Sydney Higgins, The Theatre in the Round: The Staging of Cornish Medieval Drama (North Charleston: Alldrama through Create Space Independent Publishing, 2013). PP. iii+192. ISBN-13: 9781484947050. Price: £12.00, $19.60, €14,40.
Sydney Higgins has a lifelong enthusiasm with Cornwall and its medieval drama. Medieval Cornish drama is a fascinating subject that, as Higgins points out, has been largely ignored in favour of the English drama such as the so-called mystery plays of York and Chester. Yet, this is an exciting field with significant contributions still to be made, considering that the play-text of Bewnans Ke was only discovered as recently as the year 2000.
In introducing the reader to his subject, Higgins guides them through a concise but thorough account of the history and origins of medieval drama in an engaging style that makes his subject accessible beyond the academic community.
The title of the book evokes the work of Richard Southern, who in 1957 wrote The Medieval Theatre in the Round (with a second edition in 1975) on the manuscript of the medieval East Anglian morality play, The Castle of Perseverance. This is a play-text of special importance in scholarship on the performance of late-medieval drama because, uncommonly for the medieval period, there is a diagram of the stage: the earliest known example in the British Isles. Southern’s important and influential work is brought up on a number of occasions throughout Higgins’ book, which effectively challenges and argues against his claims, bringing a fresh approach to the field.
After the introduction to the book, Higgins discusses the Cornish theatre (or plen-an-gwary), and compares St. Just Round to Piran Round in order to scrutinise their potential as the locations for dramatic performances in medieval Cornwall. In the following chapters he then goes into detail about the stage diagrams and their interpretations, the central area, and the platea.
Higgins then puts his focus to interpreting the theatrical spaces in order to address the action of Cornish drama, with individual chapters for each of the two days of St. Meriasek. His meticulous analysis of the play-text breaks down its action and references each section of action against a diagram of the stage, corresponding the action and its stage space with numbers. All possible textual evidence is sifted through, to use details, even such as the costume arrangements, to reflect back on what is consequently suggested about the design of the theatrical space.
In the penultimate chapter, Higgins discusses the staging of The Creation of the World (Gwyrans An Bys), a play with detailed stage directions but no stage diagram. Consequently, Higgins discusses the issues of examining the stage directions of the extant manuscript of the play-text (this is dated at 1611, although it is thought that the play itself dated from the 1530s) and asks pertinent questions about both the authorship and validity of the stage directions. However, despite the lack of a stage diagram to the play-text, Higgins takes note of the play’s similarity to St. Meriasek in order to construct his arguments about the staging of the play upon this evidence.
In his final chapter, entitled ‘The Medieval Audience and its Theatre’ Higgins challenges Southern’s idea that the central area of medieval (circular) theatres would have been occupied by spectators, and in arguing against him, Higgins uses evidence from The Castle of Perseverance in addition to the plans of the Cornish plays. It is in this regard, as Higgins discusses the staging and performances of medieval Cornish drama in its broader context, that his work is applicable and valuable to any student of medieval drama.
The arguments that Higgins presents in this important work make a significant and much-needed contribution to the field, challenging over a century of misunderstanding and unevidenced claims about the staging of medieval Cornish drama. By engaging directly with the source material, Higgins makes his own, detailed interpretations of the extant stage diagrams, which he justifies with contextual evidence.
The book provides the reader with an invaluable insight into the staging of medieval drama, not just through Higgins’ own arguments that he makes in this work, but through responding to the previous assertions and assumptions about medieval Cornish drama over the centuries with a series of questions that structure his logical and carefully considered approach. In this endeavour, Higgins provides a comprehensive knowledge of the staging of the drama. He even explains and disambiguates staging terminology and its historical misuse.
Sydney Higgins also contributes to the debate over the validity of examining medieval visual culture as a source of information about the performances and staging conventions of medieval drama. Regarding the work of Giotto, he notes that scholars have either focussed on the subject of his paintings or criticised his lack of perspective, rather than asking the crucial question of why he painted the architectural structures as he did. In asking this question himself, Higgins points to the evidence that in painting familiar buildings such as the Lateran Basilica (which Giotto knew well) he chose to represent them completely differently, and in a way that therefore suggests the potential influence of the performances of medieval drama upon his paintings.
Higgins raises a number of important issues of academic scholarship in The Theatre in the Round. For instance, even though in 1936 Hélène Leclerc suggested that the Cornish rounds could have influenced the design of the Elizabethan theatres, later scholars have suggested the idea that such stages may have been influenced by pageant-wagons in inn-yards, and completely ignored theatre in the round. In addition to medieval Cornish drama, this also serves to highlight the extent of the neglect of scholarly attention to theatre in the round, since academics have been focussed so much on the pageant-wagons of the mystery plays of York and Chester.
This book is essential reading for any scholar or enthusiast of medieval drama, not just for the new arguments that Higgins puts forward, but as an indispensible example of how to analyse and understand play-texts in the context of performance. One of Higgins’ many strengths in this endeavour comes from his own experience as a director of a theatre company and his treatment of the plays as if he were staging them himself from the available evidence. Illustrated throughout with colophons, diagrams, photographs of modern performances, and medieval art, in addition to appendices, The Theatre of Round: The Staging of Cornish Medieval Drama is an accomplished work with enough detail in its 192 pages to make a valuable contribution to our understanding of the staging and performance of medieval drama.
Southern, Richard, The Medieval Theatre in the Round (London: Faber & Faber, 1975).
Helen F. Smith is a doctoral candidate at the University of Edinburgh, working on a thesis which endeavors to explore how the disabled, impaired, or transgressive body is constructed, represented, and responded to in the play-texts and performances of drama in the late-medieval period.