Staging the Medieval Religious Play in Virtual Reality

[Status: paused]

[Last content update: 2016-08-18]
[Last edit: 2023-06-29]


Late Medieval Germany saw the emergence of the so-called religious play as the predominant ‘dramatic’ form in an institutional context, while the theatre tradition of Greek and Latin Antiquity had been discontinued. Contents of these plays were mostly taken from the New and Old Testament (incl. Apocrypha) and hagiography. However, settings and themes from the secular sphere were often included as social satire and for comic relief. Performed during Christian Holidays and often intertwined with liturgy and church parades, their venues and ‘stages’ were either set in(side) sacral spaces (churches or other religious buildings) or close proximity: like central markets or town squares. Religious plays are often believed to have been performed over the course of several days, employing multiple settings (‘Simultanbühne’) that allowed for a non-chronological as well as perpetual acting and a non-stationary, oscillating focus of the audience. The plays have survived in manuscripts, scrolls, and sketches – sometimes containing a large amount of text for one specific Holiday or several Holidays (Easter & Corpus Christi, Passion), other times only containing text for specific roles or parts. They are often heavily edited by various scribal hands and survived in poor condition due to being used over long periods.

Both the older and more current scholarly editions of these religious plays often do not consider their unique character when it comes to performance and setting. Instead, as a result of anachronistic projections, the antique theatre or more modern forms of drama (like the Shakespearean stage) are evoked by the mode of representation of the edited texts, which has led to inadequate, misinformed, or flawed interpretations of single plays and an overall misconception of medieval dramatic forms.

Against this, I propose to take full advantage of current technological possibilities such as Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and 3D modelling to create a probabilistic model of the medieval multi-sensory, multi-setting ‘stage’ that allows testing common assumptions and new hypotheses about the setting, artistic performance, mise-en-scène, audience-performer-interaction and participation in religious plays.

My corpus will consist mainly of Middle High and Early New High German Easter and Passion plays from the late C14th to C16th, most of which are accessible in (printed) scholarly editions. I will extract staging information from the plays’ paratexts as well as relevant contexts, especially of those plays where church buildings or staging spaces (for which they were conceptualized and in which they were performed) are known or can be inferred from historical sources, in single cases these historical buildings or urban open spaces are still ‘intact’. This material will be the starting point from which I can create a probabilistic model – an analogy – of the performance space using 3D modelling (Allen et al. 2016). Further, I will use a VR engine (UNREAL Engine), following a set of pre-preparations, to re-enact single scenes or entire plays.

Since we know very little about the How of performing a medieval religious play but can infer quite a lot of information from spatial settings and artistic motion sequences and patterns, the modelling of the performances, the audience-performer-interaction and especially the multiple setting will have to be experimental. The following questions serve a heuristic function:

(1) Given an exclusively ‘inside church building’ venue (as accounted for in most of the shorter plays), where and how would the multiple setting have to be installed to ensure (a) feasible stage arrangement (size, shape, height and number of scene-space(s) for n performers with at least minimum visibility and audibility for the audience), (b) feasible scene arrangement (‘storyline’, narration, salvation-historical ‘logic’ in relation to spatial, movemental, and sensory confinement of audience), (c) feasible time or duration arrangement (within/together with/in addition to a liturgical performance or parade; in relation to seasonal constraints (daylight/temperature/duties/etc.); in relation to physical constraints (endurance of performers, audience; attention span, sensory overload); (d) regarding additional, more general environmental and circumstantial constraints like lighting, acoustics, but also ephemeral things like sounds, noise, and smells.

(2) Given a ‘mixed’ venue using church buildings and open spaces (markets, town squares etc.), how would multiple settings, stages, scenes and time arrangements have to be done differently? What other general constraints apply here?

(3) Given the significant number of text lines per play and taking into account the aforementioned considerations, I believe that the manuscripts do not provide ‘the text as it was to be performed’ but instead serve as a complete compilation of possible scenes related to a specific Holiday of which a stage director had to pick those scenes he deemed relevant and fitting for a concrete performance within the spatial, physical, and time constraints of the location.

With the proposed poster, I aim to visualize these guiding questions and how VR and 3D modelling can help answer them. As an example, I chose the well-known Neustifter-Innsbrucker Osterspiel from 1391, which is believed to originate in Southern Thuringia, Germany, possibly in the town of Schmalkalden, where the medieval church building has survived and can thus be sampled for testing simple VR modelling using Google Cardboard and photo spheres.