Word and Image in Early Performance

Authored by: Véronique Plesch

The Routledge Research Companion to Early Drama and performance

Print publication date:  December  2016
Online publication date:  December  2016

Print ISBN: 9781472421401
eBook ISBN: 9781315612898
Adobe ISBN: 9781317043669


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Thus Arnoul Gréban, in the very first verses of his monumental Passion, tells his spectators. In addition to underscoring the fact that the play contains a momentous message – more than just a beneficial lesson as “salutaire” echoes “Salut”, the word used in French for the theological concept of Salvation – the playwright stresses that the performance to take place is to be apprehended visually and aurally. There is a disconcerting irony in the fact that only the words (the text of the play) have survived; an irony exacerbated by the fact that during the performance, as Graham Runnalls has shown, for a very large part of the audience, the dialogue must have been hardly audible if audible at all – making the spectators experience an overwhelmingly visual spectacle (“Listening or Watching?”). Moreover, even if/when the dialogue could be heard, the words played only a small part in what was going on on the stage – they were indeed the proverbial tip of the iceberg. 3 Theatre in general and even more so, medieval theatre, is a remarkably heterogeneous artistic form: the performance of a play alone is eminently multimedial, a rich combination of words, gestures, costumes, settings and music, merging the aural (textual and musical) with the visual. 4 Because the performance itself is by far not the same thing as the text alone, Martin Stevens, following semiologists, refers to it as the “performance text” (Stevens 319 and 335 n. 10 and 11). Moreover, the “performance text” is only one aspect, as it stands at the centre of a constellation of objects (texts of all kind, format, origin and use, and of course props, settings and costumes) as well as practices, with the staging, the acting, the witnessing, the remembering. So how do we access the evidence necessary to recreate the rest of the experience – in other words how do we retrieve the visual dimension today lost and reconcile it with the verbal vestiges? This is the object of this chapter, its aim being not so much to figure out of how to do this, as it is to recognise that, although taxing, this conundrum is fundamental to early theatre and to its study, and to reflect upon the ways in which in medieval drama the visual and the verbal intersect, interact, and maybe at times compete.

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