Learning your lines: on plays and prayerbooks

When I started blogging last month, I planned to at least begin by writing one post a week, although I knew that I was unlikely to keep that up; I have a number of projects on at the moment. In particular, I recently spent two weeks in intensive rehearsals for HIDden Theatre‘s production of the medieval play Mankind, which necessitated a few weeks away from blogging. If you don’t know it, Mankind is a fifteenth-century morality play about humanity’s struggle to stay on the straight and narrow road to Heaven, with a load of arse gags thrown in. It’s great fun both to watch and to participate in, and I would recommend going to see any performance that comes your way. In this particular production, I was playing Mischief, the brains behind the operation to persuade Mankind into a life of sin and crime: our director decided to interpret this role as a kind of Death figure, so I had the pleasure of having my face painted up with a skull and black make-up over the eyes (sadly, Health & Safety considerations meant that we had to nix the scythe).

Drama generally involves learning a lot of lines, and rehearsing every move, every interaction, until you are ready to go onstage. I’ve been doing amateur acting for years, and I find that there is something oddly liberating about putting on a persona, putting on a mask of make-up, and reciting a set of prepared lines. Although I’m certainly nowhere near professional standard, there have been a few occasions when my directors, if they work really hard with me, are surprised by how much I can give to a role, how much I can bring it alive and let go of myself completely. Or, in the case of Mankind, be menacing towards the other characters and treat them with total contempt!

But it’s not until I know my lines inside-out that I begin to let go and feel free. It’s not the liberation that comes from leaving everything to chance – quite the opposite: the freedom of knowing exactly what’s going to happen, and that everything is going just perfectly, so there is nothing to worry about anymore; I can simply be. I’m fortunate not to suffer from stage fright per se: I don’t mind speaking in front of lots of people. It’s the same with presentations at academic conferences. I have a script, I have had it ready for days – weeks, even – and I know exactly what is going to happen. The first time I ever gave a paper, my legs were shaking, but my voice was confident: the fear was more of a physical thing than a mental one. At the most recent conference I spoke at, I was pleasantly surprised to realise that I don’t even feel that kind of vestigial fear anymore. Speaking off a script is almost like a kind of out-of-body experience: I have a loud, clear voice that seems to float free from the rest of me. I want to say: who is this assured, confident person who is speaking with my voice? Only the dryness of my throat brings me back down to earth.

There is a catch, though. All this depends on my being able to speak off a script, and not deviate from it: if I have to make a little aside, however short, in the middle of my paper, I instantly become less confident, more prone to waffling and sounding insecure. I greatly admire the ability to speak ad lib, but I am far from developing it myself. And then there are the questions afterwards. At that first conference that I mentioned earlier, one questioner pointed out that the text I was discussing (which I had found in a questionable nineteenth-century edition) might be so very ahead of its time because it was, in fact, written several hundred years after its alleged author died – how embarrassing! Still: I survived, and was none the worse for the experience.

So what does this have to do with medieval prayer? A few years ago, an external speaker who was giving a paper at my department, a PhD student herself, asked me what my research was on. When I told her that it was on Anglo-Saxon prayer, she was a bit puzzled. How, she asked, could we know what it was that people prayed? How were there any records of that? It occurred to me that she was thinking of prayer as being primarily spontaneous, and therefore that it would not be written down. I tend to assume that, in secular culture at least, the modern world favours spontaneity as a sign of sincere emotional engagement; the subjects of my research, however, had no such preference. As I have written elsewhere, in one Anglo-Saxon programme for private prayer in the early morning, the reader is given a couple of prayers and a psalm to say, with this advice:

Ne mæg ænig mann on his agen geþeode þa geswinc • 7 þara costnunga nearonessa þe him onbecumað gode swa fulfremedlice areccan• ne his mildheortnesse biddan swa he mæg mid þillicum sealmum 7 mid oþrum swilcum.

Quoted from Günzel‘s edition, p. 143.

(No man can tell God so effectively, in his own language, of the hardship and oppression of the temptations which come to him, nor ask his mercy, as he can with these psalms and with other such.)

That is, a human being’s greatest yearnings can be expressed through saying the Benedicite, Gloria in excelsis, Creed, Lord’s Prayer, a short English prayer for forgiveness, and Psalm 66 – all, bar the English prayer, completely standard parts of church liturgy that the monk would routinely have said or sung in chapel. On the other hand, directly before this part of the text, the reader is advised, ‘geþenc ðæt he þrowode on þone dæg micel for eall mancyn’ (‘think that he suffered greatly on that day for all mankind’). The most valuable prayers were those which were used over and over again by many people, and these were combined with the reader’s own individual thoughts about Christ’s sufferings in order to create real, effective prayer. Similarly, some texts in early medieval prayer collections are prefaced with the words ‘bona oratio’ or ‘oratio bona’, ‘good prayer’, presumably implying that they were considered particularly powerful: the prayer ‘Omnipotens sempiterne Deus’ from the Anglo-Saxon Bury Psalter (c. 1050), is a good example.

Other prayers are prefaced with the name of a bishop or famous saint, to whom they were (sometimes wrongly) attributed; this was another way of marking the words as being particularly good for prayer:

Vespasian Oratio Eugenii
‘The Prayer of Eugenius, Bishop of Toledo’.  From the 11th-century additions to London, British Library Cotton Vespasian A. i, fol. 156r

Whether in prayer or in a play, by speaking in someone else’s voice, by reading someone else’s lines, we can relax and become free to express ourselves in a different way.




4 thoughts on “Learning your lines: on plays and prayerbooks

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