Friday, July 13, 2007

The Plays of Roswitha

Ask any fairly literate person about the history of playwriting and you'll get a list that is something like:

Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson...

Euripides died around 406 BC; Marlowe and Shakespeare were born in 1564 AD. That is a gap of almost 2,000 years!

There were a few great playwrights in Classical Civilization after Euripides, notably the Greek Menander (ca. 342–291 BC), the father of romantic comedy, and his Roman emulators, Plautus and Terence. The Roman stoic Seneca (ca. 4 BC–AD 65) wrote some gory tragedies that were influential in the Renaissance but are read only by scholars today.

After Seneca the record is pretty much darkness until the Middle ages, when guilds started performing religious dramas and then the Renaissance, when writers were fired by enthusiasm for all things classical to write new plays. This new interest in drama led to the glories of Renaissance England, the Golden Age of Spanish drama with Calderon and Lope de Vega and the neo-classicism of Corneille, Racine and Moliere in 17th century France.

It is a long dark age between 1st century AD Rome and the Middle Ages. Drama was more devastated by the Dark Ages than philosophy, history, science or any other intellectual field. I think this was due to two factors -- Augustinian Christianity's hatred of earthly pleasure and the fact that drama depends on thriving theatres, which need a certain amount of wealth that can be spent on them. It was not until the Renaissance that the West had enough wealth and the will to spend it on secular theatres.

The darkness makes Roswitha's story all the more astonishing. (Wikipedia calls her Hrosvit, but I'll use the spelling that is easier to my english reading eyes.)

Hrosvit, also known as Hroswitha, Hrotsvit, Roswitha, and Hroswitha of Gandersheim, (c. 935 to c. 1002) was a Monastic Christian poet who lived and worked in Gandersheim, located in present-day Lower Saxony. She wrote in Latin, and is considered by some to be the first person since antiquity to compose drama.

It is inspiring that this woman who lived at the beginning of the Middle Ages was so delighted by the comedies of Terence that she decided she had to write her own. Following the integrity of her vision she ended up writing dramas that are unlike any that came before or after her. She is a unique voice in the history of drama and for that alone she deserves credit as an innovative, original playwright. Because she dramatized her metaphysical value-judgments, Roswitha must be considered an artist who was true to her vision and certainly not a hack, although her clumsy technique keeps her from being a dramatist of genius.

You see, she faced a problem when she sat down to write. She wanted to emulate the Roman models she had read, but as a devout Christian and a nun she did not want to write anything immoral or pagan. She solved the problem, creating drama for her time, the Middle Ages. Her plays, as I noted, are unlike any others. They are also the most horrifying plays I have read.

What would a nun in the 10th century write about? What would a devout Augustinian Christian think is important? Roswitha's great theme, which can be seen in all of her six short plays, is the evil of sex. Her plays are typically about a woman who wishes to renounce this world and become a nun -- to Roswitha this is the moral ideal. But this woman is tempted by an evil man or by Satan to have sex. The plays are about this conflict.

To give an example of Roswitha's worldview, in two of the plays a woman who has had sex is locked in a small, dark cell, "no larger than a grave" for years -- and this is considered a joyous, happy occasion! The woman, who has renounced her evil ways and wishes to live a good life, enters the cell voluntarily and happily. Other characters react with cheers, praising the Lord, because the woman no longer will be tempted by the evils of this world, and gets to sit in silence in her dark jail cell and pray to God.

Before I go any further, I must say that I do not recommend anyone searching out these plays to read. They're not fun. They're disgusting, really. And yet, they were written by a woman in good faith, so to speak, a woman who strove and succeeded to dramatize her moral ideal and her view of the universe. What makes the plays disgusting is the nature of her philosophy.

The plays do have one value. They show, as do no other documents I know of, the soul of the Dark and Middle Ages. If you have just read histories of this period, you have an intellectual understanding of it, but you have not really seen it before your eyes. Roswitha's plays concretize the sense of life of the Middle Ages; they show what it means to be an Augustinian Christian. They bring the religious hatred of worldly pleasure to life and let you experience this way of thinking. As much as modern playwrights love to shock -- epater les bourgoises -- none of their plays is as disturbing as this nun's.

After reading the plays of Roswitha I have a better understanding of the evil -- no other word suffices -- of the evil of religion.

I will look at of the plays of Roswitha in more detail in another post.


madmax said...


Do you have the link to an internet source that has the full version of any of her plays?


Myrhaf said...

No, I bought my book on Amazon. The plays are very obscure, not easy to find. They are so alien in their outlook -- more alien than Greek plays -- that they could never be popular in Western Civilization. At least, I hope not.

madmax said...

I found this site:

I read Dulcitius and Gallicanus. These two quotes just about sum it up for me:

"To me my death means joy, but to you calamity. For your cruelty you will be damned in Tartarus. But I shall receive the martyr's palm, and adorned with the crown of virginity, I shall enter the azure palace of the Eternal King, to Whom be glory and honour for ever and ever!"

"The wage of sin is death; the wage of suffering a crown..."

Especially that last. I see what you mean. Irena is the like the anti-Antigone. What a difference in outlook from the sensuous Greeks (as crazy as they were). These plays represent the essence of Christianity: suffering and death worship. Mel Gibson should make a movie version.

Myrhaf said...

Thanks for the link, Madmax! These plays give us a stunning look at the medieval mind.

madmax said...

"These plays give us a stunning look at the medieval mind."

That they do. Gallicanus is just about the most disgusting thing I ever read philosophically speaking. Gallicanus goes from being a proud Pagan general with passion for a beautiful woman to a version of Mother Theresa who takes pride in renouncing everything he ever loved. Disgusting. Islam wants to cut off your head, it is true. Christianity wants to destroy your soul (metaphorically speaking). I think that is worse.

The Monotheistic religions have been the greatest plague visited on mankind.

Anonymous said...

They give a look into A medieval mind. But if everybody thought like Hroswitha, well, she wouldn't have written the plays in the first place: she did it because her contemporaries were reading (performing?), enjoying, and being influenced by, the comedies of Terence. Hroswitha's understanding of Christianity was the official one, but in practice surely not typical. (After all, a society in which everybody thinks sex is evil won't last long.)