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Renaissance du théâtre médiéval

Véronique Dominguez

Partie II. Représentations : un théâtre universitaire, un théâtre d'amateurs ?

Beginner’s Luck? A first-time director tackles a york play

Victor I. Scherb

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  • 1 My career up until last summer had, to a large degree, straddled theatre and drama. Employed as a (...)

12006 was a year of firsts for me: My first term teaching abroad; my first summer living in Cambridge; and, my first opportunity to direct a play. Although I had acted in many plays in the past, and had participated in many activities characteristic of school student productions – painting sets, building scaffolding, and maintaining props – I had never even run a sound or lighting cue, and had certainly never directed. Like all amateur actors, I had made an occasional suggestion, and once or twice they found their way into performance, but I always looked at myself as subject to the director and more a student than a teacher when I was engaged in a production. Theatrical magic wasn’t always the result, of course, but there were traces of it often enough that I kept doing it until other responsibilities just became to time-consuming. I was always aware that a director is the key to creating an aesthetically powerful piece of theatre, and moreover that he or she tends to be responsible for the lion’s share of the explicit choices involved in the production, inevitably receiving some of the praise and much of the blame for its success or failure.1

2Offered under the auspices of the Arizona for Medieval and Renaissance Center Summer Program, my class – entitled “City and Cycle in Medieval York” – included a field trip from St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge, where we were housed, to York to attend a performance of eleven medieval plays put on by the Gilds of York at four different acting locations around the city. Students also had the opportunity to travel up to York with me the day before the performance and attend a lecture by Margaret Rogerson on the modern performance history of the York cycle. Since that mid-July weekend was the final weekend of the York Early Music Festival, students who came early could also attend some of its events, which included a lecture on music in the York cycle, and there was even a Mystery Play walk available that included stops at all of the medieval pageant stations as well as some of the modern playing places. As a capstone project, we would choose, cast, costume, direct, and perform one of the York plays, applying the lessons we had learned in the course of the class and learning new ones in the course of production.

3Although none of my students had substantial familiarity with the York plays, I designed the initial classes to introduce them to the cycle. During this time they read several of the plays, a bit of performance history, and watched video excerpts from the 1998 productions. At the end of the first week we traveled up to York where the students had their first experience with live medieval theatre. It was, by and large, a fortunate encounter. The York productions employed many varied styles of presentation, and introduced class members to a number of possible production techniques. Some plays used deliberate anachronism (The Last Judgment), while others attempted to create a Yorkshire inflected simulacra of Biblical time (Entry into Jerusalem). Some employed a pageant wagon extensively, while others only used the mobile pageants to transport sets that could then be set up on the ground (Doctors in the Temple). Even the vocal style could be diverse, with some actors singing their lines, some delivering them conversationally, and many speaking different varieties of the rich Yorkshire dialect. Two of the plays particularly striking: the brilliantly realized presentation of the Cooper’s Fall of Man pageant by York St. John University College and Smiths’ The Temptation by the Guild of Freemen. This last was strongly acted on a wagon that rose up in the shape of a craggy canvas mountain, on which Alan Lyons and Ben Fogarty brought the struggle between Satan and Christ to urgent dramatic life.

  • 2 John Elliott, Jr. Playing God: Medieval Mysteries on the Modern Stage, Toronto, University of Toro (...)

4Our choice of pageant depended in large part on the number, background, and experience of the class’s students. Because the class was small – only four students – some plays, such as the expansive York Entry into Jerusalem, were unrealistically ambitious for our tiny group, while others such as the Crucifixion felt too technically demanding and dangerous for this first-time director. If possible, I wished to provide the class with creative freedom, in the process exposing them to the cycle’s history in books, articles, and reviews of past shows so that they would be aware of historical possibilities even as they invented their own production concept.2 As the largest group of the spectators would be other students involved in the ACMRS Cambridge program, I encouraged them develop their ideas with their peers in mind.

  • 3 Richard Beadle and Pamela King (eds.), York Mystery Plays: A Selection in Modern Spelling, Oxford, (...)

