Sunday, 20 March 2016

Innsbrucker Osterspiel (1391): Translation & Commentary on Opening Extract

Translation of Innsbrucker Osterspiel l. 1-4, 24-40

Primo enim exiit Pylatus cum suis militibus. Expositor ludi dicit:

Now listen up, each of you equally,
Both rich and poor,
You young alongside the old,
So that God might have mercy on you.
Therefore keep quiet and sit yourselves down
And watch this play with decorum
In the name of our mighty Lord;
Furthermore, pay attention
So that you might understand it better,
That which I would like to reveal to you,
You blessed Christian folk;
I want to make known to you –
And you ought to be listening gladly –
How the Jews come there
And wish to safeguard the tomb
By means of strong, powerful men-at-arms
With whom the Jews are allied;
Upon payment today, it is to their care
That Jesus is entrusted.
Thus be seated and keep silent,
In the name of our good Lord.

Commentary on Innsbrucker Osterspiel l. 1-4, 24-40

The opening of the text of the Innsbrucker Osterspiel, set down in the autumn of 1391, presents us with a familiarly (though not exclusively) medieval trope: an audience is being addressed by means of apostrophe. A prologue that relies on apostrophe is – and shall remain for many years after the Osterspiel first appears – reasonably common; one has only to think of Virgil’s arma virumque cano (‘I sing of arms and of the man’, Aeneid I.1) to see that the principle of a poet-singer announcing the subject to an audience is practically as old as song itself. Somewhat more subtly, the technique continues in the Minnesang tradition, in which the bard envisages a sequence of poetic ‘roles’, for himself/herself, for the lover who is being addressed, and of course for the courtly audience who shall bear witness. In other words, there is already a performative aspect about much of the literature of this period. There is a distinct awareness and indeed a tacit acknowledgement that a given poetic work will form, as it were, literary nourishment for a variety of people who are happy to receive it.
On balance, however, this is an extremely abstract awareness, manifest only in asides such as ‘höret ihr wohl’, before the poet recounts the adventures of Parzival or Helmbrecht or informs us about the beauty of his Geliebte. What makes the opening of the Osterspiel distinctive is that the expositor ludi (so it is in the Latin, Spielansager in the German; our closest English equivalent would probably be ‘master of ceremonies’) speaks directly to the audience of the forthcoming performance. ‘Vornemet alle gliche’ (1) may be a reasonably inauspicious opening, given its close resemblance to, say, ‘welt ir nû hoeren...?’ (Helmbreht 44) and other such invitations to an ideal audience to hear the tale at hand, but by the time the Spielansager has announced ‘dar vm swiget vnd setzet uch neder’ (24), it is no longer possible to read these words without envisaging a specific situation. An audience is gathered and an audience is being addressed – indeed, explicitly encouraged to settle down and keep hushed. What is surely striking to any modern reader is that an awareness of its present function as drama inheres in the Osterspiel.
This is no one-off aside, either, but continues throughout the prologue: the Spielansager makes it clear that he addresses all demographics of the supposedly broad spectrum of the audience (‘beide arm vnd riche, ir jungen mit den alden’, 2-3), in keeping with the Word of God being meant for all; he charges the audience to behave properly as they watch the drama set before them, but also to pay attention to what is going on (‘vnd seht diz spil czüchtiglichen’, 25; ‘vnd market abir vorbas, daz ir moget vorsten deste baz’, 27-8); and then, naturally, the invocation that the audience stay quiet and seated throughout is repeated (‘dar vm siczt vnd swiget stille’, 39). In other words, there is an active engagement with the intended present purpose of the piece – with its status as performed object – within the Osterspiel itself; the fact of its performance does not simply alter the way it is written, as, for example, a modern playwright must take into the account the limitations of a theatrical space, but indeed such a fact requires, indeed demands, that as much attention be drawn to its performativity as possible. The 14th century audience is not required to assume the theatre is reality; everybody involved is very clear that it is not. If proof be needed, one need only examine the stage direction ‘primo enim exiit Pylatus cum suis militibus’. It is not actors’ names which are specified, but characters’ names. Pilate and his soldiers, characters with whom Christendom is very familiar, have very explicitly entered onto the stage in their given roles; and yet it is after this moment, the implied dawning of the theatrical reality, that the Spielansager recites his little discourse to the audience. Simply put, there is, it seems, a tension between the re-enactment of the Passion of Christ and the audience address that they watch the play with joyous hearts (‘ir mueget gerne hueren czu’, 32): in what way are these two aspects compatible?
