Performing Medieval Narrative Today

A Video Showcase

Gesta: Magician

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About the scene and clip:
The performer tells the story of a magician who invites people into a beautiful garden where he tricks them out of their inheritance, then cuts them off with nothing. (The use of an apple as a prop serves as a reminder of the story of Adam and Eve, in Genesis.) The performer chose not to perform the Christian allegorical interpretation, considering that the audience might enjoy figuring it out for themselves—but the moral is in fact a bit surprising: the magician is “the world,” not the devil, as one might expect.

About the work:
The Gesta Romanorum is an anonymous collection of stories, written in Latin. Though the earliest manuscripts date from the 14th c., the stories were probably written earlier. The tales consist of stories allegedly about deeds of the ancient Romans, with a Christian moral attached at the end, and were probably used by preachers in their sermons. The work was widely known, and Boccaccio, Chaucer, and Shakespeare all retold tales drawn from it.

About the genre:
The tale, like the epic, is an ancient genre and one found everywhere in the world. Many tales are firmly rooted in oral tradition and are recited or told by amateur and professional storytellers and performers. Other tales are the work of literarily sophisticated authors and are often intended to be read aloud or silently from written texts. Some tales circulate separately, while others are part of collections which may be set in complex frames (as in the case of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales). There are many sub-groups of tales with specific characteristics; see for example the “lai” and the “fabliau.”

Allegory is a way of composing and of interpreting texts: characters and the plot point beyond themselves to something “other”—something symbolic. Characters are often personifications of forces such as Love, Pride, Reason, or Friendship. The plot is also symbolic: characters’ struggles are between vices and virtues; their journey may refer to life’s pilgrimage or to the discovery of some great truth, such as the nature of love. Works may be entirely allegorical, or may just contain brief passages written in this mode. Allegorical works are often strongly religious, philosophical, or moral.

About the edition/translation:
The Tales of the Gesta Romanorum, translated from the Latin by Charles Swan, revised by Wynnard Hooper, New York, Everest Books, 1959, pp. 55-6. (Note: The title given for this tale in the English translation is “Of the Suggestions of the Devil”—but it is in fact about a magician.) Medieval Latin:Märchen und Legenden aus den Gesta Romanorum, mit Holzschnitten von Axel von Leckoschek, Leipzig, Insel, 1926.

About the performer/ensemble:
Alexandra Dalton in a student of Dramatic Literature in the College of Arts and Science at New York University (2009).

About the production:
This performance was created for “Acting Medieval Literature,” taught by Prof. Timmie (E.B.) Vitz in spring 2009. It was videoed in the classroom by a fellow student.