Imagine a world where there were no televisions, no radios, no playhouses, no films, no books to speak of--in short, where media was a word that applied only to painting.
Now imagine yourself plunked squarely in the midst of a town square packed with 5,000 people just as media-deprived as yourself, observing a spectacle wherein angels fly singing in the heavens, devils leap cackling from smoky chasms, men and women of legend re-enact their tragic tales and where earthquakes, burning bushes, flowering staves and disappearances happen as naturally as rain.
This is the kind of rough magic--prevalent in medieval times--that scholars and theater people at UC Irvine are striving to exert on modern audiences with "The Plaie Called Corpus Christie," a historical re-creation of the English pageant theater being presented through Oct. 5 at the Fine Arts Village Theatre on campus.
"Corpus Christie" is the first of a three-part presentation by the university's new Focused Research Program in Medieval Theater, which school officials plan to have completed by 1987--presenting one part a year, the sum of which will tell the complete story of Christian mankind, from the creation of the angels to Doomsday. "Corpus Christie" itself begins with the creation of the angels and concludes with the story of Abraham and Isaac, with stops along the way at the Garden of Eden and the tales of Noah and Cain and Abel.
This year's installment of the huge theatrical presentation is actually seven mini-plays, or "pageants," rather than one continuous narrative. Much in the manner of "Tamara," an experimental theater piece now playing in Los Angeles, each section, or "station," in "Corpus Christi" has its own dramatic logic.
"There are actually several plot lines working at any given time," said Edgar Schell, who chairs UCI's department of English and comparative literature and serves as dramaturge for the production. "You can pay particular attention to one station and see it through to the end, or you can wander around from story to story."
Schell said that the original version of "Corpus Christie" was written around 1375 in Middle English, and continued to be performed in England for two centuries thereafter.
"The whole production would take between one and eight days, depending on how it was staged," Schell said. "This series of pageants represents the major popular dramatic form in England before the advent of the professional theater. As such, it foreshadows much of what we see in Shakespeare's time."
Robert Cohen, UCI's drama department chairman, agreed. "These are very familiar stories," he said. "These are the plays Shakespeare saw as a child, and he was no doubt influenced by them."
The then-spectacular special effects used by the traveling players--who used the resources of the towns they played in, for everything from props and costumes to actors--were what created a lasting impression on the Bard of Avon and the rest of the medieval audiences. Fifteenth- and 16th-Century designers and producers--and the towns that sponsored the shows--sought to outdo each other in dazzling the crowds.
One anonymous chronicler, recalling a French production in 1547, wrote that "the machines of the Paradise and of Hell were absolutely prodigious and could be taken by the populace for magic, for we saw Truth, the angels, and other characters descend from very high, sometimes visibly, sometimes invisibly, appearing suddenly."
Schell said that UCI's production would hew closely to the medieval letter and spirit, employing an authentic stage designed from 16th-Century engravings and incorporating many of the period's stage effects.
"We'll have people fall from the towers on either end of the stage, we'll have Hell opening up and belching out fire and brimstone, and we'll have Adam and Eve rise created from the ground," said Schell. "It'll be spectacular, all right."
But both Cohen and Schell stressed that "Corpus Christie" is a valid dramatic form in its own right--without all the effects.
"The pageants are partly social satire, partly plain farce, and partly very serious drama, even tragedy," Schell said. "It's very emotionally engaging, even after all these years."
"Since these pageants are retellings of ancient biblical stories, there are religious overtones," remarked Cohen. "But in fact 'Corpus Christie' marks the emergence of the secular theater in England, and there's a lot of blood and humor in it."
Performances of "The Plaie Called Corpus Christie" will be Tuesdays through Saturdays beginning at 8 p.m. For more information, call (714) 856-6616.