Episode 24: Stages in the Middle Ages


Em and Jesse discuss physical performance spaces, from Greek amphitheaters to pageant carts to prosceniums, and the changes theaters have seen over time. There’s a lot of Renaissance stuff in here, including an interesting discussion of the various theaters Shakespeare would have premiered plays–the Globe and the Rose–with some interesting digressions about the Blues Brothers, American Realism, and also the Bishop of Winchester and the area of Southwark known as the Liberty of the Clink.

Annotations and Corrections

1/ Hrotsvit was indeed episode 22.

2/ They shout at each other on someone’s lawn because doing the histories is less risky than doing the comedies, as I understand it (of which everyone has their specific favorite). The histories generally involve a lot of shouting.

3/ Bob’s Country Roadhouse: we got both types of music–country AND western. I assume the bottles thrown after they start singing “Rawhide” are appreciative bottles.

Jesse: We forgot to mention that animals can also show up at outdoor theatres (Bats! Racoons!). This definitely adds to the participatory “all-in-this-together” feeling and serves as a nice reminder that the environment can’t be controlled.

Also, the most famous medieval theatre fire is probably this one: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bal_des_Ardents

4/ A surprising number of early indoor theatres still exist. The earliest extant indoor theatres of modern Western Europe are in Italy. (“Modern” in this instance means after the fall of Rome, and “indoor theatre” specifies a space built specifically for performance.)

1580–85: Teatro Olimpico, Vicienza
1588–90: Teatro all’Antica, Sabbioneta
1617–18: Theatre Farnese, Parma

Proscenium style: from the Greek “pro skene,” in front of the scenery.

The oldest theatre, Teatro Olimpico, has a permanent skene with perspective scenery visible through the arches: it can be seen here.

Here’s the floor plan, where you can see the paths for the Teatro Olimpico’s perspective scenery. The entire back half of the stage is for the scenery and the skene.

5/ Later Baroque theatres such as Sweden’s Drottningholm Palace Theatre (opened 1754, rebuilt 1764-66) allowed actors to go a little upstage into the scenery without ruining the perspective. Nonetheless, actors tended to remain downstage, particularly on what we would now consider the apron (the small part of the stage that thrusts out in front of the proscenium arch). Here are some floor plans.

Here’s a GREAT video of the scenery changing at the Drottningholm Palace Theatre! You even see how they change it backstage (no computers or mechanization!).

Český Krumlov Castle Theatre (1767) in the Czech Republic is also an excellent example of a Baroque theatre. The video on this page has a lot of fun stills, including some of waves like those promoted by Nicola Sabbatini (1574–1654). See also this page (Sabbatini also used periaktoi, or triangular set pieces that could change scenery quickly. Very brief video here.

This video shows the Český Krumlov Castle Theatre scenery changing at 3:16. If you watch the complete video, you’ll notice that the dancer never goes very far upstage.

Here’s another video from the Český Krumlov Castle Theatre–the scenery changes at 10:45. You’ll notice that the scenery isn’t used to create a perspective, and the actors do make use of the upstage space. A cloud descends at 13:49.

6/ Bertolt Brecht, 1898–1956.

7/ The Theatre, built by James Burbage. Built in 1576, it’s not technically the very first purpose built theatre in England, but it’s the one that lasts. Burbage’s brother-in-law, John Brayne, built the actual first purpose-built theatre (the Red Lion) in 1567, but it was not successful.

8/ A Hark, a Vagrant! Comic about Richard III.

An article about the identification of his body from 2013. His bones were discovered in 2012 and reinterred in 2015. (Richard III was buried in Greyfriars, which was Franciscan and was dissolved in 1538 by Henry VIII.–Jesse)

The Rose.

In Shakespeare in Love, we meet Richard Burbage (played by Martin Clunes) and, as Jesse mentions, Philip Henslowe (played by Geoffrey Rush). We don’t meet Cuthbert Burbage.

9/ I think I thought the stage was taller because whenever a tv show (Good Omens comes to mind) shoots in there, they shoot the actors on stage at an angle that makes them seem very tall.

10/ Bishop of Winchester / Southwark.

The bishopric goes back to the year 634 CE, in case you were curious. Also, the bishop of Winchester gets to sit in the House of Lords and was typically the royal chancellor or treasurer. More on the Liberty of the Clink here. The bishop who got the license for permitting prostitution and brothels was the younger brother of King Stephen (the license, however, was granted by King Henry II, who was his first cousin once removed).

