“The Play of Adam” project: Using the Paper Stage for practice-based research (Francisca Stangel and Tamara Haddad)

Our research and performance project of staging the twelfth century Play of Adam [see the blog] sprung from a shared interest in early drama, early performance practices, and practice-based research. With its hands-on approach, practice-based research can generate new types of evidence that traditional research sometimes struggles to produce. By staging a piece of drama we can test the practicalities around the performance of a medieval play and, inversely, test the boundaries of this type of research by asking ourselves where the evidence for a particular type of production ends and where artistic license begins.

The Play of Adam lends itself nicely to this type of project because the manuscript text gives us great insight into early performance practices. Excitingly, this play includes detailed and sometimes quite lengthy stage directions which is something that is very rare in both medieval anPaper Stage photo - Play of Adamd early modern drama.  The stage directions – written in Latin to accompany the Anglo-Norman dialogue – are a great and valuable source for information about original staging practices and expectations of medieval performance. Also accompanying the fast-paced dialogue is a reflective plainchant that focuses the audience’s attention on the theological implications of the Fall through the repetition of lines found in traditional liturgy. These elements of the play as well as the striking visual imagery that was brought out through the reading at the Paper Stage give us a great flavour of how a staging of the Play of Adam might be conceived. Because the surviving text of the play is incomplete, it was important for us to use the table reading as a way to explore how we might build a complete performance from very little evidence.

We were struck by the contrast between the opening speech – a reading of the story of creation found in Genesis – and the colloquial conversation between the characters. The juxtaposition of fun dialogue and the exciting plot combined with the more meditative elements created an interesting tension between entertainment and education, action and contemplation. The humour in the play was discussed extensively following the read-through especially in the very entertaining rendition of the Cain and Abel story, which did not appear to be very funny on the page. Carol Symes’ translation gives us witty dialogue that at times feels very modern even though it is a very close translation of the Anglo-Norman. Something that surprised some of our readers was how easy it was to connect with and appreciate the comedy in the play and it challenged an old preconception that medieval drama is very serious. This is something that we want and hope to challenge even further through the staging of the Play of Adam.

The read-through also articulated the imagery that was created by hearing the various characters’ lines together with the stage directions and music. The final section of the play contains a number of prophets prophesying about the advent of Jesus’ appearance which is quite long and dull on the page. However, when the dialogue and stage directions were read aloud, it was evident that the surviving text ends in a wonderful tableaux of the prophets. Because the manuscript of the play is incomplete, hearing these portions of the text read allowed has given us a number of ideas about how a future performance might make use of the surviving text and where other contemporary material might be inserted in order to smooth the play’s narrative arc.  The question of where evidence ends and artistic license begins was at the fore of the discussion and the reading provided great insight into how we might approach this project as a piece of practice-based research.

Thank you to all that participated in the event and spurred us on in our research project! We will continue to work during the spring and summer terms to inform our performance with research, workshops, and discussions. We hope to see you all at the work in progress performance in June and more importantly at the actual performance in October!


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