Don's diary: what did medieval stages look like?

January 3, 2003

November 2001
Max Siller of Innsbruck University emails me the sketch of a 1514 mystery play stage plan. Would I discuss it in German for an Austrian conference in Italy? My interest in theatre iconography - visual evidence for theatrical events - is for early modern comic theatre, not medieval religious drama. So why does this sketch look familiar? My subconscious kick-starts a relentless trawl through its vast image databases. Eureka!

The sketch shows exciting correspondences with a 16th-century Christ in the temple painting. Maybe this painting does not depict the New Testament episode as such but the stage set for a mystery play. And maybe the sketch records not the "charmingly naive" though artistically impoverished staging of previous theories, but sophisticated theatricality of the type suggested by the painting's elaborately constructed temple. The evidential basis for mystery play staging is astoundingly fragile. Is this pictorial connection a breakthrough?

February 2002
Crash course in medieval stage sets. In 1850, the sketch's discoverer published a "copy" transmuting its irregular spontaneity to geometric conundrum. Until the original sketch was published in 1990, the lively debate surrounding its interpretation was illustrated exclusively by such non-photographic reproductions. This secondhand approach to theatre iconography, typical in medieval theatre studies, grew from valid responses to the inadequacies of pre-20th century book-reproduction technology. In the 21st century, it is a serious impediment to scholarship.

The conference, in picturesque medieval Sterzing, Italy, commemorates the 450th anniversary of the death of its most famous son, Vigil Raber, artist of the 1514 sketch. I returned to academia after a decade in fine art publishing, mainly at Phaidon Press, where I was privileged to be Ernst Gombrich's picture researcher. Inspired by his advice ("always go back to your sources"), I stop off at Bolzano and, on the eve of Palm Sunday, stand inside the very church where the 1514 Palm Sunday play was staged.

Lunch at St Catherine's College, Oxford.The library yields a bizarrely inaccurate 1931 copy of Raber's 1514 sketch unknown to the indefatigable Teutons. It belongs to the "pathology" of theatre iconography. Carrying out research for another conference, the existence of a significant group of previously unrecognised portraits of English actors in early 17th-century Holland, by Frans Hals and several contemporaries, dawns on me. Evidence that puts a new complexion on the controversy over whether Hals intended his painting of a young man holding a skull as an allegorical vanitas or, as I now think, a documentary portrait of a specific actor in the role of Hamlet.

I break off to lead 15 Oxford Italian Association members to the Apollo Theatre. Tosca's inspirational music helps to push the evidence into place. Why is the Christ in the temple painting probably theatre iconography? Because it features quacks: non-biblical itinerant doctors who dominated the texts of many mystery plays. An explanation for the presence of four quacks in the 1514 play's cast list, despite their absence from its text, is offered by the mention of quacks in another mystery play: "Here you may add the doctors' scene." I rush back and write until 3am.

Peg Katritzky is Wilkes research fellow in theatre studies at The Open University and a research associate of St Catherine's College, Oxford.

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