5Not surprisingly, we found material conditions often restricted production choices. Our cast was small, and our brief rehearsal period prohibited plays requiring one actor to memorize lengthy passages of text. Even more important was the presence of the play in our textbook, Beadle and King’s York Mystery Plays.3 If it wasn’t in the textbook, it did not get considered, which excluded twenty-five of the surviving forty-seven plays from possible production. Nevertheless, there were still a number of plays to choose from, and I hoped to find a York play in which students could utilize their talents in appropriate roles. Although neither had any acting experience, the two graduate students had a poise and maturity that suggested they could handle longer roles. Mahlika Hopwood in particular had a certain dignity in her delivery, while the insouciance of Lowell Duckworth seemed tailor made for a Vice. Ultimately, with some prodding on my part, we decided on the Smith’s Temptation play in that it had a small cast, no complicated or potentially dangerous special effects, and a good deal of inherent dramatic tension.

  • 4 Kenneth Lucas, Playing God, in Bolton Evening News, March 5th, 1996. Accessed on March 30th, 2007 (...)

6With two women and two men to play four characters, we had sufficient actors to perform, and although we took some liberties with casting in order to achieve certain effects or in light of our limited resources. In this vein, we decided to split the character of the Devil into three roles. In making this decision, we were influenced by the York Mercer’s Last Judgment as put on in 2006 by the Company of Merchant Adventurers with the York Settlement Players. This was one of the most powerful productions, partly result of my decision to cast three actors as God. This had the effect of breaking up God’s long opening monologue, and thematically it worked to suggest the Trinity. Tim Holman and Ruth Ford played the Father and the Holy Spirit, respectively.4 The two stood on the upper balcony of the pageant, while Paul Stonehouse’s superbly scruffy blue-jeaned Jesus in a stained T-Shirt presented his wounds for the contemplation of the audience.

  • 5 Donald R. Howard The Three Temptations: Medieval Man in Search of the World, Princeton, Princeton (...)

7With such powerful recent precedents in mind, our production split the Temptation’s single devil into three, while it combined The Temptation’s two angels into a single role. Undergraduate Ashley Wilson was well suited to play this role, as she projected both youthful exuberance and a certain innocence and naiveté, both qualities well suited to the slightly perplexed angels of the Smiths’ play (e.g. 181-86). In effect, our version emphasized the three different movements of the temptation by splitting the Devil’s character along the lines suggested by his three different appeals to the Savior’s human nature: to fleshly desire (that Jesus make the stones into bread), to supernatural power (so that Jesus will protected by of angels from the consequences of falling), and to desire for worldly power (dominion over all kingdoms). Rather than a one on one confrontation, our blocking had the effect of suggesting Jesus was surrounded by his adversaries. I was typecast as the Fleshly Devil, while undergraduate Nathan became the demonic one, and graduate student Lowell Duckworth almost stole the show as the Prince of this World.5 Our most successful production decision was the choice of Mahlika to play Christ, the result of our read-throughs of both The Fall of Man and The Temptation during the third week of class. She had self-possession and a quiet dignity that allowed her to be an effective Christ. Particularly striking was her dismissal of the Worldly Devil, as she cut him off with righteous authority:

Cease of thy saws, thou Satanas,
I grant nothing that thou me asks,
To pine of hell I bide thee pass
And wightly wend,
And won in woe, as thou ere was,
Without end. (157-162)

  • 6 Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (UCLA Center for Medieval and (...)

8A beautiful, womanly Christ, her performance evoked strains of feminized medieval spirituality like those chronicled by Caroline Walker Bynum.6 In both rehearsal and performance, she projected a certainty that contributed to her convincing defeat of the devil, while her obvious feminity suggested the beauty and loving nature of Christ.

9All members of the class suggested several production concepts. One idea that we incorporated into the final production was to visually and verbally pattern some of the rhetorical struggle between the Devil and Christ on the theatrics of professional wrestling. This is not as far-fetched as it might seem in that the hyperbolic boasts made in professional wrestling are similar to one of the conventional techniques for typifying tyrannical or evil characters on the medieval stage (e.g. The Castle of Perseverance). Nevertheless, as a class we were limited in what we could do; we had neither the time nor the skills to block out a sophisticated wrestling match, and to have the Devil and Jesus grapple would work against the play’s emphasis on the Savior’s self-control. In practice the concept was largely realized by a few flexes and stylized verbal inflections.

