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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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Part one: Monk as Performer

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Around AD 973, the south-eastern city of Winchester hosted a gathering of the priors of monasteries, who met in order to homogenize and thoroughly reform monastic life in Great Britain. At the same time, the meeting was supposed to finalize the introduction of the Rule developed by St. Benedict of Nursia (ca. 480–550) to England. Monks and nuns proved to be surprisingly attentive to the performative dimension of the liturgy. Their decisions in this matter brought about a revolution. Although members of the monastic community were staunch opponents of pagan entertainment – including the theatre of the antiquity, however understood – they have indeed given rise to Christian theatre without knowing it. All they did was reform religious life.

Latest studies on monasticism question many previous theories on the subject, attempting to consider more fully than before and reconstruct the performative aspects of life in the monastery. Its original “theatrical quality” has set many activities of monks apart from the very beginning. Particularly favourable circumstances for the development of monastic performances emerged in the re-evangelized England of the 7th century, when monks began their centuries-long domination in religious and political life of the island. The Anglo-Saxon state – isolated from Europe by sea and deprived of firm ties to the Roman cultural heritage – was able to easily assimilate the monastic reforms developed in the continent, thus becoming a true laboratory of religious practice. The Anglo-Saxon monks’ creative explosion led to the creation of a comprehensive model of monastic...

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