The title of Bruno Quast’s chapter Von Ritus zum Spiel[1] in his work Vom Kult zur Kunst: Öffnungen des rituellen Textes in Mittelalter und Früher Neuzeit neatly gives us some indication: the Passion story is here both a ritual and as a piece of drama. More than many other art forms, drama is a kind of ritual, repeated as it is, night in, night out, or on an anniversary that comes round every year – just like the Osterspiel would have been – repeated so that it re-evokes feelings for different audiences, or for the same old stalwarts; like religious ritual, it assumes importance through a continual process of repetition. Just as the Eucharist means the Last Supper is performed again every week, the Osterspiel is, so to speak, an unreal re-enactment of the real (Picasso put it more pithily: “art is a lie which shows us the truth”). It was therefore to be expected that the religious ritual and the dramatic form would overlap in the Middle Ages at some point, and that, as De Pol points out, “Oster” becomes slowly dissociated from the more traditional “Feier” and instead is affixed to the word “Spiel” – there is a slow transformation from religious sermon to a kind of folk festival as it becomes clear that the biblical narrative is no longer the exclusive preserve of the churches[2].
Turning our attention back to the Spielansager’s prologue, it is lines 29-38 which refer most thoroughly to the Passion story that is about to replayed for the audience. In this section, the forthcoming events are quickly outlined such that the audience is reminded of what is to happen next (much as the opening of Parzival IX sees the Narrator in conversation with Frau Aventüre bringing the listeners up to speed as to what has been happening to the poem’s hero). The most notable aspect of it is, of course, that it is in the present tense – for example, ‘wy dy Juden dar varen/vnd daz grab wullen bewaren’ (33-4). It is unambiguous: the events are happening here, now, again, transcending their origin in first century Palestine to become events replayed 1,350 years later and 5,000 miles away. In this respect, religious narrative and dramatic representation mingle perfectly; furthermore, the act of watching a religious piece of drama is itself seen as an act of worship, itself a religious experience – the audience ought to watch, ‘daz vwir got mueße walde’ (4), claims the Spielansager, he refers to them as ‘ir seligen cristenlute’ (30) and his exhortations end with the traditional invocation of ‘dorch dez liben gotes willen’ (40). The illusory falsehood of the dramatic piece, which is absolutely recognised by the text itself (‘diz spil’, 25) allows the audience to be confronted with a re-telling of, as they believed it, a transcendental religious truth. The fictionality of the Innsbrucker Osterspiel as it is performed in the here and now does not mean it loses the edifying substance of a sermon about the events of several centuries ago – indeed, as an experience for its audience, it rather adds to it. In Linke’s words, “each performance can be said to constitute an original”[3].

De Pol, Roberto, Zur Rolle des Pilatus im Innsbrucker Osterspiel: Eine Frage der Vergangenheitsbewältigung, Derekh Judaica Urbinatensia 1, 2003.
Quast, Bruno, Vom Kult zur Kunst: Öffnungen des rituellen Textes in Mittelalter und Früher Neuzeit, Tübingen, Basel, 2005.
Linke, Hansjürgen, in The Theatre of Medieval Europe: New Research in Early Drama (ed. Eckehard Simon), Cambridge University Press, 1991.

[1]Quast, Bruno, Vom Kult zur Kunst: Öffnungen des rituellen Textes in Mittelalter und Früher Neuzeit, Tübingen, Basel, 2005.
[2]De Pol, Roberto, Zur Rolle des Pilatus im Innsbrucker Osterspiel: Eine Frage der Vergangenheitsbewältigung, Derekh Judaica Urbinatensia 1, 2003.
[3]Linke, Hansjürgen, in The Theatre of Medieval Europe: New Research in Early Drama (ed. Eckehard Simon), Cambridge University Press, 1991.

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