The Transnational Impact of Latin Theatre from the Early Modern Netherlands

Workshop: Biblical Drama in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Present Day

Organisers: Dr Dinah Wouters (Amsterdam), Sarah Fengler (Oxford)

Liturgical drama in the Middle Ages starts by adapting the most cherished texts of European culture: Scripture. Once introduced as a common practice of dramatising the Bible, European drama kept producing scriptural plays. While there was a strong German tradition of medieval mystery plays, the history of biblical drama is by no means limited to the German cultural sphere. New formats and modes of biblical drama developed through the centuries and in different language areas: from French mystery plays, humanist sacred comedies and tragedies, Jesuit Bible drama, and Spanish Golden Age autos sacramentales through to neoclassical biblical tragedy, biblical Trauerspiele in the German Empfindsamkeit, and scriptural plays in English Romanticism. Furthermore, there was a rediscovery of the so-called cycle plays during the nineteenth century, and even today biblical narratives are still being staged, from modern and postmodern biblical plays through to Broadway and movies. A large number of writers from various eras debated the question of how Scripture can be dramatised, including Hugo Grotius, Jean Racine, Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, Voltaire, George Gordon Byron, and Pier Paolo Pasolini, to name but a few.

In this workshop, we want to explore the continuities, (in)consistencies, and break lines in the history of European biblical drama. Our objective is to come closer to a diachronic, transnational, and comparative perspective on biblical drama as a literary genre.


09.00-09.30 Arrival with coffee and tea

09.30-09.45 Opening words


One of the key challenges with the diverse texts collected into the asynchronous structure we call ‘the Bible’, is that these scriptures are fundamentally ‘holey’ as well as holy.  By nature of their compilation, form and function, they present us with holes in the text, holes in the narrative, and holes in characterisation.  Such holes seem to frustrate the process of dramatization, in which divine stories and beings must be given body, direction and story.  Meanwhile, the mere act of staging scripture entails its own issues of embodiment, threatening to expose the aching gap between venerated or divine figures and the bodies representing them.  Yet for generations of those seeking to dramatize scripture, both scriptural and physical ‘holes’ have also presented opportunities: gaps through which contemporary concerns might be expressed, explored, rationalised and raised in protest.  This is particularly the case in the staging of narratives involving women, whose scriptural origins tend to be even more ‘holey’ than those of male figures.  Using English-language case studies from the medieval, early modern and modern periods, this paper examines how playmakers across time have grappled with gaps, and used them to give voice and body to ideas about gender and how we choose whose stories are told.

10.45-12.15 Panel 1 (chair: Dinah Wouters)

Written by several authors, the 45 mysteries that were compiled in the fifteenth century in an opus referred to as Le mistere du Viel Testament are not merely an “encyclopedia of sacred knowledge, traditions and legends,” as labeled by their modern editors. They are also an important source for understanding the history of emotions in medieval and early modern times. Yet, despite the fact that literary research on the subject has developed greatly over the past years, influenced by the discipline of history of emotions, biblical adaptations in general, and biblical drama in particular, remain quite neglected. Scriptural narratives left enormous lacunas regarding the psychological outcomes of the events experienced by the biblical protagonists. Like any genre of biblical literary adaptation, the different mysteries contained in Le mistere thus provided fertile soil for speculative amplifications about such emotional states. Authors and dramaturges alike could “recontextualize” the psychological implications of any biblical episode in their contemporary setting, and, quite judgmentally, direct the audience toward a supervised formation of their emotions. Such texts thus played a double role, simultaneously constructing the emotional discourse and evaluating it, instructing the audience whether to accept or reject it. In my presentation, I would like to demonstrate the means by which such biblical adaptations acted as an agent to disciplining emotions, according to this double role. Aspiring particularly towards the theorization of the specific contribution of the biblical mystery play to the emotive discourses, I will show the similarities and differences between the mysteries and other genres that perform this literalization of the imagined emotional consequences of the biblical material, such as devotional and didactic texts and parodies.