11/ For more on American dance dramas, see episode 12 (note 30) and episode 17 (notes 4 and 6).

For more on maps, see episode 14 (notes 18, 19, 20, 21, and 22), episode 11 (note 21), and episode 19 (note 8).

12/ La bohème: An opera by Puccini. Boy meets girl, they fall in love, girl dies of tuberculosis. Basically the same as the plot of the film Moulin Rouge. [Also the same story as Rent, famously! Because Rent is an adaptation of Bohème.–Jesse]

For more on Figaro, see episode 21 (note 5).

13/ Em: I just rewatched part of Deadpool while hanging out in L&D Triage two weeks ago (and texted Jesse about it while I was there). He breaks the fourth wall very effectively. [My love of Deadpool cannot be overstated.–Jesse]

Episode 15: The Not-Evolution of Theatre


In which Em and Jess discuss the important theoretical contributions of Tropic Thunder and Blazing Saddles to performance studies, thereby illustrating the important differences between performance, theatre, and ritual and vital questions about their respective origins.

Also, Jess calls Socrates evil, and then Em and Jess decolonize medieval theatre beginning with India and China.

(Aristotle loves theatre and therefore was not evil.)

Notes, Annotations, and Corrections

1/ Okay, to be honest–we didn’t talk about Australia, and that is a super colonized place that is ripe for a reevaluation–evidently, the period we refer to as “the middle ages” is typically called “prehistory” in Australia because there were no written records. (Refer to previous rant about the privileging of written records over other forms of memory.) Sometime we will have to circle back and think about this. [I read “super colonized” as “spider colonized” at first, which also rings true for Australia. But yes–we will definitely have to cover Australia and New Zealand!–JN]

2/ The dudes are emerging. [So many layers!!!–JN]

The new ice cream truck jingle by RZA. Turkey in the Straw information.

White Christmas “Minstrel Number”.

A NY Times article on the Met production of Othello. [Seriously, WTF!!! Come on, Met!–JN]]

I think the Ben Stiller/Spielberg movie was Empire of the Sun. [Yes, it was!–JN]

The Sean Penn movie was I Am Sam. I [Em] hadn’t heard of it, and–wow. Reading the summary, all I can say is it deserves whatever fun Ben Stiller was able to poke at it.

Also, as a face-blind person, the fact that so many actors become famous because they look like other actors is the bane of my freaking existence.

And here is the trailer for Satan’s Alley.

3/ [17:35] On performing parenthood: welcome to Em’s theory of how gender inequalities get perpetuated from generation to generation despite the idea that women shouldn’t have to do 100% of childcare and homemaking being a thing since at least 1989. (Actually probably a lot of women had this idea earlier, but 1989 is when The Second Shift was published.)

This doesn’t have too much to do with medieval studies, but whatever, sez I. [This was definitely an issue in the Middle Ages! We should have a medieval kid/parenthood episode.–JN] [I would totally be in for that.–Em]

4/ For Ishtar/Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld, see Episode 8 nt. 18.

Oedipus Rex, by Tom Lehrer.

