Thursday, 9 June 2016

"Laughter is the Best Medicine (1)": On Humour in the Osterspiele of the 13th and 14th Centuries

You can read the second Laughter Is the Best Medicine post here.

Not for nothing do we associate a piece of theatre with joyful recreation in both English and German, where ‘play’ and Spiel each have multiple connotations. The process of theatrical presentation could be said to stem out of a childhood love of dressing up, or of pretending to take on a different role, of a comic fantasy wherein one has the opportunity to be a completely different figure. It is at least nominally unsurprising, then, that plays are so often opportunities to go to a theatre and laugh; whether pure farce or barbed satire, the opportunity to watch people in front of us do things we will probably find relatively humorous is too good to miss, and the vitality that is integral to this experience goes some way to explaining the longevity of theatre, even as other, more modern art forms have grown up around it. Even in Ancient Greece, 3 tragedies would not usually be performed without a satyr play alongside them. As one Jungian psychologist puts it, “in response to laughter, our bodies produce pain relieving endorphins, returning the body to a more relaxed state”[1]: laughter really is the best medicine.
The presence of humour in the medieval German Easter Plays or Osterspiele, however, is initially something more of a surprise. Solemnity and ritual, the outward trappings of this most significant of days in the Christian calendar, seem no great bedfellows of japes and jokes. Why do these blustering comic fools straight out of a carnival sketch or Fastnachtspiel, the merchant and his sidekick Rubin, appear on stage in the middle of the Resurrection – the most sublime theological event in the history of creation? How can we reconcile ostensibly kerygmatic seriousness with potty-mouthed buffoons? But the convention of carnivalesque, medieval laughter holds many such surprises: in the words of Mikhail Bakhtin, “carnivalesque laughter...is directed toward something higher – toward a shift of authorities and truths, a shift of world orders. Laughter embraces both poles of change, it deals with the very process of change, with crisis itself”[2]. In the Osterspiele we find humour with an end in its sights: humour as, indeed, a crucible for change, for purifying the audience of theatre-goers and ultimately enabling them to embrace Christ-like solemnity (which, of course, the Osterspiele do too by the end; the merchant & co. might get the last laugh, so to speak, but they don’t get the last word). As Delpech-Ramey says, “what clowns offer, minimally, is relief from the comforts of shame. Comedy substitutes for shame a kind of astonishment at the hilarious ways we insist on existence, or existence insists on us”[3].

