A Common Stage: Theater and Public Life in Medieval Arras

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Medieval Arras was a thriving town on the frontier between the kingdom of France and the county of Flanders, and home to Europe's earliest surviving vernacular plays: The Play of St. Nicholas, The Courtly Lad of Arras, The Boy and the Blind Man, The Play of the Bower, and The Play about Robin and about Marion.

In A Common Stage, Carol Symes undertakes a cultural archeology of these artifacts, analyzing the processes by which a handful of entertainments were conceived, transmitted, received, and recorded during the thirteenth century. She then places the resulting scripts alongside other documented performances with which plays shared a common space and vocabulary: the crying of news, publication of law, preaching of sermons, telling of stories, celebration of liturgies, and arrangement of civic spectacles. She thereby shows how groups and individuals gained access to various means of publicity, participated in public life, and shaped public opinion. And she reveals that the theater of the Middle Ages was not merely a mirror of society but a social and political sphere, a vital site for the exchange of information and ideas, and a vibrant medium for debate, deliberation, and dispute.

The result is a book that closes the gap between the scattered textual remnants of medieval drama and the culture of performance from which that drama emerged. A Common Stage thus challenges the prevalent understanding of theater history while offering the first comprehensive history of a community often credited with the invention of French as a powerful literary language.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Carol Symes analyzes five of Europe's earliest vernacular plays created in the medieval town of Arras . . . . She entertains and educates in this most revealing book, making interesting connections between the public sphere and the creation and performance of plays. . . . Symes seamlessly melds multiple disciplines, utilizing text analysis as well as drawing upon the historical record to create a unique English-language interpretation of the role and meaning of theater in medieval life."—Mihaela Luiza Florescu, Comitatus

"A Common Stage is the kind of book one hopes for. It is a tour de force, a rare combination of erudition, elegant prose, and brilliance. On every page the author offers new and penetrating insights into the history of medieval drama and theatrical culture in thirteenth-century France and into their political, economic, and religious contexts in the cities of the north. Because, as she forcefully demonstrates, the performative was central to nearly all aspects of social interaction in this period, her book is also a profound meditation on the nature of medieval urban life."—William Chester Jordan, Dayton-Stockton Professor of History, Princeton University

"A Common Stage is an impressive and sophisticated exploration and application of primary source material—Carol Symes constructs a more holistic picture of theatrical activity in late-medieval Arras than has heretofore been available in English. Symes goes far beyond the scholarly tradition of analyzing play texts to develop a cultural history of public performance. In her view, familiar plays function as sites through which a stunning variety of cultural practices and information circulated."—Donnalee Dox, Texas A&M University

"What a welcome addition to the history of early theatre! A Common Stage is a richly detailed examination of the drama of medieval Arras, one of the most important sites of early drama and one that has long needed the in-depth study in English that Carol Symes has now provided. Grounded in painstaking archival work and drawing on the insights of cultural history and performance studies, this book achieves the holy grail of a penetrating historical analysis combined with nuanced interpretation of the wider cultural implications of the Arras performances. Every scholar of early drama will want to own it."—Claire Sponsler, University of Iowa

"In a double emancipation, Carol Symes views medieval theater apart from the bondage of modern printed editions and without reliance upon the privilege we assign to medieval manuscripts that codify theater in forms most like modern scripts. Her medieval theater lives in a rich array of practices sustained by an urban culture that was always and inherently 'theatrical.' I haven't seen a book about medieval theater that displays so much fresh thinking since Kolve's Play Called Corpus Christi, more than forty years ago. Provocative insights abound, not just in every chapter but on virtually every page."—Paul Strohm, Anna S. Garbedian Professor of the Humanities, Columbia University

"A Common Stage combines the intimate texture of a social and institutional history with the sparkle of a cultural and literary study. Gently exposing the mythology of the rise of vernacular drama, Carol Symes sets several plays squarely in the town of Arras, and brings both town and play to life in the process. A historian as well as a dramaturge, Symes has pulled aside the thin and insubstantial barrier separating theater from everyday life. The play is revealed as lived reality, and life itself as a public performance."—Daniel Lord Smail, Harvard University

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Product Details

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments     ix
On Terminology and Translation     xi
List of Abbreviations     xv
Introduction: Locating a Medieval Theater     1
A History Play: The Jeu de saint Nicolas and the World of Arras     27
Prodigals and Jongleurs: Initiative and Agency in a Theater Town     69
Access to the Media: Publicity, Participation, and the Public Sphere     127
Relics and Rites: "The Play of the Bower" and Other Plays     183
Lives in the Theater     232
Conclusion: On Looking into a Medieval Theater     277
Appendix     283
Bibliography     285
Index     317
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