Deep Medieval Theater – Characteristics, Exponents and Legacy


What is Medieval Deep Theater?

Before 1200, most medieval theater was performed inside the church as part of the liturgy. Almost all of it was still in Latin, the language of the Church. There were two main areas for performances to take place, mansions, considered small scenic structures to indicate the location, for example, of a throne that might look just like Pilate’s palace. In the more complex plays, there were many mansions. The stalls were the general performance area, adjacent to the mansion.

The church structure often served as mansions, the choir loft, for example, could serve as heaven, the altar could be the tomb of Christ. Machinery was also used, to raise Christ to heaven, to bring down angels, the costumes were probably ordinary church vestments. Around 1200, some of these plays were performed outdoors.

How does the Deep Medieval Theater develop?

Theater went through many changes during the medieval period. The way some of these plays approached the stories, settings and characters paved the way for what was to come and that was that, scholars who did not know much about the theater of the early Middle Ages, could participate and stage plays that transformed it into more of a profane theater. For probably in the beginning, medieval theater was more related to the church, in the so-called liturgical dramas, or parts of public worship that told stories from the Bible.

The earliest surviving example of a drama dates from about 925 AD. It is very brief, only four lines of dialogue about the Resurrection of Jesus. During this time, traveling bands of musicians and storytellers also performed for the people, but the church disapproved of them. In some places, they were officially banned.

Despite the theater’s initial fears, eventually the church became its main venue. Priests and other religious performed miracle plays and pageants during the holy seasons, especially the nativity at Christmas and the passion during Easter. These productions were performed in churches and in Latin, the official language of the church. Since, at this time, many people could not read, staging a play was a way of transmitting ideas and religious doctrine.

What is Medieval Deep Theater

Types of Deep Medieval Theater

During the 12th century, theatrical performances moved from inside the church to outside as they grew in size and scope. Over time, the popularity of religious plays performed by religious orders declined. By 1350, most performances were in languages other than Latin and a new system of presenting plays was developed.

The guild system emerged in the 14th and 15th centuries in Germany and then spread throughout Europe. Guilds were made up of craftsmen who practiced a similar craft by forming groups or associations to support their members, somewhat like a trade union. Over time, guilds began to take on the role of staging theatrical performances.

They had members and funds to afford increasingly elaborate costumes and sets involving special effects such as people flying across a stage and fiery depictions of Hell. Often, the type of guild influenced the story its members depicted. For example, shipbuilders depicted Noah’s Ark, and bakers depicted the Last Supper.

These were called mystery plays, and were usually based on stories from the Bible. In England, specific cycles of mystery games were associated with individual towns. Some cycles were so time consuming and elaborate that they required hundreds of actors, and were performed once a year or less.

Legacy of this Theater 

The legacy of medieval theater is based on the study of theater in the Middle Ages as equivalent to the study of public life. It therefore requires that anyone interested in what medieval people did either in theater or in reality requires cultivating an interest in performance.

This means that it is not enough to look at plays or even archival documents that make specific mention of the obvious dramatic or festive activity of medieval theater.

Instead, all varieties of public activity performed in a given place must be considered before anything meaningful can be posited about the difference between behavior that might be self-consciously labeled dramatic or mimetic and behavior that was a function of everyday life, in an era when meaning was often conveyed through gesture, noise, the display of symbolic objects, and spatial orientation.

The end of the Roman Empire marks the fall of theater as an institution and the decline of the dramatic tradition, already overshadowed by the prevalence of more vulgar and popular spectacles such as mime and pantomime.

During the Middle Ages, along with the theaters that slowly crumble, also the memory of staging seems to decay. Theater becomes confused and nebulous due to many notions transmitted mainly through the works of Tertullian and other Christian writers, who were the most severe adversaries of pagan culture.

Representatives of this Theater 

The medieval theater is an art considered one of the oldest of humanity, is composed of various picturesque and expressive elements, so that, a representative in the medieval theater is an exponent figure whose work is considered possible to be brought to the stage, in the deep medieval theater.

Some exponents of the deep medieval theater are presented below:

Gil Vicente, recognized as an authentic lyric poet, also performed comedies that had wide popular impact and were presented in the stately homes of the time.

Lope de Rueda, a Spanish playwright, poet and comedian, also called the Sevillian Terencio, considered one of the founders of Spanish theater.

Gómez Manrique, nephew of the Marquis of Santillana known for his interpretations of religious plays such as the birth of our Lord and the laments in Holy Week.

Benito Pérez Galdós, considered the best Spanish novelist after Cervantes, with a great influence in romanticism, his works were of great influence in the world of medieval and epic theater and other aspects.

Miguel de Cervantes, great novelist, playwright, poet, with a part of military performance in his time, considered the greatest figure of Spanish literature, being one of his most outstanding works, Don Quixote de la Mancha.

Dante Alighieri, was an Italian poet, recognized for his work the divine comedy, one of the main figures of transition from medieval thought to the Renaissance, his influence on medieval theater, although indirect is vital.