The interaction between the merchant and Rubin is not simply the matter of a joke interwoven with a dramatic set-piece, or an angry, pious mockery of Pontius Pilate’s earthly glory; when the Osterspiele clash two genres together, minimal effort is made to properly reconcile them. ‘Erloubet mir daz,/daz ich dy czit vortribe,/mit vwerm jungen wybe,/dez obendez by dem fure:/daz were mir sust gar ture!(Innsbrucker Osterspiel 588-592), Rubin implores his master, begging him to let him sleep with his wife, to which the merchant agrees as long as he doesn’t have to watch. Such salacious discussions are, needless to say, earthier than most accounts of the resurrection (maybe Hansjürgen Linke expresses it best in saying the variety of German medieval drama was one ‘von Sakrament bis zum Exkrement’[4]!). But then that is because the antics of this particular duo are straight out of pastoral Volksfest archetypes one would expect to find in a Fastnachtspiel – the thick, hedonistic, drunkard master peddling love-potions, and his cunning servant in tow; we might label him a less grisly version of Chaucer’s Pardoner. Together, they address the audience as though the latter were potential customers in a loud, bustling marketplace (for which there is a textual basis – ‘iarmarkt’, Innsbrucker Osterspiel 811; and in the Osterspiel von Muri it is explicitly money which links the Wächterspiel and the Krämerspiel), peddling fraudulent wares and boasting of their great artistry. The merchant’s supposed ability to heal, (‘gesunt…mach[en]’, Innsbrucker Osterspiel 647) is phrased in terms of secular knowledge (‘in arte medicina’, Innsbrucker Osterspiel 626), hence its being mocked when set alongside the divine knowledge of God. The Merchant’s healing powers are clearly paralleled with Christ’s, nowhere more clearly than Rubin’s declaration that ‘dy blinden macht er sprechen,/dy stummen macht er eßen’ (Innsbrucker Osterspiel 650-651), directly echoing miracles worked in the Gospels; the merchant is continually addressed as ‘herre’ (Innsbrucker Osterspiel 621 etc) by Rubin, who then gets servants of his own over whom he is able to lord his authority, much as Satan, too, addresses Lucifer as ‘herre’ (Innsbrucker Osterspiel 467 etc). In all this nexus of lords and masters – Pilate is another, of course, ‘konig in der Juden lant’, and Lucifer’s list of sinners names yet more still – there is only one whom the audience is expected to trust. The audience is also fully aware that, unlike Christ, the merchant is a crook, his supposed ‘healing powers’ completely fraudulent: when the merchant accuses his sidekick of being a ‘schalk’ or villain (Innsbrucker Osterspiel 895), Rubin retorts that the merchant is ‘eyn meister vbir alle schelke’ (Innsbrucker Osterspiel 906) – the worst of the lot.
In practice, the Krämerspiel functions as a comic interlude, a bit of light relief from the cosmic affairs of universe-shattering import which take place elsewhere in the Easter story. But to call it a mere interlude – an entertaining diversion during the interval – would do it a disservice, for that would be to ignore the manner in which fools in mythology often serve as intermediaries, as ways to make the unapproachable approachable. The 13th and 14th century audiences can relate to Christ’s world and the world of the women weeping at his tomb, far off though that may appear, if they have also seen this world interact with their own very familiar stock archetypes. We would do well to note which archetypes they are: the funny-man, the comic and his equally humorous servants. We see no medieval monarch or knight interact with the Gospel story; Stott suggests this is because clowns and tricksters are “not confined by boundaries, conceptual, social or physical, and can cross lines that are impermeable to normal individuals”[5]. We may not expect, for instance, that the merchant and Rubin are permitted to ‘interact’ with the biblical world of the weeping women, but they are; for this occasion only, a transgression is permitted. These worlds crash together, and the result is fun and anarchic yet ultimately reasserts the stability Christ brings; a far cry, then, from the meeting of two very different worlds in the Nibelungenlied
Quast makes much of the word apotropaic in terms of the Osterspiele’s use of humour – in the sense of humour as a force that has the power to ward off evil. In his own words: “deutlicher noch als im Ablauf der Liturgie zeigt das Lachen des Teufelsspiels den apotropäischen Charakter”[6]. Making the devils into figures of fun is a means of using humour as a weapon against Lucifer; Quast calls this “Soteriologie des Lachens” (soteriology of laughter)[7] – in other words, salvation through humour. We might see this in our modern world, in which a ludicrous portrait of Zuma, Erdogan or Putin is met with ferocious retort from the authorities: because humour makes them afraid. In Jordan’s view, “mocking and utterly confusing the enemy can be more powerful than direct confrontation”[8]; perhaps Bakhtin puts it most succinctly and powerfully when speaks of the victory of laughter over fear”[9]. This variety of mockery occurs in the Innsbrucker Osterspiel in that while rousing his troops Lucifer makes the exultant cry ‘ly mir crewel und kelle’ (301) – the Prince of Darkness exhorting his followers to provide him with a fork and a trowel, no doubt ambitious and efficient weapons for when one is mounting a defence of Hell. We must also mention the ‘repopulation’ of Hell with new sinners after Christ has freed those who are there already; the long list that ensues (Innsbrucker Osterspiel 389-451) takes in every kind of earthly power and hierarchical ruler, from ‘babest’ to ‘kardenal’ (391), from ‘patriarchen’ to ‘legat’ (392), ‘konig’ and ‘keyser’ (394), ‘grafen’ and ‘fursten’ (396), right down to ‘ritter’ and ‘knechte’ (398). Lucifer’s list goes one step further, of course, in encompassing even ordinary professions like ‘byrschenken’ (408), ‘becken’ (410) and ‘fleyschewer’ (412)… Hell’s democratic impulse – any and all can be taken by the devil, whatever their rank; damnation is the great leveller – may be made here into an amusing sequence in which such figures are all punished for the most trivial of offences, as though exhorting the audience through humour to stay on the straight and narrow. It is equally important, though, to notice that evil is not completely reduced to a troupe of pathetic, comic grotesques – the medieval audience must have found the damnation of the ‘anima infelix’ (Innsbrucker Osterspiel 338) particularly haunting.
Some have thought that religion and theatre should be separated, let alone such knockabout bawdy antics. It seems that the writers, actors and directors of the Osterspiele thought it essential that they should not; after all, as Rainer Warning shrewdly notes[10], even in the resurrection as told in the Biblical Gospels, Christ is given a role – he is assumed to be the gardener – and more modern TV productions have been known to cast a new actor for this brief moment in which the weeping Mary cannot recognise him. By continually calling out the mortals for their folly (‘er kumt gesprungen alz eyn trappe’, Innsbrucker Osterspiel 675), these pieces are better able to reflect that which is not folly, i.e. that which is divine. If the merchant is a fraudulent, cut-price parody of Christ, he functions as a comic, every-day manual as to how the audience should not behave. The character that breaks the rules “assumes the role of the scapegoat and receives the punishment for [the audience’s] half-hearted attempts at stepping outside of the common order”[11]. This makes for another fascinating inversion of the 'Christ figure'; in Adiprasetya's eyes, Christ is also something of a "clown", an outsider figure, eternal demiurge who crosses boundaries and has an enigma about him which ordinary humans do not possess[12]. And what is the Resurrection, after all, but a comedy - in the strictest sense of the word, a story with a happy ending, in the sense in which Dante uses it to describe his Divine Comedy? There are even parts of the Gospel story which lend themselves to an obviously humorous interpretation (Mary mistaking Christ for a gardener), which is played up to the hilt here, as he dresses up and goes along with the disguise ('in specie hortulani', Innsbrucker Osterspiel 1139).
The ‘fallen’ state of the world – the daft, stupid things people do – is summed up rather nicely by Gerhild Williams: ‘to paraphrase Karl Marx, failure is maintained either as tragedy or farce’[13]. In the case of the Osterspiele, both are deployed: the souls being dragged to hell is both at the same time. Controversy and terror (the ‘fear’ of which Bakhtin speaks; here, fear of being damned) are best accompanied with a soupcon of laughter, and we can accept serious topics if accompanied by humour to level things out; the philosopher of education Barbara Stengel says that “an uncomfortable moment of experimental interruption made tolerable by the cushion of laughter is a moment of potential growth”[14]. The goal of the Osterspiele, it seems to me, is to furnish its audience with such moments.
  
