Michelle Markey Butler is a lecturer at the University of Maryland, where she teaches medieval literature and modern fantasy.

Propertyplayer.org is where she rants thinks out loud about medieval and early modern drama, direct address, the fourth wall or lack thereof freedom therefrom, and generally Kermit-flays about how the dramatic techniques of early drama persist but are only cool and interesting when someone calls today them ‘experimental’ or ‘edgy’.


Sorry, let me try that again in professional literary speak:

It is striking that context predetermines how the same technique is understood, the nexus of technique, temporal origin, and textual bias creating a locus of (mis)understanding, a flawed and blurry lens through which the same dramatic choices are (mis)read.  In criticism of early drama, direct address is still understood as a marker of underdeveloped, simplistic, and ‘amateur’ dramatic technique even among those arguing that such drama overall is sophisticated, complex, and highly rendered.  It is a fascinating if fatal praxis, therefore, that these same techniques of engaging in and with the audience when seen in contemporary drama, are understood as markers of experimentation, boundary pushing, and audience-challenging choices.  

Alrighty.  Code switch demonstrated.  Can we speak English again?

(See what I there?  Talking directly to the audience?)

Of course context matters.  Early drama can’t break the fourth wall.  It hasn’t emerged as a concept yet.  But there’s something sketchy about assuming that the same techniques demonstrate a simplistic, less developed drama in the 15th c while being evidence of an advanced one in the 21st.  Seriously, when is anything that simple?  Isn’t it far more likely that audience address is used both simply and complexly in the 15th and 21st centuries and probably in the 500 years between?  More insidiously, when we accept the past = simple, present = sophisticated binary, that’s a melody that medievalists have heard before, but we’ve stopped humming along because it is social Darwinist bunk.

(I did say this was my ranting space.)

Anyway, you are welcome to come along if you like as I re-read early drama and observe its inheritors in their natural habitats.