10A performance in the College on the last day of class at least allowed for some audience – mostly fellow students from America. Indeed, St. Catherine’s provided a number of intriguing possibilities for staging, includeing the main courtyard, the commons room, and the chapel. They all had various advantages and disadvantages, but we settled upon a small courtyard to the right of the chapel as the best readily available locale. Although we had no wagon, our chosen acting space allowed for spatial dynamics in performance. Using the wall around a circular garden plot as a stage, Mahlika’s Jesus was elevated above the Devils and the audience. In some ways it resembled a stylized mappa mundi, rather in the manner of the famous Macro Castle of Perseverance diagram, but the audience was not in a position to appreciate the garden’s circular shape. The actress playing the angel was on stage left of Jesus at ninety degrees around the circle. The ‘good’ characters were thus on the same horizontal plane, one distinct from the devils and spectators, with their elevation suggestive of their spiritual maturity, a level the devils could never achieve. This courtyard was a fortunate staging area in other ways too. It had a wall dividing it from the main section of the college; this had the effect of creating a certain intimacy. The dividing wall also acted as a sounding board, trapping the actors’ voices so that projection was not a problem. Finally, the courtyard had a stairwell leading down to the basement of the science building, the entrance providing a naturally hell mouth which we seized upon, so that the trinity of demons might appear to rise up from the bowels of the earth.

11Costumes were a combination of manufactured and ad hoc. The ready-made elements were a halo with glitter, devils’ capes, carnival upper face half-masks, and horns that could be supplied with a battery to flash off and on. All of these were purchased at local costume shops. Carnival half-masks, although modern, suggested the medieval practice of face painting so that the actresses playing Jesus and the Angel appeared gilded. Theatrical face paint allowed me to paint the lower half of my face bright red in conscious imitation of Dan Noake, whose impressive make up had contributed to his powerful portrayal of Satan in the Fall of Man play at York three weeks earlier. The student-actors playing aspects of the devil all managed to find a more or less vaguely demonic shirt to wear, including Nathan’s wholly appropriate Arizona State University Sun Devils shirt. The women’s costumes were quickly assembled out of bed sheets, but worked well, as they powerfully reflected the noon sun. One effect we kept and used were squibs, small cloth packets of explosive power that would give off a satisfying crack if hurled against the ground. I kept the blocking simple, in part a necessity dictated by limited rehearsal time. The two actors who were not speaking to Jesus would freeze while the actor involved in presenting a particular aspect of the devil could move about, soliciting Christ or the audience as seemed most in keeping with their lines. Mahlika and Ashley, playing Jesus and the Angel, entered first and took up their positions, which they wouldn’t shift from until Mahlika finished her final speech and left through the crowd and the archway leading to the main courtyard of St. Catherine’s. A couple of small props in addition to the squibs were added at the last minute. As the fleshly aspect of the temptation, I offered Jesus an apple I had taken from the breakfast table that morning. I tasted it, and spit it out, a bit of stage business intended to suggest how the Devil’s presumed victory was turning to ashes in his mouth (an allusion to Milton’s Paradise Lost). In a parallel bit of action, Lowell’s worldly devil threw coins among the crowd shortly before offering Christ all the kingdoms of the world. The coins worked well, in large part because they made a nice ringing sound when landing on the cement blocks of the courtyard, while the apple seemed to fall rather flat, perhaps because it was relatively difficult for the spectators to see what I was holding.

12The final day of class was a performance day for the ACMRS Summer Program, as other classes culminated their terms with scenes from Shakespeare or imagined historical mini-plays about the Peasants’ Revolt. The audience was small, of about twenty to thirty people, mostly other Arizona students. The performance was a relative success despite problems. To respond to the question poised by my title, beginner’s luck would seem to have operated in my case. We got through the performance, although there were some failures which could be traced to direction and inadequate rehearsal time. Inevitably, some effects did not work or come off as well as planned. For example, the devil’s horns proved an awkward prop to handle; I had to steady it on my own head a couple of times, and they fell off of the next actor’s head almost as soon as he started moving. With more rehearsal and some tape, this could have been avoided. More embarrassingly, I exited too early, being followed by Nathan who wisely decided it would look more like we planned it that way if we both went off together. Nevertheless, Lowell delivered the last part of his temptation speech with aplomb, so that Mahlika was able to deliver her final lines in relative dignity, with her exit line ‘I will wend’ (210), being particularly effective in the way it suggested the start of Christ’s ministry, walking and wending through the world. In some ways her descent from the garden wall, with a chair and an overturned wastebasket serving as a makeshift stairway, was the most effective bit of stagecraft in the play: she came down, passed serenely though the audience, and quietly on through the open gate to St. Catherine’s main courtyard. Although two of the devils had exited early, the audience did not seem disturbed and it had the beneficial effect of placing the audience’s focus on the play’s final confrontation between Jesus and Satan. Although it seems perverse to look at this as a potential advantage of a medieval dramatic text, from the standpoint of the director, it is comforting to realize that – in most performance situations – most spectators will not be familiar with the play and that they may well overlook gaffes that are astoundingly obvious to you.

