A remarkable manuscript shows the classic circular Shakespearean theatre had deep and unsuspected medieval roots far from Stratford or London, says Will Coleman.
By Will Coleman (St Catherine’s, 1981; pictured below)
The Bodleian Library’s precious First Folio of Shakespeare is currently on display in the wonderful Marks of Genius exhibition. Much has been written about how the plays were originally staged in the circular theatres of Elizabethan London. Yet mystery has shrouded the question of why exactly the Elizabethan theatres were round and what sort of medieval antecedents these Tudor buildings might have had.
I was visiting the Bodleian’s Special Collections recently on the track of a set of play scripts that are far less well known and much older than the First Folio. Pre-dating Shakespeare’s works by some 200 years (thought to be written c.1375), the vellum manuscript catalogued as Bodl. MS 791 has several claims to fame.
It has been described as including
- the earliest play scripts that survive from anywhere in Britain,
- the earliest full cycle of religious plays that survives from anywhere in Europe and
- the earliest stage diagrams that survive from anywhere in the world.
Perhaps one reason the manuscript has hitherto received little attention is the fact that it is not written in English. Here are the opening lines:
En tas yn nef ym gylwyr
formyer pub tra a vyt gurys.
(‘The Father in Heaven I am called
Creator of all that will be formed’)
Did you guess correctly? The language of this script is fourteenth-century Cornish, or Kernewek. Usually known as the Ordinalia, these plays rattle through the entire sweep of medieval Christian thinking from the Creation through the Passion to the Resurrection of Christ. The plays, explicitly intended to be performed over three consecutive days, are generally considered to have been closer to their continental European peers than the better-known English cycles. But there is another important difference between these plays and those famous ‘pageant wagons’ of York and Chester: the manner of their staging.
Strange diagrams appear at three points in the document. Not alchemical spell-charts, nor Arthurian seating plans, these circular diagrams lay out the staging for each day of the play. For example, the Latin labels on the first diagram include Heaven, Torturers, Hell, Pharoah, King David etc; all major locations or characters in the action. But why are the diagrams round?
In Cornwall today, at Perran Round and at St Just Plain-an-Gwarry, we have two surviving medieval amphitheatres. Each has a wide grassy ‘plain’ surrounded by a high bank. And yes, they are both round.
How might these two ‘playing places’ (plen an gwari) have been used to present plays such as the Ordinalia?
We believe that each label on the circular chart represents a ‘pavilion’; a raised stage which was the main performance position for that character. But a ring of such structures built around the circumference of the plain raises the million-dollar question: ‘Where did the audience go?’ Do not be misled by 21st-century notions of theatre (or indeed by ancient Greek amphitheatres). Rather than sitting around the sides looking inwards, we now believe the Cornish audiences thronged through the whole plen an gwari space, even while the action was taking place all around the outside as well as through the middle of the plain.
Imagine a crowd of people thousands strong, surrounded by magnificent palaces and castles, a smoking hell’s mouth, performers in splendid costumes, massed chorus and musicians, live animals, guns and fireworks, artfully constructed machinery and special effects. Richard Carew, in his 1602 Survey of Cornwall, described how in such ‘an earthen Amphitheatre’ people from miles around would witness ‘devils and devices to delight as well the eye as the ear’. In my opinion the theatre culture of medieval Cornwall would have delivered an epic, immersive experience.
Place-name and other internal evidence from the Ordinalia locate its authorship within Glasney College in Penryn. Founded 750 years ago (in 1265, just one year later than Merton College, Oxford), Glasney College was to become the powerhouse behind an extraordinary flourishing of Cornish-language theatrical culture over the next 300 years. Evidence from account books, court depositions, and elsewhere builds a picture of a widespread and vibrant tradition. In addition, besides the two well-known complete examples, traces of another 30 plen an gwari sites have now been located across mid- and west Cornwall — a phenomenon unparalleled anywhere in Europe.
Later, the forces of the Protestant Reformation suppressed the plays and the Cornish language, and destroyed Glasney College itself. But it seems that the medieval theatre culture of Cornwall did manage to survive longer than parallel traditions did in many other places. The plen an gwari became a site of cultural activity that actively resisted the imposition of Puritan orthodoxy and of the English language.
In Elizabethan London a new brand of secular theatre was to flourish, with professional players and playwrights including our favourite bard. But if we were to search for the dramaturgical antecedents of those round theatres loved by Shakespeare and his audiences, it is just possible that the Cornish plen an gwari and the circular diagrams in Bodl. MS 791 provide us with the best window onto the drama of an earlier age.
Will Coleman’s book Plen an Gwari: The Playing Places of Cornwall is published by Golden Tree Productions on 1 June. It is available to pre-order at pre-publication prices here.
Read more about plen an gwari.
Images, from top:
- Reconstruction of a plen an gwari, by Heidi Ball
- Will Coleman
- Opening page of the Ordinalia
- Diagram and cast list in the Ordinalia
- Schematic map of the plen an gwari as used in the Ordinalia, by Heidi Ball, based on the diagram in Bodl. MS 791
Images of the Ordinalia are reproduced by kind permission of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. All other images © Golden Tree Productions.