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Taking (and Giving) Blows: Patterns of Violence and Spectacle in Le Mystère de Saint Martin (1496)
Martin W. Walsh (University of Michigan)
The 14th Triennial Colloquium of the Société Internationale pour l’étude du Théâtre Médiéval Poznań, Poland, 22nd – 27th July (2013)
I am honored to participate in a session dedicated to the memory of Robert Potter, colleague and friend. Bob was not only a fine scholar of early drama but was an active director, playwright, and all round man of the theater. And he combined these two spheres wonderfully (I remember he once “commissioned” me to appear as Titivillus in the middle of a paper he was delivering on the morality play Mankind). It is in the spirit of Bob Potter, then, that I venture forth with some observations on a very large saint’s play, the three-day-long Mystère de Saint Martin written and no doubt largely “directed” by Andrieu de la Vigne for the Burgundian town of Seurre in 1496. I do not pretend to great expertise in medieval French drama – indeed I am heavily indebted to the work of Graham Runnalls and Viki Hamblin specifically– but I have spent a good bit of time on expressions of the cult of Martin of Tours and have some three decades of experience in directing productions of early drama. I would like to examine here some of the larger patterns that this playwright employed in order to structure his magnum opus, and this from a practical theater perspective, isolating some of the gestical patterns and meta-rhythms, with an eye, that is, to “production.”
The rubric for this special session is “Representing Violence, Horror, Sex and Scatology (In Memory of Robert Potter).” The Mystère de Saint Martin has them all, and particularly the violence. I would like to begin, therefore, with a bit of Potteresque iconoclasm, namely, that a late medieval playwright of La Vigne’s stamp had a lot in common with the writers and directors of “action flicks.” Here in 2013 the testosterone and gasoline-fuelled Fast and Furious franchise is now in its sixth incarnation, and Bruce Willis continues to Die Hard. It is almost axiomatic that such pieces of popular entertainment depend upon a regular, one might even say precisely calibrated episodes of violence, horror, sex, etc. One can almost click a stop-watch between explosions, car chases, impossible displays of martial arts, and so on. In other words, we are dealing with quite tried and true formulae for keeping an audience.