The Jeu d’Adam represents the earliest extant script for a drama in French or a vernacular language of England. Although the single extant manuscript, MS Tours 927, dates from the late 12th century and was copied in the Loire valley, it is written in Anglo-Norman dialect, and orthographic evidence suggests that its Occitan-speaking scribe struggled with his earlier copytext’s unfamiliar language.

The play has an episodic structure, dramatizing Adam and Eve’s fall from Eden, followed by Cain’s murder of Abel, and a procession of prophets largely adapted from the Pseudo-Augustinian Sermo contra Judeos, Paganos, et Arianos, which includes a debate between Isaiah and a Jew. The Jeu d’Adam has traditionally been viewed as a ritual drama, emerging from liturgy and the performative ceremonies of church services; my paper explores interconnections between the play and contemporary pedagogical practices, building on Christophe Chaguinian’s study of the manuscript in MS Tours 927 and the Provenance of the Play, which locates the play in the context of a large secular institution, such as a Cathedral school.

I examine the Jeu in relation to Peter Cantor’s tripartite educational schema of lectio, disputatio, and predicatio. This reveals that the play employs lectio and disputatio (which pertain to the building of faith), but avoids resolving learning into predicatio (preaching good conduct). I argue that through this, the playwright opens up to his vernacular audience the behind-the-scenes methods of learning faith usually reserved for Latinate students, teaching his audience how to discover divine truth for themselves, through the figural reading of Scripture. He uses debate-scenes to test these truth-claims, and to problematise ideas of textual authority and literary production. The playwright takes on the role of interpres: translator, mediator, prophet, and teacher, modelling a way of engaging with and discovering truth in Scripture drawn from the twelfth-century classroom.

Female religious communities contributed significantly to the highly efficient transnational cultural networks of the medieval Catholic Church; in terms of circulating images, vernacular texts, and above all Latin texts. Drawing on visual as well as textual medieval documents, some previously unknown to specialists, my current researches explore the decisive, previously under-recognized role of their contributions to the development of the so-called merchant scene of biblical drama, representing Easter Holy Women purchasing spices from one or more generally itinerant healers. Encouraged by highly educated female religious leaders in France, Austria, the central Czech and German-speaking lands and elsewhere, theatrical representations of spice-purchasing Holy Women circulated between religious communities right across Europe. As they did so, they moved ever closer to legitimating women on the religious stage, and to providing it with a deeply moving female counterpart—at the end of Christ’s life—to the male-dominated visit of the spice-bearing Kings who herald its beginning. 

Through their creativity and patronage, female religious leaders were the first to recognize the great significance of the merchant scene for Easter ceremonies. Their influential repurposing and secularization of this brief biblical episode achieved a substantial, popular, dramatic vehicle for explicating the origins of the Easter Holy Womens’ spice containers, and for extending and emphasizing the impact and importance of the Easter story’s Holy Women in biblical drama. Making full use of the powerful transnational cultural networks of the Catholic Church to communicate between their mostly Benedictine communities, the female religious leaders who contributed most significantly towards establishing the merchant scene as a popular, even dominant, element in Easter performances, instrumentally influenced the development of the European religious stage.

12.30-13.30 Lunch


In the Early Modern period, several Biblical stories were popular themes for dramatic productions. The playwrights were Christians themselves and their audiences were similarly Christian, be it in the course of the sixteenth century more confessionalized. Protestant humanists and Jesuit fathers wrote Biblical plays for the educational situation, and chose, for instance, the story of Adam and Eve, Abraham, Joseph, Esther, Jephthah, stories from the Books of Kings, and parables of the Good Samaritan, the lost sheep, the poor Lazarus and the Rich man, and the Prodigal Son. Also the life and death of Jesus was the subject of some plays. We can deal with these plays as individual dramas, but also as nodes in a network. Authors were inspired by each others’ plays. In this paper, I will explore ways of researching them in  transnational ways. 

