Medieval Drama and The Magic Play

The Magic Play (currently at Olney Theater) is an interesting play (and brand new–this is its premiere) to think about in conversation with early drama.

The author calls it a “theatrical experience” rather than a play.  This made my early theater spidey sense tingle.  Many of the conversations we’re having nowadays in early theater studies are about expanding what we consider dramatic/theatrical/performative.  We’re looking at royal entries, civic displays, etc. as performance; not everything theatrical, we’re learning (or re-learning) has to have a set script.  This element is not merely present in The Magic Play but is thematically important.

The Magic Play‘s characters have names (although we don’t learn the Magician’s until late in the performance), but are listed in the program as Magician, Diver, and Father. Here, too, my early drama ears twitched.  Allegorical characters.  Golly gee.  Where have I seen allegorical characters in plays before.  Let me think.

The opening speech has the Magician directly addressing the audience about how odd it is that you come into a modern theater and promptly pretend that everyone else has vanished (you know, like magic), and how on earth did that convention develop when that wasn’t how theater used to work.  Since my own research obsession, I mean interest, in early drama is direct address, you would be safe to assume I was paying close attention at this point.  But of course, saying it’s a weird convention doesn’t make it go away.  Early drama doesn’t break the fourth wall.  It talks to the audience, but there’s no barrier to break.  The Magician takes a hammer to the fourth wall from the start, pointing out its existence and directly confronting it (e.g. “This is the part where I come into the audience to choose a ‘volunteer’, so you can all prepare to look away and avoid eye contact”).  It’s a nice moment in which to see the difference between talking to the audience in the 21st c and in the 15th. What you can do with ease in the 15th c has to be worked for in the 21st.  Same technique, but different context requires different handling.

The Magician requests house lights and we go into a magic show, with audience volunteers (no one actually volunteered–the Magician had to ask specific individuals) participating in the tricks, but then the Magician appears to fall out of his routine as he’s thinking about discovering that his lover has left him.  It follows both threads from there, interweaving magic show and memory, diagnosing where the love story went wrong.

As the play progresses, another interesting connection to early drama emerges:  a consideration of miracles and truth.  Does knowing how a trick is done make it less or more interesting to the viewer?  Does concealing how a trick works make it manipulative?  Does it have to be ‘real’ to be entertaining?  Is it more entertaining if it is?  The play’s conversation with itself and between its characters about the status of the magic reminds me of the conversations we have about miracles and prayer on the medieval stage.  How did the audience perceive enacted miracles?  When a character prays on stage, is it ‘real’ prayer?
Oh, and the Magician pretends to be an audience member for a while as another magician performs.  Paging Henry Medwall…is Mr. Medwall in the house?
The end of The Magic Play also sent chills down my medieval drama spine.  The Magician invites audience members to text the trick they would like to see him do to a number, stressing that it could be anything, whether he could realistically do it or not.  Later, the wishes/desires are projected onto a screen.  Many are not, in fact, achievable by the Magician.  ‘World Peace’. ‘Impeach Trump’.   ‘Make my sister alive again.’  The Magician reads a few, asking audience members to raise their hands if they hear theirs–demonstrating the reality of the wishes.  These aren’t plants, and it is not a trick.  These are the actual desires sent by the audience members sitting in the theater right then.
The Magician stands before the screen with the wishes projected, and talks about how he cannot bring them all about, but working together, we might, at least in part.  Then I realized what I’m seeing:  this is the equivalent of the prayer that ends so many medieval plays, such as how Mankind ends:
Now for his love that for us received his humanity
Search your conditions with due examination.
Think and remember this world is but a vanity
As is proved daily by diverse transmutation.
Mankind is wretched.  He has sufficient proof.
Therefore God grant you all per suam misericordium
That you may be playfellows with the angels above
And have to your portion vitam eternam.
The wishes–so many of them impossible but heartfelt–projected behind him and the Magician exhorting the audience to do what they can–this is the closest we’re getting to a modern, secular prayer.  We’re sitting in a group, hoping and yearning for things to get better.  Speaking as a church-going person…it felt familiar.
Why does any of this matter?  The parallels don’t imply influence.  There’s no reason to suppose–certainly the program does not suggest anything of the sort–that playwright Andrew Hinderaker knows or is thinking about the techniques and/or conventions of early drama.  Rather, he’s experimenting with pushing boundaries in modern theater, and finding his way to new incarnations of old techniques.
That is why these parallels matter.  Because it is not influence but independent discovery.
Early drama should be better known, better understood, and more widely performed; it contains and demonstrates alternative paths that modern playwrights have been working to re-map for several decades.
Such parallels also matter for teaching early drama.  The same students who would find The Magic Play innovative and fascinating (it is) might see early drama the same way.  But we have to show them.
Continuing to fixate on Everyman and  The Second Shepherds’ Play as ‘representative medieval drama’ creates a convenient, easily tied up box for early drama:  didactic and simplistic, only interesting when it unintentionally subverts itself.  Early drama has much more to offer, as is clear from itself and from what modern plays are doing when they rediscover its approaches.  It is  altogether time that the wider community knew this, not just early drama specialists.

About Michelle Markey Butler

Turning a medieval literature PhD into historical fiction and fantasy.
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