Sunday, December 29, 2013

Liturgical Drama in Till Eulenspiegel

The adventures of Till Eulenspiegel first appeared in German in 1515. They tell the life story of a trickster who is constantly mocking everyone he meets. In one tale, he tricks two thieves into fighting each other and leaving behind a beehive they are trying to steal. In another story, he eats one of two chickens being cooked by a priest's poor one-eyed maid. When she asks him what happened to the second chicken, he tells her to open her second eye in order to see it.

While not a nice guy, Eulenspiegel can be truly hilarious. What is more, he can teach us something about theatre history.

Chapter 13 of the original Till Eulenspiegel book tells the story of how a priest put the trickster in charge of staging an Easter play. The play is precisely the type of liturgical drama with which all students of medieval theatre should be familiar. The three Marys come to the sepulcher, and an angel appears to them, saying "Quem queritis?" or "Whom do you seek?"

The appropriate response is always something along the lines of: "Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified, O Heavenly Beings." Then the angel says he isn't here because he was raised from the dead, and everyone rejoices.

In the Eulenspiegel story, the play is performed in Latin, which fits with what we know about how these dramas were presented in the church. Since the priest's one-eyed maid can both read and write in Latin, she plays the angel in the play. This is interesting, because we generally think of medieval drama being performed only by men, but that appears not to have always been the case. In at least one part of Germany, by the early 16th century it was not unimaginable that a woman might appear onstage, and as an angel no less. According to the story, the maid had already been in "many" of these plays.

The maid gets very excited about her role and straps wings onto her back as the angel. In addition to having costumes, the play also has a sepulcher set. The priest playing Jesus waits underneath the sepulcher, ready to pop out at the appropriate moment. Eulenspiegel gets three illiterate farmers to play the three Marys. The priest and the maid know their lines, but Eulenspiegel has to coach the farmers in exactly what to say, since none of them knows Latin.

When it comes time for the play, the maid comes out at the angel and asks, "Quem queritis?" or "Whom do you seek?"

One of the farmers responds in Latin, "'We're looking for a priest's old one-eyed whore.'"

The maid springs out of the tomb, loses her angel wings, and ends up in a brawl with the farmers. The priest, who in the story is also wearing wings, runs to the defense of the maid, and everyone soundly thrashes everyone else. Except for Eulenspiegel, who calmly walks away from the whole thing, leaving the village, never to return. 

By 1515, these types of plays might have seemed old fashioned to some, but clearly they were alive and well in the popular imagination.