5/ [29:59] “Socrates is evil…we’ll footnote that.” Stub footnote so Jesse can provide some proof or something. Otherwise we are going to get nailed on this by the ancient philosophy crowd. [I stand by this!! I have long rants on this, but I can boil it down to a few points. 1) Socrates’s students–specifically Critias–were responsible for a coup that overthrew the democracy in 404 BCE and installed the Thirty Tyrants, who were sympathetic to Sparta (to whom Athens had just lost the Peloponnesian War). 2) The Tyrants, especially Critias, were only in power for 8 months but managed to kill a LOT of people (maybe 5% of the Athenian population). Scholars have excused this over the years as “necessary” blah blah BS. IT’S FASCIST; THEY WERE FASCISTS. (Or more properly proto-fascist, I guess.) 3) Socrates hated democracy and loved the idea of an oligarchy composed of elite individuals. (Read Plato’s Republic.) Welp, turns out oligarchs are f**king monsters. 4) Critias again. 5) The democracy was restored in 403 BCE, and it was agreed that because SO MANY PEOPLE HAD BEEN KILLED by the tyrants, the newly restored democracy would only kill the tyrants themselves and their closest allies. Everyone else would be given amnesty. SOCRATES continued to preach oligarchy. 6) Seriously, read Plato’s early work. It’s not actually Socrates, of course, but it’s certainly influenced by Socrates. He was a classist, elitist snob. 7) Socrates was told to stop preaching oligarchy (i.e., the idea that the best government was one run by a few “qualified” individuals), but he wouldn’t stop. He was told to leave town; he wouldn’t. He couldn’t be executed directly for his role in the 404 BCE coup because of the general amnesty. (His role was difficult to prove anyway, despite Critias. The tyrants ordered Socrates to help in an execution, but Socrates said later that he just went home). So, “corrupting the youth” was a euphemism for “convincing people to overthrow the democracy.” 8) We celebrate Socrates as a martyr to education and freedom of speech, which is the most BS thing ever. He was a genius philosopher, and he’s had an astonishing impact on Western Civilization (via Plato). BUT he was pretty evil too. He is, of course, not the only philosopher to have felt that he isn’t responsible for terrible things done according to his philosophy.–JN]

Em: Okay, in my Introduction to Ancient Philosophy class (where we read Socrates’s Apology), we definitely did not talk about it in any sort of historical context, and…I don’t remember if we talked about what “corrupting the youth” actually meant. Huh.

6/ Recovering Ancient Greek music (including Euripides’s famous chorus of the furies from Orestes).

For more on Greeks and whiteness, see Episode 11, midway through note 15 (on the Elgin Marbles).

7/ I was in a play where we just sang A Health to the Company in the middle of Henry IV pt 1. I dunno, directing is hard, probably.

Also, to be fair to community theatre, setting all the songs to different Beatles tunes did work pretty well. I do love community theatre, it is the most punk of all available theatres.

8/ The Banana Song, for those curious:

Time to gather your arse up off the floor,
(have a bana-na)
Brush your teeth and go toddling off to war,
Wave your hand to sleepy land,
Kiss those dreams away,S
Tell Miss Grable you’re not able,
Not till V-E Day, oh,
Ev’rything’ll be grand in Civvie Street
(have a ban-ana)
Bubbly wine and girls wiv lips so sweet–
But there’s still the German or two to fight,
So show us a smile that’s shiny bright,
And then, as we may have suggested once before–
Gather yer blooming arse up off the floor!

This site has all the song lyrics in Gravity’s Rainbow. There are actually song lyrics in all of his books. Sadly, only one of the books ever got made into a film (Inherent Vice–it was weird).

Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves.

9/ Jesse: Here is the website of the Athens Epidaurus Festival. They live streamed Aeschylus’s Persians from Epidaurus this year when the festival finally reopened.

The theatre of Herodes Atticus.

10/ Hrotsvit was in episode 6 (note 18); she’ll also be discussed extensively in a forthcoming episode.

11/ Kalidasa, The Recognition of Shakuntala.

Sudraka, The Little Clay Cart.

The Natya Shastra.

12/ Things England brought back from India (an incomplete list):

  • Spices
  • Paisley
  • Sanskrit drama
  • Some really big diamonds
  • A lot of other artefacts, including a Buddha statue (the Sultanganj Buddha) that weighs over 500 kg (over 1,000 lbs)
  • Approximately $45 trillion worth of stuff (in 2017 USD) over 173 years

13/ Sanskrit is still a language that is around today and you can learn it. There are about 3 million people worldwide who speak it and maybe 25k speak it as their primary language, but I believe what they speak is different from the “perfected” version of Sanskrit you might learn on your way to a degree in Buddhism (in Em’s program, you had to take a semester or two of Sanskrit before you could take Pali, the primary language of Buddhist texts–note that Em did a different track and didn’t take either).

Also, incidentally, Thai derives a fair amount of its script from Devanagari (the script Sanskrit is written in), but not in a way that is obvious if you look at the two abrugidas side by side.

“When we speak of horses” is a misquote from Henry V, act 1, scene 1 (actual quote: Think when we talk of horses, that you see them / Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth).

14/ Chinese opera: Dear China, I say this with the greatest respect as a Sinophile and a lover of opera: your opera is pretty extra.