Bibliography:

Das Innsbrucker Osterspiel/Osterspiel von Muri, Reclam, 1980.

Secondary literature:
  1. Adiprasetya, Joas, “Following Jesus the Clown”, in Theology Today, Vol 69 No 4, 2013.
  2. Bakhtin, Mikhail, Rabelais and His World, John Wiley & Sons, 1984.
  3. Delpech-Ramey, Joshua, “Sublime Comedy: On the Inhuman Rights of Clowns”, in SubStance, Vol 39 No 2, 2010.
  4. Linke, Hansjürgen, ‘Germany and Central Europe’, in The Theatre of Medieval Europe (ed. Eckehard Simon), Cambridge, 1991.
  5. Linke, Hansjürgen, ‘Vom Sakrament zum Exkrement. Ein Überblick über Drama und Theater des deutschen Mittelalters’, in Theaterwesen und dramatische Literatur. Beiträge zur Geschichte des Theaters, Tübingen, 1987.
  6. Stengel, Barbara, “After the Laughter” in Educational Philosophy and Theory, Vol 46 No 2, 2012.
  7. Stott, Andrew, Comedy: The New Critical Idiom, Routledge, 2005.
  8. Quast, Bruno, ‘Vom Ritus zum Spiel - Osterspiele von Innsbruck, Wien, Redentin und Erlau’, in Vom Kult zur Kunst. Öffnungen des rituellen Textes in Mittelalter und Früher Neuzeit (ed. Bruno Quast), Tübingen – Basel, 2005.
  9. Warning, Rainer ‘On the Alterity of Medieval Religious Drama’, in New Literary History (trans. Marshall Brown), Vol 10 No 2, 1979.
  10. Williams, Gerhild Scholz, ‘License to Laugh: Making Fun of Chivalry in Some Medieval Texts’, in Monatshefte Vol 78 No 1, 1986.
  11. Wolf, Gerhard, ‘Zur Hölle mit dem Teufel! Die Höllenfahrt Christ in den Passions- und Osterspielen des Mittelalters’, in Die Vermittlung geistlicher Inhalte im deutschen Mittelalter (ed. T. Jackson), Tübingen, 1997.


[1]Bala, Michael, “The Clown: An Archetypal Self-Journey”, in Jung Journal, Vol 4 No 1, 2010.
[2]Bakhtin, Mikhail, “Characteristics of Genre and Plot Composition in Dostoyevsky’s Works”, in Interpretations: Crime and Punishment (ed. Harold Bloom), Infobase, 2009.
[3]Delpech-Ramey, Joshua, “Sublime Comedy: On the Inhuman Rights of Clowns”, in SubStance, Vol 39 No 2, 2010.
[4]Linke, Hansjürgen, ‘Vom Sakrament zum Exkrement. Ein Überblick über Drama und Theater des deutschen Mittelalters’, in Theaterwesen und dramatische Literatur. Beiträge zur Geschichte des Theaters, Tübingen, 1987.
[5]Stott, Andrew, Comedy: The New Critical Idiom, Routledge, 2005.
[6]Quast, Bruno, ‘Vom Ritus zum Spiel - Osterspiele von Innsbruck, Wien, Redentin und Erlau’, in Vom Kult zur Kunst. Öffnungen des rituellen Textes in Mittelalter und Früher Neuzeit (ed. Bruno Quast), Tübingen – Basel, 2005.
[7]Ibid.
[8]Jordan, John, “Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army”, in Beautiful Trouble, 2016 (retrieved online).
[9]Bakhtin, Mikhail, Rabelais and His World, John Wiley & Sons, 1984.
[10]Warning, Rainer, ‘On the Alterity of Medieval Religious Drama’, in New Literary History (trans. Marshall Brown), Vol 10 No 2, 1979.
[11]Adiprasetya, Joas, “Following Jesus the Clown”, in Theology Today, Vol 69 No 4, 2013.
[12]Ibid.
[13]Williams, Gerhild Scholz, ‘License to Laugh: Making Fun of Chivalry in Some Medieval Texts’, in Monatshefte Vol 78 No 1, 1986.
[13]Stengel, Barbara, “After the Laughter” in Educational Philosophy and Theory, Vol 46 No 2, 2012.

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