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From Jerusalem to Damascus: Bilocal Dramaturgy in Medieval and Shakespearian Conversion Plays John W. Velz In medieval religious drama, the stage is a moral world— stage spaces have moral significance which an audience perceives or apperceives as a complement to the action that takes place in and around them. The classic example is the conventional spatial relation between sinister Hellmouth and dexter Paradise.1 An analogous stage direction in the Ordo Repraesentationis Adae makes clear how consciously early drama worked for emblematic effects through use of stage space: Tunc ibunt [Chaim et Abel} ad duos magnos lapides qui ad hoc erunt parati. Alter ab altero lapide erit remotus, ut cum ap[p]aruerit Figura [i.e., God], sit lapis Abel ad dexteram eius, lapis vero Chaim ad sinistram. . . .2 Heaven, hell and middle earth were loca so firmly entrenched in medieval religious theater that they survived in the archi­ tecture of Elizabethan public theaters, though eschatology there was only figurative and secular.3 As Bernard Beckerman puts it in describing the heavens above the Globe stage, hell beneath it, and between them “the façade of earthly life,” “In the fullest sense the stage itself was an emblem of the universe. . . . Just as we never quite lose the sense that we are peeping into some­ one’s home in the picture-frame theatre, so, we might suppose, the Globe audience never quite shook off the impression that it was witnessing events on a ‘more universal stage’ than the one it sat before.”4 Though such perceptions are familiar enough, the emblem­ atic character of medieval stage space is not sufficiently stressed in standard commentaries; the aesthetics and the semiotic implications have not been closely examined.5 The importance 311 312 Comparative Drama of the omission can be suggested by focus on one use of emblematic space, the metaphoring of moral change as spatial movement in conversion plays. Like spatial eschatology, spati­ ally metaphored conversion was a legacy from the Middle Ages to the English Renaissance theater; Shakespeare, as so often, was a residual legatee. The indirectness of the communication is the great merit of stage emblems: in their subtlety they are inherently ironic. This is true of all symbolic mise-en-scene, from the wood in Comus to Stanley Kowalski’s kitchen; but in medieval drama the irony goes further: the indirectness, passivity, and understatement characteristic of emblematic staging parallel the indirectness, passivity, and understatement characteristic of God, who as a largely silent protagonist, for the most part apperceived rather than perceived, is also an inherently ironic force in any mystery, morality, or saints’ play. Emblematic staging is, then, a harmon­ ious complement to the ironic deep structures of medieval religious drama. The N-Town Woman Taken in Adultery can serve as a paradigm for both ironies here. Christ remains silent, says nothing at all, when attacked by the Pharisee, Accusator, and Scribe; he speaks through the emblem he creates, setting down the sins of these prurient hypocrites in an appropriate place, the dirt. This silent but most vocal emblem reverses the action of the play entirely. As emblematic staging supports the ironies of the prota­ gonist/antagonist relationship in medieval religious drama, it also tacitly conveys some of the bipolarity that dominates all three genres. The world of this drama is bifurcated to an extra­ ordinary extents Old Testament and New, sin and righteous­ ness, God and Satan, cosmos and world, Divine Sovereignty and temporal tyranny, Good Angel and Bad Angel, and—in the teleological emblem of any cycle and of most moralities—the sheep and the goats, “ye blest of my Father and ye curst of my Father.” From typology through moral theology to eschatology, the Christian world of medieval drama is essentially binary: “he who is not with me is against me.” This binariness is often indirectly conveyed by a pairing of stage spaces. The Ordo Repraesentationis Adae is dominated by Paradise at the church door (itself a fine example of the use of locus for symbolic purposes?) and by Hellmouth below on the platea. More subtle is the pairing David Bevington has pointed out in the Secunda John W. Velz 313 Pastorum. Mak’s house and...


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pp. 311-326
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