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The Plays of Roswitha: A Note on the Acting of the Plays

THE evidence that Roswitha's plays were intended for representation has already been discussed. If they were ever acted in her own time at Gandersheim by members of the community, we need not assume that the performances were ludicrously artless. We have only to read contemporary descriptions of the celebrations of great feasts in monasteries in the so-called "dark ages," or to observe how strong is the element of sign)ficant and controlled "action" in the ceremonial of the Catholic Church as it exists to-day, to imagine that people accustomed to take part in these dramatic services would have little difficulty in giving an impressive~performance of a religious play. Even if we discard the theory that such performances took place, an imaginative conception of what they might have been like will save us, if we desire to act these plays now, from adopting an exaggeratedly primitive method. It is our duty to do our best for them neglecting no means of emphasizing their dramatic strength and helping their dramatic weakness. As we have no authority in a known "convention" to guide us, the least we can do is to refrain from inventing a comically crude one based on an arrogant condescension to past ignorance of what in any century is dramatically effective.

When Callimachus was brought on to the modern stage a misleading impression of Roswitha's ability as a dramatist was created by a calculated childishness in the interpretation. All the characters were kept in view of the audience whether they were concerned in a scene or not, and the end of each scene was marked, as the end of an over is marked in cricket, by a general change in positions. Roswitha's piety was held up to ridicule, and her glorification of chastity burlesqued to the satisfaction of those to whom jokes at the expense of old-fashioned virtues never fail to appeal. Drusiana's prayer that she might die rather than yield to Callimachus was greeted with shouts of laughter. And it was said that the mirth was natural and inevitable because Roswitha's manner is so naive! Yet if she is treated on her merits, not as an archaic freak, she can be impressive enough on the stage as Edith Craig's production of Paphnutius proved. In this production the abrupt transition from scene to scene was bridged by the singing of plainsong melodies, derived from MSS. of the ninth century. The suggestions for action in the lines were examined with sympathetic insight, and developed with imagination. lhe actors and actresses took their task seriously and used all their skill in making the characters live. The old story of the conversion of Thais became new, and although many found Roswitha's treatment of it unpalatable, none found it ludicrous. A comparison of the divergent impressions made by the Roswitha of Callimachus and the Roswitha of Paphnutius is a lesson in the cliffficulty of sifting what the dramatist has done from what the interpreter has done, a difficulty all the greater when the text of a play is not available. Now that Callimachus can be read it will be easier for those who saw its solitary performance to recognize that it was travestied on the stage.

Imagination, sympathy with Roswitha's uncompromising religious faith, a few sets of curtains, or an interchangeable scene, actors capable either by nature or training of extracting a pound of effect out of an ounce of dialogue, are the foundations on which performances of these plays can be built. Paphnutius, Abraham, and Callimachus are obviously more actable than the others, but I feel that a great deal might be done with Sapientia. Perhaps one day it will be possible to arrange a Roswitha "cycle" for the edification of a few enthusiasts. Meanwhile those who share my belief that plays are not plays until they are acted, can amuse themselves by thinking over different methods of representation.


Hrotsvitha, ca. 935-ca. 975. The Plays of Roswitha. Translated by Christopher St. John, with an introduction by Cardinal Gasquet and a critical preface by the translator.(London, Chatto & Windus, 1923)

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Paul Halsall, October 1999