Book Review–Street Scenes: Late Medieval Acting and Performance

Sharon Aronson-Lehavi, Street Scenes: Late Medieval Acting and Performance. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. 179 pp. $84.00.

In Street Scenes: Late Medieval Acting and Performance, Sharon Aronson-Lehavi works with Brechtian theories of performance and theatrical duality to reconstruct a “late medieval performance theory” based on her innovative reading of the anonymous late fourteenth-century Middle English Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge, a criticism of medieval religious drama.  In examining the little-studied Tretise and medieval religious English dramas, primarily of the York cycle, Aronson-Lehavi argues that this antitheatrical tract and the plays it attacks provide evidence that both the creators and critics of medieval religious theater were “aware of the tension between live event and scripted dramatic narrative.”

In Aronson-Lehavi’s reading, this tension is innate to medieval theatrical productions of biblical plays and offers a new explanation for the long-noted coexistence of sacred and profane entertainment in the medieval play cycles.  Aronson-Lehavi argues that the tension that exists in medieval biblical drama arises because the actor never disappears into the role he presents.  Instead, medieval actors relied upon their dual natures as actor and character to insert a detachment between reality and play that permits the coexistence of devotional practice and early entertainment. This tension is illustrated when the “double entity” embodied by the actor / character is marked in the plays themselves by actors who directly address the audience, appear in cross-dressed costumes, and insert anachronistic references to their present lives into the course of the plays.

Aronson-Lehavi’s study of medieval acting conventions derives its title from medieval drama’s “street scenes,” the convention, especially at York, of staging the biblical play sequences in the city streets, a space that allowed the equal participation of actor, character, and audience in the street-stage.  Her analysis contends that because biblical plays were presented “in the arena of everyday life,” daily life became central to the dramatic performance and prevented the complete development of the theatrical illusion.  Unlike the later Renaissance theater, however, medieval drama is not hindered by, and indeed relies upon, the failure of the illusion in order to produce significance.  In Aronson-Lehavi’s reading of A Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge and biblical plays, the failure of the theatrical illusion through the “double entity” presented by the actor comprises an aesthetic of the medieval dramatic tradition.   As Aronson-Lehavi illustrates, although the author(s) of the Tretise objected to the “simultaneity” presented by the biblical play cycles, the creators of religious theater actually emphasized this double existence in order to serve the needs of religious enactments.  In a play with a religious focus, the actor could never be fully allowed to embody the character, due to the character’s sacred nature and to his or her repeated presentation by a number of different actors.  Rather than focusing on the Tretise’s significance as an early antitheatrical tract, as do Clifford Davidson or John Barish, or examining the text’s possible Lollard authorship as does Lawrence Clopper, Aronson-Lehavi uses A Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge to posit a medieval performance theory that explains medieval drama’s relative lack of suspension of disbelief as a metatheatrical function of medieval drama rather than as simple naiveté.

In her appendix, the author provides a translation of the Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge from the Middle English that is greatly indebted to Clifford Davidson’s edition of that text.  In addition to Aronson-Lehavi’s reassessment of medieval dramatic aesthetics, this translation should prove a welcome aid to students and scholars of medieval drama.  Although Aronson-Lehavi may rely too much on post-medieval theories of performance for the comfort of some medievalists, her text offers insight into the Middle English Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge and provides a new context from which to consider medieval English drama through her development of a performance theory and dramatic practice that rely upon the conflation of signifier and signified.  In addition to her welcome translation of the Tretise itself, Aronson-Lehavi’s book is filled with a plethora of historical and cultural details helpful to medievalists and scholars of the theater.

Bobby Pelts

Bobby Pelts recently earned his M.A. in English at the University of Mississippi with the completion of his thesis on medieval drama, “Staging Sodomy: Deviance and Devotion on the Early English Stage.”  In the fall, he will continue his studies in the English Ph.D. program at The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.  His research interests include medieval drama, medieval sex and gender, religion and erotics, the medieval body, and queer theory as applied to medieval literature.

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Book Review–Street Scenes: Late Medieval Acting and Performance by Bobby Pelts is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


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