Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Rubin and Mercator: Grotesque Comedy in the German Easter Play

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Rubin and Mercator: Grotesque Comedy in the German Easter Play

Article excerpt

On the rather slim basis of the antiphon for Mark 16:1--"Dum transisset sabbatum Maria Magdalena et Maria Iacobi et Salome emerunt aromata" (When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdela, Mary the Mother of James, and Salome bought aromatic oils)--a character known as Mercator or Institor entered the Latin liturgical drama as early as the eleventh century. He was the first nonbiblical character to do so. (1) Addressing the members of the audience as if they were potential customers, Mercator claimed to possess an ointment that would prevent putrefaction and the generation of worms in dead bodies. For a gold coin from each of the women he sells this powerful salve to the Three Holy Women, and they rejoice at now being able to anoint Christ's wounded body. For some curious reason, Mercator became firmly lodged between the fact of the Resurrection (previously witnessed by the audience) and the gentle human comedies of its discovery by the sorrowing disciples of Jesus. Initially, he is not "comic relief." Neither does he particularly build up anticipation of the miraculous discovery soon to be made. Once introduced, however, he begins, like yeast, to swell the plain dough of the liturgical episode. As the incident passes over into the vernacular drama, other personae begin to join him. In the fourteenth-century Passion Provencale, for example, the Marys are about to purchase enguent from a mercader when the latter's son appears to advise his father to lower the price for the Holy Women.

In the German-speaking area Mercator acquired a complete household: a shrewish wife, often accompanied by her maid, as well as a brace of servants, first and foremost among them Rubinus or Rubein. (2) Rubin is in fact the first in a long line of German clowns, the Ur-Eulenspiegel or Ur-Hanswurst. There is ample evidence in the rubrics and implied stage directions to reconstruct much of the gestic repertoire and physical comedy of this most un-Paschal intruder into the Easter Play. (3)

A shadowy servant to Mercator called Robin is found in the early bilingual Wolfenbuttler Osterspiel (c.1425). The Three Marys address lines Ad Robin asking advice as to arsedinge (medicine), and it is presumably Robin who replies in the next four lines. There is no indication that he is anything more than a loyal and colorless servant. This is certainly not the case with Rubinus in the later, fully German-language Osterspiele. There is something essentially red about this character, whether through the Latin form of his name, Rubinus (rubens = red, flushed) or the German, Rubein (Early High German rubein = ruby, surviving as Modern German Rubin). The "Red One" might also have chimed on the Hebrew name Reuben. The story of young Reuben in the Bible does bear some similarities to the career of Rubinus in the Mercator scene (digging up medicinal roots, cuckolding the "father" etc.), although there is little in the role that can be construed specifically as a Jewish caricature in the manner of the red-headed, hook-nosed Judas. (4) The Weiner Osterspiel (1472) does have a Sanhedrin member called either Rubin der jode or Rubeyn Judeus, with the Mercator's servant having exactly the same variants--Rubinus and Rubeyn--but this is about as close as we come to a Jewish identity for the comic character. A further aural association of this low-down with turnips (Rube) is also possible and certainly more in character.

The later Osterspiele, and in particular those of Erlau, Innsbruck, and Melk, present in Rubinus a fully developed clown figure, a genuine persona with a full range of theatrical "signs" He is, first of all, young, a "sweet fac'd man" like bully Bottom, but, as with Bottom, this might well be an ironic description. Rubinus is of the servant class. He takes orders, packing and unpacking the Mercator's kram or shop, which consists of a bank or platform, some sort of stand or table, and several apothecary jars. …

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