Substitution: Theatrical Sleight of Hand in Medieval Plays

Medieval plays

Medieval playsSubstitution: Theatrical Sleight of Hand in Medieval Plays

Dr. Philip Butterworth

European Medieval Drama: Vol.9 (2005)


Substitution is concerned with replacing one thing with another. This is straight forward enough. But to what extent is the replacement indistinguishable from the original in order to qualify as substitution? Is there any compulsion to make the replacement identical with the original in order to be defined as substitution? If the replacement is ‘standing in’ for the original then there is no compulsion for it to be a mirror image or ‘clone’ of the original. If, on the other hand, that which substitutes the original is not meant to be recognised as a substitution then verisimilitude is necessary. These questions and their concerns reflect directly on to engagement with theatre and its adopted conventions.

Theatrical evidence exists to demonstrate use of artificial substitutions in replacing mutilated or amputated parts of the body. It also includes substitution of real bodies with dummies. Given the nature of evidence in this area a key question is: To what extent is verisimilitude important in substitution? Is the mutilation or amputation intended to convince the audience of its realism? Are there any staging techniques or theatrical sleight of hand involved in such substitution? Does the audience know that it is witnessing substitution? If so, what does this mean?


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