Also I (Em) forgot, when we had this conversation, that Samuel Ramey used to leap out of the orchestra pit when he played Mephistopheles. Maybe. I was told this at one point. [Yes, in Boito’s Mephistopheles! I saw it at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Great production! Also, it starts with something akin to the Dialogue in Heaven, a medieval tradition followed by Goethe in Faust (and hence by Boito in his opera about Mephistopheles and Faust). Goethe might have decided to include the Dialogue in Heaven specifically because of the influence of Sanskrit dramas, which apparently made prologues cool again. Anyway, the Devil shows up to talk to God and bets God that he (the Devil) can tempt Faust. It’s quite Jobian. Anyway, this is why Ramey lept from the orchestra pit (Hell) to the stage (Heaven) to have a chat with God.–JN]

Jesse: Also, a shout out to David Cangelosi’s Mime in Wagner’s Ring Cycle (in a production originated at Lyric Opera of Chicago), where he climbed around the set of his hut (hanging from the rafters and such). It was very exciting!

Zaju 雜劇 is traditional Chinese theater. The technical term for Chinese opera is xiqu (戲曲), I think.

The Injustice to Dou E, by Guan Hanqing. Technically I think it’s not “E” like the letter e, it’s “ə” (not in the sense of an unaccented vowel, just that’s the sound). Unless the pronounciation has changed since the Middle Ages–totally possible. Hm. We will also discuss this one more in a future episode.

The Chalk Circle by Li Qianfu.

Possibly, rather than a common source (although that would also be pretty cool), people have merely observed certain human traits that are universal? [Nope, there’s definitely a common source. I mean, it’s not hard to believe–Genghis Khan’s troops traveled in both directions, for example, but so did a lot of other people, and people bring stories–JN]

Jesse: Here’s a favorite scene–it’s the battle scene in White Snake. The legend is old. Briefly, the hero is a female immortal (a white snake), who falls in love with a mortal. An evil monk tries to separate them, and White Snake and her best friend (the female immortal Green Snake) rally their good troops to fight the monk and his evil troops. This scene is the fight–color symbolism of good vs evil abounds. There are a lot of dancers and acrobats in this battle scene, but the women playing White Snake and Green Snake are also singers. (More on this in an upcoming episode too.)

Here’s the first half of the opera, to hear the singing.

In medieval Chinese theatre, men could play women and women could play men. Much later, only men were allowed to perform on stage (probably because of the influence of Japan). Today, women again play female roles. However, Mei Lanfang was one of the most famous male Chinese opera stars of the twentieth century, and he specialized in female roles. Seeing him perform on stage inspired Brecht to theorize alienation (Verfremdungseffekt). Here’s a (poor quality because it’s old!) video of Mei Lanfang.

Here’s a reconstruction of a medieval mural of a Chinese acting troupe. The leader of the troupe is in the center in red, and she’s costumed in a manner that suggests she might be about to play a male lead role. The female actors appear to be dressed in robes that cover their feet, regardless of the gender of character they are playing. (This is not because of foot binding, which didn’t exist yet. Instead, It seems to be a way to signal to the viewer that these actors are women, regardless of how they are costumed. It might also have been a way for women playing male roles to disguise the size of their feet.) Also interesting, some of the men in the mural seem to have fake beards. On the left, we can just barely see a stage hand peeking out from backstage. In other words, this is a troupe in costume and ready to perform!

Here is the original mural. The text above the mural reads “Ráodū liked it. Zhōng Dūxiù, a famous actress of sǎnyuè performed here. The fourth month of year one in era Tàidìng.” This is how we know for sure that the troupe is led by a women, Zhōng Dūxiù.

15/ As Jesse says, we don’t often set new lyrics to existing tunes…but Weird Al and Tom Lehrer sure do. (Side note: Tom Lehrer is now 92 and still, as of this writing, alive.)

Jesse: Yaaay Tom Lehrer!!! Also, Weird Al tells the following story about “Smells like Nirvana:” Weird Al asked Kurt Cobain if he (Weird Al) could parody “Smells like Teen Spirit,” and Cobain said he liked Weird Al, but so many of his parodies were about food, and Cobain didn’t want this one to be about food. And Weird Al said–Don’t worry, it’s going to be about how nobody can understand your lyrics. And Cobain said yes.

I love this because A+ for both Cobain and Weird Al. And also, Weird Al was not wrong.