14.30-15.30 Panel 2 (chair: Rasmus Vangshardt)

Chambers of Rhetoric in Flanders, Brabant and Holland opened themselves up to the new religious ideas, especially in the 1530’s. These were discussed among their members and the Scriptures were read and conversed upon. The results of their reflections were written down and performed in allegorical plays (spelen van sinne), biblical plays, refrains and songs. In this paper particular attention will be paid to how the staging of biblical figures and biblical stories was not only a means to propagate the new ‘evangelical’ ideas among the audience, but also to criticize the persecution of the same by the imperial and ecclesiastical authorities. To that purpose a closer analysis is offered of a play entitled De Bekeeringe Pauli(The Conversion of Paul), which was based upon Acts 9:1-19. Most probably the play was created by the chamber of rhetoric De Goudbloem (Marigold), which was active in Vilvoorde near Brussels. The paper will further illustrate how these ‘politico-religious incorrect’ plays induced the authorities to take increasingly stringent measures against the performance of rhetoricians’ plays in the Low Countries.

In 1565, the Westminster School performed Sapientia Solomonis before Elizabeth I, her council, and her friend Cecilia of Baden, Princess of Sweden. The Westminster School performance text survives in two MS copies and was an adaptation of Sixt Birck’s drama with the same name, which was published in an anthology of biblical drama in Basel, in 1547. The two versions of the play were originally performed with contrasting agendas. Whereas Birck’s aim for Sapientia Solomonis was to facilitate the education of a new generation of humanist citizens, the later adaptation laid its focus on spectacle and splendour to impress its audience and functioned as a vehicle for negotiating Anglo-Swedish political relationships. Performed in England and on the Continent, and operating both as a Humanist school drama as well as a piece of political Tudor court drama, Sapientia Solomonis offers an unique opportunity to study biblical drama in Europe in the mid 1500s. Written and performed in Latin, and with its biblical subject matter, the biblical drama of Sapienta Solomonis was transnational. This study carries out a comparative study between the two versions of the play and places them in their original performance context. Through textual analysis, archival studies, and a performance workshop, this presentation aims to demonstrate that although the Westminster School and Sixt Birck purposed the biblical material differently, a comparative study of the two versions of Sapientia Solomonis highlights the fact that biblical drama transcended national, cultural, and social borders. 

15.30-16.00 Break

16.00-17.00 Panel 3 (chair: Jan Bloemendal)

In the massive corpus of surviving dramas by the Spanish Golden Age playwright Lope de Vega, biblical comedias play a considerable role. This paper compares a rather well-known one, La hermosa Ester (1610), and the less known La creación del mundo (date unknown). The paper will deal with the question of genre – how and why do Lope’s dramatic adaptations of the Old Testament become comedias, specifically? – and then turn to the specific theme of beauty in both plays.

The investigation into the relation between the genre of comedia and the theme of beauty is intended to contribute to the workshop’s question of “biblical drama as a literary genre.” The Spanish Golden Age is often considered a highly aestheticized period of European literature, and the theme and idea of beauty certainly played a dominant role. This paper investigates how Lope’s biblical drama blended the epoch’s fascination of beauty with his own new art of producing comedias and asks the question of how Scripture contributed dramatically to the theatre of the time in this respect.

17.00-18.30 Panel 4 (ONLINE) (chair: Tovi Bibring)

Dans le théâtre de Jean-Luc Lagarce (1957-1995), le retour est à la fois le sujet, l’objet et la manière de l’œuvre.

Le concept de « pays lointain » possède une signification très importante au sein de cet univers dramatique car il représente l’endroit du retour et du non-retour en même temps, le pays des origines et des racines, le tout début de l’existence humaine, la réponse aux raisons de soi, le lieu où le passé gagne encore son actualité, l’endroit magique et unique pour chaque personnage d’où on peut ne pas partir physiquement mais où on aimerait toujours revenir spirituellement. Le « pays lointain » constitue le centre fictionnel et conceptuel d’une grande partie des pièces de ce dramaturge, et surtout du cycle du « fils prodigue ». Ce paradigme archétypal conçoit le retour comme un défi, tant pour celui qui revient que pour ceux qui l’attendent. Dans cette perspective, le retour prend chez Lagarce une dimension tragique car ceux qui sont censés attendre ne peuvent plus vivre leurs vies et restent dans un statisme infini en essayant de ranimer le passé et de raccourcir la période d’attente du retour par le discours circulaire et clos sur le sujet et l’objet unique d’un « fils prodigue ». Ce cycle associe au retour la question, pour celui qui revient, du droit à ne pas dire la vérité, à tricher, en quelque sorte. Revenir est, dès la première réplique des pièces, destiné à être « la partie perdue ».

