‘That woman… is a woman!’ So declares the shocked Sir Edmund Tilney at the sight of a woman playing a female role in a Shakespeare play (Shakespeare in Love).
We may be familiar with the idea that men or boys played women’s roles in Elizabethan drama and one might assume that this was also the case in previous centuries – especially, you might think, in the Middle Ages. But not so. Recent research has discovered that women, particularly nuns, were involved in the production and performance of medieval drama of many kinds. A forthcoming production of a medieval liturgical drama, in New College Chapel, Oxford (on February 8th at 7 p.m.), will attempt to give us a better understanding of the sights and sounds of late-medieval drama and even, perhaps, an opportunity to learn from our medieval ancestors, the many and varied, colourful and stimulating ways by which this kind of experience might help us to engage with the Gospel.
A new project on Medieval Convent Drama (http://medievalconventdrama.org) has found a surprisingly large and detailed amount of evidence for female involvement in drama from convents in, what is now, France and Belgium. Although the Dissolution destroyed many monastic and conventual documents, there is even reference to convent drama in England, notably at Barking Abbey. As most of the dramatised stories were biblical, the project aims to discover how women in these communities approached the stories, what manner of productions were laid on, what the devotional or educational aspirations were for the plays, who the audience may have been, and whether the nature of liturgy and music within the drama had any specific impact or aims. In some cases male roles were taken by women too, giving a complete reversal of the Shakespearean norm many years later.
References also survive of female performance outside the convent, including women singing in the Coventry Innocents Play (c. 1500), and the singing and dancing of a group of ‘Virgins’ in the Digby Manuscript (c. 1512) Candlemas and Killing of the Children plays. These ‘Digby Plays’, although not convent dramas in themselves, are being staged in an exciting new production in New College Chapel, Oxford on Wednesday 8 February, shortly after the feast of Candlemas, and will bring to life the biblical, liturgical and musical drama of late-medieval England. Director of the play (and project leader of the Convent Drama Project), Professor Elisabeth Dutton of Fribourg University, Switzerland, intends to use young female performers as the singing and dancing virgins of the medieval script and also to have some older girls playing some of the speaking and dancing roles. These female parts will be taken by members of the recently-formed Frideswide Voices, the first liturgical girl choristers’ choir to be founded in Oxford. Established in 2014, the choir promotes opportunities for girls, aged between 7 and 14, to sing within the liturgy in Oxford college chapels. Through weekly rehearsals and services, girls gain a rounded choral education singing Anglican repertoire.
The combination of drama, story, teaching, music, liturgy, movement and dance seems to encourage us to break down the barriers between ideas of congregation, audience members, catechumens or devotional pilgrims. For, in medieval liturgical drama, we cannot easily categorise those who attended, any more than it is easy to categorise the performances, which emphasised auditory, visual, even aromatic experience, and combined teaching with entertainment, liturgy with music and devotion with humour. So what will a modern-day audience take away with them from the performance and should they suspend ideas of being an audience, or a congregation, or a group of bystanders, or pupils, or participants? Professor Dutton thinks yes: ‘I think so. We have such a problem with the way people behave in church today. Obviously a chapel was, and remains, a sacred space, but I don’t think people understood that as meaning you always had to whisper or that they were not allowed to laugh in there. I wish to find a way of bringing home to people that churches were not a separate part of your life – places that you went to for a couple of hours on Sunday only – but were spaces where all sorts of aspects of life took place.’
This medieval liturgical drama can help us to see that the Gospel, and the church, are not just for Sundays but for every part of the rich tapestry of our lives. The young singers of Frideswide Voices and the ancient text of the ‘Digby Play’ will, hopefully, create a vivid encounter with two Gospel stories in a new and dynamic way.