Performing Medieval Narrative Today

A Video Showcase

Hunchbacks: Wife hires man to dispose of dead bodies

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About the scene and clip:
The wife, having discovered to her dismay that the three hunchbacks have suffocated in the trunks where she had hidden them, hires a man to dispose of the three dead bodies. Each time he takes one away, she brings out another and accuses him of not having done the job. In this clip the performer focuses both on the role of the wife, played quite seductively, and on the increasingly exasperation and alarm of the man attempting to dispose of what he thinks is a single hunchback. Comic recourse to costume is an important element in the performance.

About the work:
The Three Hunchbacks is a comic tale about a man who marries off his daughter to a jealous hunchback–and about the wife’s clever stratagem to get rid of the bodies of three hunchbacked minstrels who suffocated in trunks in her chamber; her nasty husband is disposed of as well. The website contains several clips drawn from this fabliau, exemplifying some of the many ways in which this story can be performed.

About the genre:
Fabliaux are short comic tales. This narrative genre was extremely popular in the 13th and 14th centuries in France and elsewhere in Europe (Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale is a sophisticated fabliau). Fabliaux almost invariably deal with the passions of lust, gluttony, avarice–and with attempts to trick or deceive others. Characters are typically bourgeois, clerks and monks, or peasants–and often women. The treatment is comic or satirical. But fabliaux vary considerably. Some are extremely vulgar in language and treatment, inviting crude gestures in performance. Other fabliaux are based on puns or wordplay. Many have a moral at the end and some have ethical overtones throughout. A few fabliaux are refined and courtly in language and themes. Many fabliaux are anonymous, but a few are by known poets. Performance styles and strategies for the fabliaux probably varied considerably in the Middle Ages, according to the subject matter and characters, the poet, the performer(s), the occasion, and the kind of audience present.

About the edition/translation:
Abridged from Fabliaux Fair and Foul, trans. John Duval, Pegasus/ Medieval & Renaissance Texts, Binghamton, NY, 1992, pp. 143-145. Old French: Fabliaux, ed. R.C. Johnston and D.D.R. Owen, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1965 (other Old French editions also exist).

About the performer/ensemble:
Michael Ritchie is a PhD student in the French Department at New York University. He served as Teaching Assistant in “Acting Medieval Literature” (2004).

About the production:
This scene was performed and filmed in a classroom in “Acting Medieval Literature,” taught by Prof. Timmie (E.B.) Vitz at New York University in spring 2004.