Medieval Snuff Drama
Exemplaria, 10.1 (1998): 171-206
Shadowy as its source is now, there exists a medieval tale of theatrical representation that seems almost impossible to believe. It prompted a series of engaged electronic queries and communications on the PERFORM discussion group 1 and also (independently) a dose of skepticism from theorist Richard Schechner, who hastened to emphasize the vast ideological difference between imitation and reality.Did an on-stage execution really take place in 1549 in the city of Tournai or not?
According to somewhat questionable evidence about a biblical drama performed in Tournai, the “actor” playing Judith actually beheaded a convicted murderer who had briefly assumed the “role” of Holofernes long enough to be killed during the “play” to thunderous ap- plause. In his work on the history of French theater in Belgium, Frederic Faber scrupulously reconstructs the festive circumstances of this incident associated with the royal entry of Philip II. Rich in details that threaten the generic integrity of theater, Faber’s text is worth reproducing in its entirety…
Jean de Bury and Jean de Crehan, duly in charge of decorating the streets, had imagined rendering in its purest form the biblical exploit of Judith. Consequently, for filling the role of Holofernes, a criminal had been chosen who had been condemned to have his flesh torn with red hot pincers. This poor fellow, guilty of several murders and ensconced in heresy, had preferred decapitation to the horrible torture to which he had been condemned, hoping, per- haps, that a young girl would have neither the force nor the courage to cut off his head. But the organizers, having had the same concern, had substituted for the real Judith a young man who had been condemned to banishment and to whom a pardon was promised if he played his role well.