Verba et Res/Words and Things: The Speaking Picture of Medieval Drama

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Lesson Plan 1: Playing around with medieval language

What’s On for Today and Why?

Middle English is fun to speak, fuller-throated and not all that much different from our own language, once you recognize a few different alphabetic and spelling variations and simply decide that you’re going to deliver it as though it were being acted or declaimed.

Here are some exercises which, when taken in conjunction with the excellent guidelines supplied in “Medieval Drama and Language,” can get your students started on voicing some key medieval words and phrases, initially as a game—the medieval ludens—apart from narrative or cultural context, but increasingly, through practice and discussion, ramifying into them.

Exercise 1: Building and using the MEDIEVAL Insult and/or Compliment Game

What to Do?

Everyone knows the “Shakespeare Insult Sheet,” which has a long and vibrant history both in print and online and has been successfully commercialized as a book, the Shakespeare Insult Generator, and even an app! In its classic form, you choose one insulting noun from Column C, combine it with two insulting adjectives from Columns A and B, hurl amiably at a classmate, and then tolerate the return: e.g. “Thou fawning, dirt-rotten codpiece” is returned as “Thou unhandsome, sheep-biting pig-nut.” A Compliment Sheet is similar, but not nearly as much fun.

But Shakespeare is hardly alone in plumbing the rich verbal traditions of invective and flattery, and you and your students can easily create a lexicon of insult or compliment for any medieval work or cluster of medieval works you plan to work on together. Furthermore, doing so together, in conjunction with the historical/lexical resources of the Middle English Dictionary [], can help you understand issues of meaning and action which will blossom as you continue to read and perform.

Here are two examples of such lists—one of insult and one of compliment—culled from the broad and outrageous morality play Mankind, where the genre’s personification and dramatization of virtuous and vicious behaviors creates a particularly rich lexical field for such a search: [Link to “An insult and compliment sheet derived from Mankind.”]

Create such an insult and/or compliment sheet from the text(s) you are considering, either by yourself as teacher or as a classroom/homework assignment. In class, get your students up on their feet and in a circle, and practice putting together and hurling these insults at each other from side-to-side, and—tossing a ball or a stuffed animal as a prompt—across and around the circle. After you’ve voiced the words for a while, discuss—if necessary looking them up—what they actually mean. Do we still use them today? Do they mean the same things then and now? Why would you speculate they have lived, changed, or died?

Alternatively, you can simply send your students on a word search for unusual or interesting words throughout the text that you are reading, compile those words into a list, and play the word-toss game, looking the words up and discussing their meaning as necessary.

How’d It Go?

In both versions of the word-toss game the goal is simply to get students curious about unfamiliar or unusual language, for now quite apart from context or meaning, and to get them to enjoy voicing these words to each other. Students should get into the simple pleasure and power of directing the energy of sound and of language at each other, a necessary prelude to interacting dramatically on stage and with an audience. They should savor the sound and force of these words, and become increasingly curious about their meaning. If you like, you can accompany this exercise with a homework assignment to discover or create a similar insult and/or compliment sheet from another medieval work or from modern materials.

Exercise 2: Tossing lines

What to Do?

Take the word-toss game one step further by extracting and tossing brief and catchy lines from the work under consideration. On a set of cue cards write out (or have the students search and write out) a couple of dozen (depending on the size of your class perhaps as many as fifty) lines from the work, one per card, numbered by plot order. Have the students form a circle and distribute the lines sequentially around it. Initially have them randomize the voicing of their lines by having them speak them out—“loudly and proudly”—each time a ball or a stuffed animal thrown across or around the circle reaches them. Gradually encourage them to voice each other’s lines as they come to realize that they know them. If necessary, repeat with a second set of lines. After the students seem comfortable with their individual lines, pass the ball or stuffed animal around the circle sequentially from the first to the final number one or two times, and explain that, whether they realize it or not, they now have a preparatory overview of the plot of the entire work. Ask them to guess and query what the play seems to be about, and send them home to read it and be prepared for further enactment and discussion. [Link to “Sample lines from Everyman.”]

How’d It Go?

The students should by now not be shy about voicing some unfamiliar words and reacting to prompts from their classmates. They should have begun to look at and to listen to each other, to bond together in seriousness and silliness. They should be ready to encounter this language in a private reading experience and have begun to imagine or speculate about the type of characters and story with which they are about to become involved.

Lesson Plan 2: The twenty props you need to put on any medieval drama

What’s On for Today and Why?

The drama teacher’s best asset for spontaneous in-class performance is a prop bag. Go to the dollar store, the party store, Goodwill, or your own closet or garage (don’t spend more than $20-$50 dollars!) and assemble your own bag of inexpensive props which you judge, based on your reading of the texts, will be of use for putting on medieval and early modern plays. No two prop bags will be the same, but we here attach a list of twenty symbolically-suggestive props and some of the resonances they set up between the plays. [Link to “A list of symbolically-significant props.”]

What to Do?

In class set this collection of props out on a long table.

