Most undergraduate surveys pay scant respect to the medieval drama. Sure, you will get a sprinkling of Aristotle and a crash course in the Greeks, maybe a detour into Plautus, Terence, and Roman comedy. But the “middle ages,” that vital continuum of performance, both ritual and festive, that stretched from roughly the 5th to the 15th century? Only a few readings, if you’re lucky. There is Quem Quaeritis, a Latin “trope” totaling three lines of dialogue, intoned semi-theatrically during Easter mass by the 900s. And the Second Shepherd’s Play, a playlet dated to the mid-1400s in which the Annunciation of Christ backgrounds a Noises Off-style farce involving a stolen sheep and a bed trick. As an introduction to the actual experience of the theater from those times, however, works like these cannot help but prove woefully inadequate.
Medieval drama, short and primitive-seeming at first glance, becomes something indescribably richer once seen in the context of medieval theater: a festival of municipal mummings (masked pantomimes) and biblical reenactments, outdoor games and stately processions. Performers and audience did not so much suspend their disbelief as conjoin reality with make-believe, resulting in a radically charged way of seeing the world anew. Performed in what we might today term an “immersive” style, these plays erased boundaries between the sacred and the historical, the plausible and the fantastical, the individual and the universal, the theatrical and the everyday. Characters tend to stand in for all of humanity. Time is simultaneously real and sacred. Places are symbolic tableaux as well as pictures of reality.
Folk plays such as Robin Hood accompanied wild May Day reveling, while the Twelfth Night celebration marked the dancing, darkened days of January with a carnivalesque spirit of feasting and topsy-turvy social inversions. By the “high” middle ages of the 1400s, the moveable feast of Corpus Christi had become the central theatrical event across the European continent. Replacing pagan midsummer festivals, this post-Lenten celebration dramatized all of human history through common-language retellings of the bible.
Allegorical in their impulse, the chief organizing principle of most medieval drama was not character or story but typology, the representation of humanity through unifying archetypes. Adam and Eve are thus “types” for fallen humanity, all of us middling people, cast symbolically and literally out of Eden and not allowed back until redemption or death, which are of course the same thing. Since humanity is capable of both sinful stupidity and divine grace, the comic and the tragic blurs together in these plays, the mood shifting radically from one moment to the next.
Incredible things can also happen. A whole genre was devoted to “miracle plays,” enacting the magical feats of saints. In an inversion of the Greek model, the deus ex machina happens at the beginning of the action, with God emerging to tell the greatest story ever told.
Another one of the strange pleasure of the form lay in passion-play suffering, the morbid and grotesque depictions of the human body experiencing the decay which all flesh is heir to. In the ubiquitous trope of the Dance of Death—examples survive from Paris to Switzerland to Estonia—jolly skeletons visited humanity in its various walks of life, escorting them to the final destination.
Of all the writers in the contemporary American theatre, there is perhaps none more apt to revive the medieval drama than Pulitzer nominee and MacArthur fellow Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. A playwright of formal intelligence and dramaturgical imagination, many of Jacobs-Jenkins’ works reclaim older theatrical forms—19th-century melodrama in An Octoroon, domestic family drama in Appropriate, workplace comedy in Gloria. While he frequently incorporates new and seemingly shocking elements, he is also loving and wise about neglected corridors of our dramatic inheritance, illuminating elements that we had taken for granted. An Octoroon, for example, lauds the original play’s author, Dion Boucicault, for inventing the weekend matinee and his ingenious “sensation scenes,” while flipping Boucicault’s use of racial stereotypes on its head with a heady mixture of intraracial casting, authorial direct address, documentary montage, and new scenes endowing characters with a dimension lacking from the original text. The resulting meta-melodrama calls attention to historical depictions of race while providing the thrills of the original play.
Jacobs-Jenkins performs a similar feat with Everybody, fondly rewriting and pointedly critiquing Everyman, the late 15th-century morality play. At first glance a secularization of biblical tropes, Everyman is in fact believed to be based on a much older and non-European story, the tenth-century manuscript Barlaam and Josaphat, based upon the life of the Buddha. In the English-language play, however, the white male Everyman typologically stands in for all of Humanity.
By changing the main figure to Everybody—and by designating a constantly rotating lottery of cast configurations—Jacobs-Jenkins reclaims that special medieval property, the universality in the particular. Everybody can now be played by everybody. Frequently breaking the fourth wall between stage and audience, Jacobs-Jenkins implicates the audience to bear witness in a quasi-medieval manner, asking for a new-old synthesis of reality and make-believe. The play takes place in real as well as metaphysical time, and its staging is at once realistic and representative. Everybody’s plight, like that of shepherds stealing sheep on the night the world changes, alternates between the comically petty and the tragically portentous.
At the same time, Jacobs-Jenkins injects a modernizing note of ironic self-consciousness, calling attention to our identity-based contemporary discourse with acerbic references to “white fragility,” “racializing my unconscious,” and even an audience member complaining that they don’t “see themselves represented.” Equally striking are dramatic interludes in which Everybody discourses with three voices in their head, hinting that the entire play (or our entire lives) are but a passing dream. For all his facility with medieval and 19th-century forms, his soliloquies are utterly original. Absorbing dramatizations of characters lost in thought, they suggest a kinship with German Romanticism or Shakespeare, whose own Hamlet responds to Everyman. And most frequently, these monologues rub up against the paradoxes and performativities of modern selfhood and identity. “You’re looking at a mind firing on overdrive trying to solve this problem of creating a safe space for blackness inside of a historically ‘white’ form,” Jacobs-Jenkins said in a recent interview, of a play he saw in Berlin. He could just as easily have been talking about one of his own works.
No matter how each of us chooses to identify, Jacobs-Jenkins seems intent on reminding us, each of us is connected to the other, and we all ultimately reach the same fate. It would be funny if it weren’t so deadly serious. In other words, the perfect introduction to the medieval drama is a play that would look very much like Everybody by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.