  • 7 Alexandra Johnston and Margaret Rogerson (eds.), York. Records of Early English Drama. 2 vols., To (...)

13The question becomes, what did I learn from this experience and – far more importantly – what have I learned that will be valuable to other directors or scholars of medieval theatre? Certainly, little things count and material conditions can be important determinants of actually appears and occurs on stage. One wonders, for example, if the Smiths’ longstanding controversy with the Guild of Cutlery makers (aka the Bladesmiths) might have added to the dramatic tension of a particular performance,7 but neither the records nor the play register seem document such performance details. Having said that, let me add that sometimes big things count surprisingly little – most of the audience is there to be entertained and edified and they are not necessarily inclined to be demanding or check your performance against the play text in the manner of the York City Council. Institutions, whether educational or social, have a good deal of innate inertia; if a play is part of the design of the class, or a traditional activity of a guild, a play will tend to get done, with the members themselves able to come over a surprising number of obstacles – even a first-time director – in having a show go.

14Photographs by Marie Scherb-Clift


1 My career up until last summer had, to a large degree, straddled theatre and drama. Employed as a Professor of English, I had written literary criticism including some of what would generally fall under the heading of Performance Criticism, as well as a few reviews of performances of medieval plays. In addition to the plays I reviewed, I had seen about a dozen medieval plays in production that I hadn’t reviewed. I had also acted in perhaps fifteen plays, although only one of these was a medieval play. The ACMRS Cambridge Study Abroad program course thus offered a unique opportunity to me, one that had the potential to be a real high point of my career.

2 John Elliott, Jr. Playing God: Medieval Mysteries on the Modern Stage, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1989; Barbara I. Gusick, A Review of the York Millennium Mystery Plays, in Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama, 40, 2001, p. 111-132; Jane Oakshott, York Guilds Mystery Plays 1998: the Rebuilding of Dramatic Community, in Alan Hindley (ed.), Drama and Community: People and Plays in Medieval Europe (Studies in the Peoples and Cultures of Northern Europe, 1), Turnhout, Brepols, 1999, p. 270-289; Bob Potter, The York Plays: University of Toronto, 20 June 1998, in Medieval English Theatre, 19, 1997, p. 121-128; Margaret Rogerson, Everybody Got their Brown Dress: Mystery Plays for the Millennium, in New Theatre Quarterly, 17, no. 2 [66], 2001, p. 123-140; Sarah Beckwith, Signifying God: Social Relation and Symbolic Art in the York Corpus Christi Plays. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2001.

3 Richard Beadle and Pamela King (eds.), York Mystery Plays: A Selection in Modern Spelling, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1984, p. 98-105. Parenthetical references to line numbers are to this edition, which was the one we used for our production. The standard scholarly text of complete cycle is Richard Beadle (ed.), The York Plays, York Medieval Texts, 2nd Series, London, Edward Arnold, 1982.

4 Kenneth Lucas, Playing God, in Bolton Evening News, March 5th, 1996. Accessed on March 30th, 2007 at

5 Donald R. Howard The Three Temptations: Medieval Man in Search of the World, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1966, p. 43-75, traces this motif to 1 John 2,16, and patristic commentary. Gregory the Great, in particular, associates these three temptations with Satan’s temptations of Christ as described in Matthew. For Gregory, the temptations were gluttony (lust of the flesh), vainglory (pride of life), and avarice (lust of the eyes) (p. 50).

6 Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (UCLA Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies), Berkeley, University of California Press, 1984.

7 Alexandra Johnston and Margaret Rogerson (eds.), York. Records of Early English Drama. 2 vols., Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1979, p. 45-46, 59-60, 123-124, 174-175, 186, 252.


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