Medieval Snuff Drama
By Jody Enders
Exemplaria, 10.1 (1998)
Introduction: 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 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 onstage 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 applause. 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, perhaps, 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.
In an unbelievably complicated entanglement of sources, Jesse Hurlbut is reading Rey-Flaud reading Faber reading the late M. H. Delmotte reading an anonymous eye-witness. For his own part, Faber is concerned with looking behind the masks of the characters and with divining how the metteurs en scene might themselves have looked behind those masks – even before the spectacle began. Coerced into playing Holofernes, the convicted murderer and heretic is un malheureux and an object of theatrical pity in his own cathartic story. The Judith character might not be strong enough to deliver the fatal blow described in the Apocrypha; so a different kind of inducement is provided for her/him: a young male criminal convicted of an unknown crime will receive a legal pardon if he comes across with acting that is so good that it is not “acting” at all. But acting what? the biblical tale? or the crimes, punishments, and pardons of medieval criminals?
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