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The Second Birth of Theatre

Performances of Anglo-Saxon Monks

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Mirosław Kocur

This book presents a new approach to early English theatre by exposing a genuine relationship between monastic performances and theatricality. It argues that modern theatre was reinvented in Anglo-Saxon monasteries by monks who were required to transform themselves by disciplining their bodies and performing complex religious acts. After extensively surveying the monastic and liturgical sources of theatre the author reconstructs the XII-century staging of the Anglo-Norman «Ordo representacionis Ade» and demonstrates the fundamental incongruity between the ancient and Christian performativity. On a more personal note he concludes with comments on references to the monastic rule in «Performer», a programmatic text by Jerzy Grotowski.

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Prologue: Cædmon

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The history of English literature begins in the second half of the 7th century with a performance by a simple, illiterate shepherd. However, this event is mentioned only by one author, known for his penchant for miracles. There is no text or other archaeological proof which would confirm the performer’s existence. Perhaps he was a figment of the learned man’s imagination. Nevertheless, the story about the miraculous metamorphosis of the shepherd into a poet – still widely read and commented – contains a coherent and radical description of a revolution in the art practiced by the performer. Many elements of this story would resurface later in theatrical practices, not only those of the Middle Ages. The shepherd miraculously transformed into a poet was not aware that he had become an artist. This is how the Christian art of performance was born. Those who practiced it – the monks – also did not know what it was that they actually invented. Monks are perfect performers, because they have to submit to the detailed provisions of monastic rule, which order them to ceaselessly engage in a strictly regulated performance. It was in monasteries, among performers practicing obedience and religious acts, that the seeds of theatre were sown. They have bloomed many times since this inception, recently towards the end of the 20th century in Poland.

1. “Hence sometimes at a feast, when for the sake of providing entertainment, it had been decided that they should all sing in turn, when he saw...

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