Situating the Holy: Celtic Community in Breton and Cornish Saint Plays
Scherb, Victor I., Comparative Drama
Although close relationships between Brittany and Cornwall in the later Middle Ages have long been acknowledged in terms of their common linguistic background, reciprocal trade, and changing political affiliations, their mutual dramatic traditions have been given less attention. (1) By the later Middle Ages, connections between these two regions dated back a thousand years, to the time of the British migrations to Brittany--popular movements now generally thought to have occurred between the late fourth and early seventh centuries, with particular concentrations of immigrants coming from the Southwest of England in the first half of the sixth century. (2) The early Breton and Cornish languages were so closely related that, perhaps not surprisingly, it remains difficult for modern scholars to distinguish between the two in documents written prior to the twelfth century. (3) Our understanding of Breton and Cornish medieval dramatic traditions is largely based on a small group of surviving dramatic texts and records from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and limited archaeological evidence. As in much of Europe, for Brittany and Cornwall this was a time of political and cultural upheaval, a time during which both communities felt the need to assert local and Celtic identity--an assertion apparent in their surviving saint plays: the Breton Buez Santez Norm and Buhez Sant Gwenole, and the Cornish Beunans Meriasek.
Since Breton drama remains virtually unknown to most students of medieval theater, a brief excursus on the manuscripts, contents, and performance traditions of these saint plays is perhaps appropriate before proceeding to a more developed statement of my argument. Written mostly in couplets and sestets, the Buez Santez Nonn survives in five copies, four of them made by eighteenth-century antiquarian Louis Le Pelletier. The fifth copy, dating to the early sixteenth century, was discovered at the beginning of the nineteenth century at Dirinon, near Landerneau in Brittany. (4) Recently reedited in a new, lavishly illustrated edition with an accompanying French translation, this manuscript seems to be a fair copy, with few corrections or marginalia, but with speech headings, stage directions, and an occasional capital in red ink. The play has many Celtic affiliations, including appearances by a number of Celtic saints: Patrick, Gildas, David, and Nonn herself. (5) Although not a saint, Celtic soothsayer Ambrosius Merlin also makes a brief showing to prophesy of David's future greatness (424-40). The plot delineates how God commands Patrick to leave Britain for Ireland, and how Nonn, a sister in a British convent, is later raped by King Keritic of Britain. (6) She then leaves England for Brittany where she gives birth to St. Davy (also known as St. David or St. Dewi) who later returns to Britain to become the archbishop of Menevia in Southern Wales. Before his holy death, Davy works many miracles, among them the healing of his blind teacher Paulinus. Nonn meanwhile goes on pilgrimage, ending up near Dirinon, her tomb itself becoming the site of many further miracles. Although no local records describe performances of the play at Dirinon, the play's repeated references to the site of her tomb there (14, 16, 1512, 1520) make such a connection highly likely.
Le Pelletier also transcribed the two existing copies of the Buhez Sant Gwenole, a play of some 1278 lines in Breton quatrains--one based on a text of 1580 and another upon one of 1608. Neither text from which he worked was the original, for the final section of both copies is incomplete. (7) Both surviving transcriptions relate the life of St. Gwenole the founder of the Breton monastery of Landevennec: his parents' flight from England, his early history, his preaching, his prophetic powers, his miracles, and his time as abbot. If the transcriptions were complete, they would probably go on to recount his holy death as described in the play's principal source, Wrdisten's ninth-century Vita Sancti Winwaloei. (8) Although conjectural, the obvious associations of St. Gwenole with the monastery of Landevennec suggest that it may have originally been composed for performance at or near the monastery, perhaps around the middle third of the sixteenth century.
