these Aristotelian elements are consistently ap­ parent in the book. He tends to accept Aristotle’s notion of trage­ dy as the imitation of an action which is “serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude” as well as what was believed to be Aris157 158 Comparative Drama totle’s history of the development of tragedy. At the time Hardi­ son’s study was published, Gerald Else’s The Origin and Early Form of Greek Tragedy (1967) was questioning the authenticity and accuracy of that development. Classical scholarship has moved away from the notion of tragedy’s having arisen from ritual, and this reversal should be a caution to one’s uncritical acceptance of the view that medieval drama arose directly from Church ritual. For Else, Greek tragedy arises out of certain social conditions and the genius of two playwrights—Thespis and Aeschylus. Else does not question the notion of mimesis in tragedy and only implicitly, on historical grounds, does he ques­ tion the hierarchy of the six elements of tragedy. His acceptance of the new date for the writing of The Suppliant Maidens (467 B.C.) counteracts the importance which Aristotle gives to char­ acter and conversely stresses the importance of music and spectacle .2 This reversal is even more apparent in what is thought to be an even later play, Prometheus Bound. Aristotle relegates this play to the fourth and lowest category of tragedy, the tragedy of spectacle. “The interest of such a play,” Hardison rightly notes in his commentary on the Poetics, “is its appeal, written or per­ formed, to the visual imagination.”3 Critics of medieval drama who must deal with the unique event of redemption through Christ’s death and resurrection are forced to go beyond Else’s questioning of the development of drama. They must question drama as an exclusively mimetic form and reconsider the place which Aristotle gives to spectacle. In so doing, it will pay them to view drama along the lines suggested by both phenomenology and structuralism. The absence of expressly articulated theories makes these approaches necessary to understand the affective and intrinsic features of the form. I The drama Aristotle outlines is based upon the belief that the action being imitated can be repeated. His tragedy develops according to the laws of necessity and probability, and its shape follows the demands of credibility rather than veracity. Logical syllogism takes the place of revealed truth as the measure of a work. One might find these terms acceptable for an art that...


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