La parabole biblique du fils prodigue est une parabole de mouvement : le personnage central part, erre ailleurs et revient vers le lieu d’où il est parti. Lagarce renforce cette idée d’action tout en introduisant le nouveau départ du fils après le retour ainsi que par le caractère même du personnage central. La dynamique générale du retour, au sein de cet univers dramatique, confère une valeur spécifique à la répétition des mots et des phrases en lui attribuant les caractéristiques de la reprise. Dans cette perspective, répéter signifie alors revenir en arrière. Chaque pièce de Lagarce crée le mythe de sa propre poétique qui est celle du retour et qui passe par les multiples et diverses répétitions, reprises et corrections. Le fils prodigue de Lagarce est malheureux, vagabond, maudit. Son caractère même est une errance infinie. Car c’est uniquement une telle figure qui pourrait incarner pleinement les traits de son époque contemporaine, lui être emblématique. Ce fils prodigue devient également la métaphore de la parole dans notre époque qui se cherche, qui veut être acceptée et répondre et qui s’enfuit sans finalement jamais réussir.

After 1928, in the second part of his artistic and intellectual life, the french poet, playwright, and biblical scholar Paul Claudel (1868-1955) renounced writing secular plays and used the Bible as his only inspiration: “if drama contains the Bible, Bible creates the drama” and “goes on stage”[1], as writes Hélène de Saint-Aubert about Claudel’s L’Histoire de Tobie et de Sara (1942). In the conferences and articles about his biblical dramas, he often refers to the French mystery play, morality play, and liturgical drama of the Middle Ages, claiming that he continues these traditions. If we read more carefully these works in light of medieval theater, it seems that he does not a continuation, but a recreation after literary forms which are reshaped. Indeed, Claudel talks about medieval genres but there was no such classification at this time: when he pretends to relate L’Annonce faite à Marie to the mystery plays of the Middle Ages and L’Homme et son désir to the tradition of “our old morality plays”[2], he does not so. He creates, hundreds of years later, Medieval Biblical Dramas of his own.

[1] Hélène de Saint-Aubert, Théâtre et exégèse, Genève, Droz, 2014, p. 301 : « si le drame contient la Bible, la Bible engendre le drame » et « monte sur la scène ».

[2] La Danse, juin 1921, cité par Gérald Antoine, Paul Claudel ou l’Enfer du génie, Paris, Laffont, 1988, p. 210 : « On peut dire que de même que L’Annonce faite à Marie se rattachait aux mystères du Moyen Âge, L’Homme et son désir continue la tradition de nos vieilles moralités ».

From the analysis of the film Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (1964) by Pier Paolo Pasolini, setting off from the identification of the author’s conscience with the tragic destiny of the myth of Christ, I examine the metaphysical grounds of his peculiar humanistic and existentialist project: a sacred conception of man as the will that brings forth the creation of the world. My study intends to enhance and interpret Pasolini’s cinematic adaptation of the Gospel as the poetical expression of a tragic universe, in which the Nietzschean reflection that sparked criticism against the Modern Age can be traced. The visual poetics of the film, according to the proposal formulated by Pasolini himself, offers the possibility of developing a dialogue and a meditation on the tragedy of Western modern man: the transmutation of his human condition into a mechanic artifice, the loss of the sacred dimension as the creative subjectivity of his nature, responsible of his own existence. The expression of Pasolini’s tragic consciousness in the movie is incarnated, therefore, in what he calls a “desperate vitality”: the uncontrollable desire to experience life freely, with full intensity, through a projection of the nostalgia for the loss of the sacralized and mysterious sense of man, materialized in a profound pessimism towards the unfolding of a contemporaneity hopelessly detached from the humanist culture.


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