Take out the play or anthology of plays you will be working with, and have the students read their titles around the room. Based solely on these titles, prompt them to answer or speculate what the plays are about, and what props might be useful for putting them on. (If they have limited ideas, prompt and elaborate a bit from your own knowledge of the plays.)

Divide the class into working groups of 3 to 5 students, assign each group a play, and invite them up to the front of the room to select those props which they think might be useful in staging their play.

Have them split up into different areas of the room to begin to block out as a tableau vivant (a snapshot living picture made from their posed bodies) what they think is a central moment in the action of their play, complete with the relevant props.

Have them reconvene as a group and show-and-tell each group’s tableau vivant.

How’d It Go?

The students should be intrigued, and should already begin to have some speculative sense (it’s OK for now if that sense is incorrect) of the possible action of each play and what it might look like. They should also have made a beginning in collaborating with—in playing creatively with—each other.

Have them go home and begin the first reading assignment.

Lesson Plan 3: Typology or medieval living history

What’s On for Today and Why?

Bring the prop bag to class again, and have it at the ready.

Acquaint your students with the basic theory of Biblical typology—that God “writes” the creation and events of human history and also provides a partial record of them in the Bible, where Old Testament events are held to prefigure New Testament ones as type to antitype. Show how these correspondences organize much of the artistic representation in medieval ecclesiastical art, religious poetry, and biblical drama—particularly the pageants in the biblical “Creation” to “Last Judgement” cycles.

(So, for example, God’s willingness to save Noah and his family in the wooden Ark was seen as a type or prefiguration of Jesus’ willingness to save mankind on the wooden cross; or Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son Isaac was seen as a type or prefiguration of God’s willingness to sacrifice his only son; or Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary was seen as the reversal of the serpent’s temptation of Eve—Eva/Ave—or the dew of the Psalms was seen as a prefiguration or type of the Annunciation.)

What to Do?

Review the basic theory of Biblical typology and some of its key examples. (Chapter Four, “Corpus Christi Form: Principles of Selection,” in V.A. Kolve’s 1966 The Play Called Corpus Christi, pp. 57-100, and especially the diagram on page 85, offers the classic exposition of this theory.) Show the students some major visual examples of this thinking, from the 12th through to the 16th centuries. [Link to “Some visual examples of biblical typology.”]

How’d It Go?

Ideally the students should now have a sense of these religious stories as organized visually, and should be becoming more visually alert.

Have them go home and conclude a reading assignment that links a pageant from the Old Testament—for example a Noah or an Abraham and Isaac play with a crucifixion play.

Based on their reading to date, ask them also to sketch their own panel for a modern Biblia Pauperum, flanking a central image from a New Testament story with typological prefigurations from two Old Testament stories.

Alternatively, ask them to be typological illustrators of some aspect of their own personal history or of present-day events, flanking some event from their own lives or from the present day with what might be argued to be two typological prefigurations of it: for example, an image of their own pet bracketed by images of two previously-loved earlier family pets; or a picture from their own current living space bracketed by images of previous homes; or a picture of themselves bracketed by earlier family portraits; or an echoed historical or political event like presidential inaugurations or assassinations. What story/ stories do these linked images tell?

If these triptychs are effective, consider some way to make them continuously visible to the class as a whole, for example, as blown-up images or an online photo gallery, as an aid to further narrative building, as in the later lessons below.

Lesson Plan 4: Typology or medieval living history and tableau vivant

What’s On for Today and Why?

Bring the prop bag to class again, and have it at the ready.

Continue acquainting your students with the basic theory of Biblical typology—that God “writes” the creation and events of human history and also provides a partial record of them in the Bible—and move to showing how by developing some tableaux vivants to illustrate key typological turning points in the biblical cycle plays that they have read.

What to Do?

Have them read out loud and analyze several key lyric poems from the 12th through to the 16th centuries which illustrate typology, and imagine their possible analogues and application in some early English plays: [Link to “Three typological poems and some dramatic applications.”]

Now distribute brief texts from key turning points in a variety of cycle plays to working groups of four, five, or six students, where one student in each group will be the reader/chanter, one will be the sculptor, and the remaining students will be the blocks of marble which will form the characters in the tableaux vivants. While the chanter reads out the marked passage, the sculptor works on the bodies of the blocks of stone until she had a satisfying tableau vivant, a sculpted representation of a key typological moment. After the students have done this as groups, reconvene as a class and have each group show their tableau vivant—now with props added if they wish—to the class as a whole. Take photographs of each tableau vivant, and post them around the room or in the course electronic archive to serve as a record and a kind of preliminary story-board for a more extensive possible production. [Link to “A list of possible moments to sculpt from the cycle plays.”]

NB: This exercise can also be adapted to the episodes of any medieval play or set of plays.

How’d It Go?

With the first round of reading done, a formal and structural outline in place, some historical context provided, and a beginning awareness of the conjunction of words and things in medieval drama, students should be ready and eager for some selective re-reading and the move, in the next round of classes, to more dynamic acting of these plays.