Le Miracle de Théophile
Le Miracle de Théophile is an early iteration of the Faust story of a priest who sells his soul to the devil. Unlike the Faust of Marlowe, Théophile is repentant and begs the queen Mary to save him, which she does. Like Marlowe's Faust however, Rutebeuf has an interesting treatment of the passage of time. Whereas it is rather clear in Marlowe's piece, Rutebeuf moves from scene to scene with little to no discussion of the passage of time. Hypothetically, this could introduce some interesting interpretations on the part of the play's director. The only clear passage of time is the 7 years before Théophile's repentant monologue. One imagines that this change could be explained through clothing changes or locales, but I think the most likely option a production might take is the use of mimes and music. We know that music as an accompaniment to poetry and storytelling was common, so the idea that these 7 years might be represented through a musical pantomime strikes me as a clear solution to the problem of temporality. Unfortunately, like most other medieval plays, the stage directions are sparse and give little indication as to what an original production might have looked like.
Courtois d'Arras, written in the early 13th century, is for the most part a retelling of the story of the prodigal son. Like most plays of the Middle Ages, it adapts biblical stories for its contemporary period, with the Courtois being no exception. Here, the home of the father takes the symbolic place of heaven on stage right and the tavern takes the place of hell on stage left. The first half of the play does not feel like a mystery play however, as it mostly takes place in a tavern, mocking the son for his stupidity. What interests me is the son's long monologue upon leaving the tavern where he realizes that he is ruined. The psychological torment of the desire to return home coupled with the shame of his misdeeds makes for a fascinating character study equal to the indecisiveness of Hamlet. The sharp turn away from farce makes this monologue all the more striking, and underlines the internal anguish of the character.
La seinte resureccion
La Seinte Resureccion is a mystery play from the late 12th century detailing the resurrection of Christ. Unfortunately, the extant manuscripts are incomplete, and the play ends with the arrest of Joseph of Arimathia. Instead of focusing on the plot or the characters which is woefully incomplete, I'd like to turn to the staging of this piece. There is a narrator character who at times explains key plot points, that honestly could have been communicated through action, but more often his function is to delineate space. He opens the play with a description of the environment. The play takes place in several different locations, often moving quickly one to the other, and the playwright has decided that in order to accommodate the quick changes in space, that all spaces will exist simultaneously with the narrator character moving the audience between them. There are several clear props and set pieces, such as the cross, the tower of David, and the spear that pierces Christ's side, and the narrator functions as an additional descriptor and clarifier of the environment. This is interesting not because it solves the clear problem of financing large set pieces and crews to change the scenery, but it indicates that these matters of production were being considered in the process of the creation of the play itself. This suggests that other theatre practitioners, something resembling producers, directors, or designers, may have collaborated with the playwright in order to take practical production issues into consideration.
Le jeu de Saint Nicolas
Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas is a mix between a miracle play and a farce by Jean Bodel, published around 1200. It tells of a good christian who converts a Saracen king with the aid of Saint Nicolas. With the disclaimer that I read a translation of the text because my Old French reading skills are not up to the task, I found the play a strange mixture of modern morals in a hostile context, where the "Orientals" (because they are clearly imagined by the occident and bear no resemblance to any real culture) are treated as human beings in a world which wishes to destroy them. The majority of the characters are pagans, and are not portrayed as monsters, but as pious followers of their own religion, defending themselves against christian invaders. This is certainly a result of me as a reader imposing my own modern "Clash of Civilizations" perspective on a text dealing with the crusades, but I can't help but see the play as sympathizing with its main character, who is not the good christian, but the king. He is a complicated character, who is quick to anger and spiteful, but also loved by his vassals. He is pious towards his own religion, which Bodel twists in almost comically misinformed ways, and shows no monstrous faults outside of a normal person. When reading, I couldn't help but think of him as a kind version of Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine; a successful general and ruler who thrives in opposition to a christian world. The play's conclusion is equally ambiguous, with the king and his vassals converting to christianity, save one who accuses the king of heresy and is then forced to convert. As with Le Jeu d'Adam, the play feels modern, and no doubt has survived due to the relevance of the theme of converging cultures.
Le Jeu d'Adam
Le Jeu d'Adam is a mystery play from the second half of the 12th century made of three parts, the story of the Fall, Cain and Abel, and then a "prophet play. I read two different translations of the play in English, and what struck me most was the treatment of Eve. The play is structured as a mirror of the feudal system, where Adam is a vassal of God, and Eve is the vassal of Adam. However, I found this hierarchy to be rather unstable in the relationship between Eve and Adam. Taking into consideration the fact that I have not read the original because of my lack of skill in Old French, even in the more conservative translation, Eve is Adam's partner, and not merely his servant. She tends the land with him, and their relationship is described in equal terms. The text identifies her as requiring Adam for governing her with reason, but it is she who offers him advice, albeit unwise advice. She is also treated as more individualist and stronger than Adam. She does not hide from her sin and place the blame elsewhere as Adam does. The last thing that I'd like to mention about Eve is her propensity for physical indulgences. She is more interested in the taste of the forbidden fruit than the power it may grant her. Her punishment of feeling pain during childbirth is therefore a fitting punishment for someone whose sins are based in the sensorial as opposed the psychological seen in Adam, who is afraid of appearing as a coward in front of his wife. The play does not feel like it came from the 12th century, but deals with more contemporary, or perhaps it is better to say universal questions, such as who should we listen to? Should we be ambitious? And how do we react in the face of our own misjudgments?
M.A. French Literature Florida State University