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chapter four From Poetics to Performance The Reception and Interpretation of Aristotle’s Poetics to the Early Fourteenth Century R throughout the twelfth century, vernacular and sacred ludi had emerged in tandem with new religious orders, preaching styles, and liturgical practices. By the beginning of the fourteenth century, elaborate, scripted Passion plays; secular ludi, such as Adam de la Halle’s Le jeu de Robin et Marion ; and prototypes of guild-sponsored cycle plays were performed out of doors with temporary scenery and platform stages. Modern theater criticism has moved steadily away from privileging texts and toward greater attention to the semiotics and dynamics of live performances in their cultural contexts. It would seem that thirteenth-century Christian thinking already considered live performance as a practice. As such, however, dramatizations, reenactments , and spectacles were occasional and situational rather than products of an ongoing cultural institution. Perhaps going back to the old classi‹cation of theatrum with athletics or to the Augustinian antipathy to Roman theater as a Christian activity, what is today recognized and discussed as theatrical performance was of no evident value in the intellectual pursuits of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. There was criticism of theatrics, but there was no method for theater or drama criticism. Despite the in›uence of newly translated Aristotelian treatises on thirteenth -century learning,1 Aristotle’s Poetics (the likely source for an inquiry into the purpose, structure, and effects of theatrical performance) found little sympathy with the topics or methods of Scholastic inquiries. Unlike the con95 tested interplay between allegory, scriptural exegesis, and liturgy, Aristotle’s method for analyzing Attic drama seems not to have resonated with medieval entertainments or liturgical dramas.2 By the early fourteenth century, however , Aristotle’s Poetics was available in three Latin versions. The most recent hints at a shift in Scholastic thought. Of the three—the translation of Averro ës’s Middle Commentary on the Poetics from Arabic by Herman the German (1256), the translation of Aristotle from the Greek by William of Moerbeke (1278), and the Brevis expositio supra poetriam Aristotelis (based on a recension of Herman the German) by Bartholomew of Bruges (1307)— Bartholomew’s Brevis expositio shows a distinct movement toward the Renaissance interest in dramatic imitation as an inquiry into human nature and behavior. Early Modern and Modern Poetics An Aristotelian model of written and performed drama based on Renaissance reinterpretations of the Poetics remains a foundation for modern Western concepts of narrative drama. In H. A. Kelly’s words, the Poetics has been, since the Renaissance, “an indispensable element in discussions of tragedy.”3 John Wesley Harris’s recent introduction to medieval theater draws implicitly on Aristotle’s criteria (a consciously constructed plot that imitates an action; produces an emotional response; and adheres to the unities of time, place, and action) when he suggests that medieval Passion images satis‹ed a “theatrical need for display in their sheer physicality, dramatic tension in their emotional content, and thematic unity through their allusive reference to the author’s larger vision.”4 In modern scholarship, these qualities—display, dramatic tension, emotional content, and thematic unity—have been applied to liturgical texts, such as the Quem quaeritis dialogues and Visitatio sepulchri ceremonies, when the aim is to identify them as drama or theater. The characteristics of drama as Aristotle de‹ned it have also been mapped onto Honorius Augustodunensis ’s description of the Mass in De tragoediis: tragedy has a history (Propter quod et magis philosophicum et studiosius poesis quam hystoria est);5 Christ becomes a tragic hero (corporibus et in animalibus habere quidem magnitudinem );6 the Mass imitates the action of Christ’s life (quoniam autem actio est imitatio),7 with a single plotline centered on a crisis (the Cruci‹xion and entombment), a reversal of fortune in the Resurrection (Dico autem simplicem quidem actionem qua existente, ut determinatum continua et una sine 96 The Idea of the Theater in Latin Christian Thought peripetia et anagnorismo transitio ‹t),8 and “something like a dramatic catharsis ” in the ‹nal gaudium.9 The expectation for increasingly realistic representation —the close relationship between a representation and its real-world referent—has long been regarded as a mark of sophistication in Western drama and performances.10 Early modern readings of the Poetics, as Brian Vickers points out, studied poetics as didactic rhetoric aimed at moral improvement. Though such readings did not catch the Aristotelian concept of an autonomous artwork, sixteenth -century commentaries did question the extent to which...


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