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Street Scenes: Late Medieval Acting and Performance.

Street Scenes: Late Medieval Acting and Performance, by Sharon Aronson-Lehavi. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Pp. 183 Hardcover $84.00.

This book takes its title from an essay by Bertolt Brecht, "The Street Scene: A Basic Model for an Epic Theatre," which, according to Sharon Aronson-Lehavi, envisions a method of acting that highlights the tension between performing actor and enacted character rather than blurring and eliminating it. Aronson-Lehavi's most useful contribution to medieval drama studies might be her use of modern non-illusionist performance theory and examples to elucidate medieval theatrical practices, thus opening up her book to a potentially wide-ranging audience of performance theorists and medieval scholars alike. According to the author, medieval drama assumed a theory of performance, namely that the division between performing and performed must always be highlighted rather than suppressed for medieval players, "always emphasizing the signifying function of the theatrical event and never concealing its theatricality" (3).

Strangely enough, some of Aronson-Lehavi's most convincing evidence for the existence of medieval performance theory appears in her Introduction, in which she surveys early modern responses to (and disdain for) earlier drama. As she argues, the early modern period saw the birth of the aesthetic ideal of verisimilitude, the need to "Suit the action to the word, the word to the action" (8-9): Hamlet himself famously ridicules cycle drama when he states he would have a fellow whipped for "o'erdoing Termagant. It out-Herods Herod" (3.2.13-14). She also treats this and other early modern examples as case studies for the "new kind of humanist drama being written," which reacts against non-illusionistic (and medieval) stage practices (13). That Renaissance authors used such theatrical methods as foils for their own imitative or illusionistic theatrical concepts suggests that there was indeed an existing concept of medieval drama, even if that concept was only fully articulated post Middle Ages.

While this Introduction establishes a convincing case, unfortunately some of the rest of the book loses steam, partially because of its limited scope. Two of three chapters focus extensively on the late-medieval polemical text Treatise of Miraclis Pleyinge (ToMP) as a piece of aesthetic criticism of medieval theater. This text, composed between 1380 and 1425, objects to religious drama because it trivializes holy or serious events, and engages participants in a fleshly experience that could detract from the "real" or "efficacious" experience of Christ's works (17-18). Aronson-Lehavi thus opens up a conversation regarding the possible dangers of performing the divine that we usually associate with the Renaissance, and in this sense her intervention in the field is important. However, it remains unclear how pervasive the aesthetic attitudes the ToMP carries really were, since the text appears in only one manuscript. A more sustained discussion of the implications of the text's manuscript context, as well as its Wycliffite or Lollard associations, would have been welcome.

Even so, Aronson-Lehavi provides a meticulous discussion of this fascinating text, surely the most thorough to-date. Particularly useful is her analysis in chapter 1 of ToMP's key terms, and her theoretical examination of how the ToMP's objections to drama reveal its socially disruptive potential: by casting rigid prescriptions over how biblical material should be portrayed (namely without associating it with "bourding" or playing), ToMP underscores the ways in which drama is "susceptible to contingency and indeterminacy; meaning constantly threatens to escape the structure of the performance" (25). Occasionally, however, her own meaning becomes elusive, as when she concludes that "a 'game' or a 'play' in late medieval terminology is a performative event where something real happens really" (50, emphasis in the original). And as she frequently reminds us of the ToMP's belief in the utter division of spirit and flesh, she herself loses sight of the possibility that this condition may not always have been the case, and that the flesh could potentially operate in the service of spiritual ideals. She argues, for example, that the actor's fleshly presence and use of the vernacular tamper with the removed and abstract voice of God (61). Many scholars might argue the opposite--that such elements aided devotion, drawing viewers into a closer relationship with higher truths.

In the final chapter of the book, Aronson-Lehavi more consciously applies her theoretical concepts to the plays themselves, discussing moments in the York cycle that highlight the ontological duality between the "here" of the play and the "then" of scripture. In this chapter, Bertolt Brecht's influence can again be felt, as Aronson-Lehavi adopts his notions of "epic acting" and "total acting." Epic acting intentionally exposes or draws attention to the theatrical mechanisms, such as when an actor's mask is alluded to, or when a character becomes a mold to be refilled by different performers, rather than a stable and singular psychological presence. In the phenomenological realm of total acting, the laboring and suffering body of the actor potentially distracts from or supersedes meditation on the character's divine signification, such as when the tranquil Christ is being hoisted onto the cross by the loquacious and clumsy soldiers in the York Crucifixion.

Inevitably, some of her dramatic examples are more convincing than others: while it seems clear that specific conditions of production, such as the performance of Noah by the Shipwrights' guild, would have called attention to the material production of the pageants, it is less clear how God the Father's statement that "I am gracyus and grete, God withoutyn begynnyng" may have represented a deliberate effort to emphasize the division between actor and character, rather than to extinguish it (88). How else would the actor have articulated his role as God? Or, to put it a different way, how could an actor ever not call attention to his humanity on some level? If even first-person dialogue refers to the play's artificiality, it is difficult to envision any possible alternative.

Despite some gaps in her argument, Sharon Aronson-Lehavi's attentive reading of the under-studied Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge in tandem with the York cycle plays, and her enthusiasm for the theories, mechanics, and lived experience of performance--both medieval and modern--make this book a valuable contribution to medieval drama studies. It may be particularly useful to young scholars, or those unfamiliar with Middle English, as it consistently supplies modern translations of Middle English texts--including the ToMP in its entirety in an Appendix. Future scholars might test Aronson-Lehavi's theory of divided consciousness on other plays or genres, such as morality drama. And all of us would do well to learn from her enviable practice of combining modern theories with medieval plays, and modern plays with medieval theories.

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Author:Johnstone, Boyda
Publication:Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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