Going back in time: how it felt being an Early English performer

At the beginning of the semester, members of Dr. Erin Sadlack’s Early English Drama class took to the rotunda in the Liberal Arts Center to perform.

They took center stage. Well, several center stages.

In the spirit of the plays that took place during the feast of Corpus Christi during the 15th and 16th centuries in England, students tried out the style of performing in individual sections while other performances were going on. Play, in this context, refers to the whole series of what we know as plays. To them, the individual plays were simply pageants, while the all-encompassing day or set of days of pageants was the whole play.

While the performances in their original setting were performed on pageant wagons in towns scattered across the country, students in Early English Drama faced several difficulties on top of the issues the performers then would have faced. Issues like the echo of the rotunda, the proximity to other performers, and the impromptu nature of the experiment all contributed to some difficulties.

Like the original performers though, students have the chance to experience what the performers on these wagons would have. For example, people were walking through the rotunda conducting business as usual; though the plays some five hundred years ago were part of a major festival, that does not necessarily mean everyone was watching, nor paying attention for entire days straight.

People came and went as they pleased from one station to another. Some stood fairly far away, while others sat or knelt close to the performers. Some observed in silence, while others conversed, pointed, and had a laugh or two at all the excitement around them.

And these only summarize the beginnings of the issues faced by performers, lacking today’s technological advances we take for granted like lighting and microphones, even.

What I think makes plays especially interesting from any time period, and I think it is easily forgotten, is how the audience fits into the picture. When a character speaks to the audience, there are all kinds of people in that audience; what are they thinking? How do they respond?

In these early English pageants performed in the streets, what kinds of reactions did these tradesmen by day and actors by festival receive? Were there cheers for Satan or boos? What kinds of reactions did the men have for racy remarks as they portrayed sassy women?

To try to understand a play while ignoring the effect on the audience is to analyze only a partial work. The live audience is intuitively a critical part of any play that has been or was meant to be performed, and by examining where the audience fits, and where we fit into the audience, we can not only more thoroughly enjoy but also more thoroughly have a grasp on what all of these great playwrights try to communicate to us.

Contact the writer: pcapoccia@m.marywood.edu

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