The single copy of the more familiar Beunans Meriasek first came to scholarly attention in the nineteenth century, when it was found among the Hengwrt manuscripts. The text, written in Middle Cornish and now in the National Library of Wales, is dated by its colophon to 1504. (9) The story has been summarized many times, but essentially the play recounts the vita of the holy Meriasek, his Breton childhood and education, his mission to Cornwall, his persecution by the tyrant Teudar, his return to Brittany and his life as a hermit there, his healing miracles, his preaching, his conversion of bandits, his reluctant acceptance of the bishopric of Vannes, and his holy death. Into this basic narrative of St. Meriasek's life, the Cornish playwright interweaves the story of St. Sylvester, a holy man who converts and baptizes the Roman King Constantine and who later defeats a dragon; into these two strands the author braids still other elements, including a battle between Teudar and the duke of Cornwall, and yet another complementary action critics have usually characterized as "the story of the woman and her son" or "the holy hostage." (10) Again, while no records recounting specific performances of the play survive, local references within the play suggest that the Beunans Meriasek was staged near Camborne in Cornwall in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century. (11)
Documentary evidence in Cornwall and Brittany as well as indications within the manuscripts provide limited evidence for common dramatic traditions in these two regions. As is well known, and recent studies and editions by scholars such as Brian Murdoch, Gloria Betcher, Sally L. Joyce, and Evelyn S. Newlyn have demonstrated even more fully, Cornwall had a rich heritage of late-medieval drama, including saint plays, miracle plays, and Robin Hood plays. (12) These were performed in a wide variety of venues: at churches, guildhalls and, most famously, in-the-round under the open air. (13) Meriasek, like the Ordinalia, includes a stage diagram that indicates plen an gwary production, with multiple scaffolds, a large cast, and even a pageant ship. (14) If these manuscripts are any indication, Cornish stagecraft could be quite sophisticated, including ascents, descents, large-scale battles, pyrotechnics, and mock sea voyages. Fifteenth-century accounts from Brittany similarly suggest that Breton drama was often performed out-of-doors, sometimes for special occasions such as the visit of Duke Jean V to Rennes in 1430, where he witnessed a Passion and Resurrection play. On a less overtly political occasion, players performed at the dedication of the Church of St. Melaine de Morlaix in 1468. By the second half of the fifteenth century, some Breton cities--for example, Rennes and Nantes (and perhaps Vitre, Fougres, and Vannes)--had permanent acting troupes. Spectacular effects like hellfire and divine descents were relatively common in Breton plays, and some unusual ones such as the miraculous appearance of a holy fountain parallel those in Meriasek. (15) Pageant ships like those in Cornish drama may also be present in the sea journeys of both Breton plays under discussion here (it is especially strongly suggested in the Buhez Sant Gwenole in which various characters have to ascend and then descend from some kind of ship stage). As in some Middle Cornish drama, the two Breton saint plays certainly employed a representation of Paradise, and both include angelic descents, as well as the maisons, familiar from French religious drama (e.g., Nonn, 168), but it is hard to know how closely these resembled the scaffolds suggested by Cornish texts.
There are important differences, however, between these Breton saint plays and Meriasek. Contributing to the difficulty, neither of the surviving copies of these Breton dramas contains a stage plan as Meriasek does. As is often the case with medieval dramatic texts, no local extant accounts obviously relate to the performance of either the Buez Santez Nonn or the Buhez Sant Gwenole, and stage directions in the two are relatively sparse compared to those in the Cornish play. Given other local evidence of outdoor performance, it seems at least possible that they were performed in the open air; nevertheless, the manuscripts do not suggest that they were performed in-the-round like the Cornish Ordinalia or Meriasek. (16) Although they include a large number of roles (approximately sixty in Nonn, and twenty-nine in Gwenole), only rarely are large groups of characters onstage at the same time; the existing Breton saint plays contain no stage effects approaching the grand scale of the battle between Teudar and the duke of Cornwall that ends Meriasek's first day of performance and includes some forty actors. At times there is a distinctively static quality to Breton drama, which often exploits theatrical techniques that stimulate a devotional or penitential response. At times, Breton stagecraft contrasts markedly with the more active, physically boisterous nature of most surviving Cornish drama. In the relative simplicity of their staging and the lack of a stage plan, the Breton saint plays' stagecraft more closely resembles that of the somewhat later Cornish play, The Creacion of the World, but one would not want to press the analogy too far, especially since the Creacion represents only the first section of what would have been a longer and perhaps more ambitious play. (17)
My concern here, however, is to explore the ways in which the Beunans Meriasek, Buez Santez Norm, and Buhez Sant Gwenole recount a shared …
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Publication information: Article title: Situating the Holy: Celtic Community in Breton and Cornish Saint Plays. Contributors: Scherb, Victor I. - Author. Journal title: Comparative Drama. Volume: 35. Issue: 3 Publication date: Fall 2001. Page number: 319+. © 2009 www.wmich.edu/compdr. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.
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