Performing Medieval Narrative Today

A Video Showcase

Jataka: Three tales

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About the scene and clip:
The performer reads aloud and acts out three stories from the Indian Jataka: He tells about a foolish tortoise that falls to its death because it cannot keep its mouth shut (the Bodhisattva, as king’s adviser, tells this tale to the overly-talkative king); he tells about a man who cleverly recovers property that had unjustly been taken from him (here, the Bodhisattva is the Lord Justice); and he tells about a foolish crow and jackal, with the Bodhisattva as wise tree-sprite.

About the work:
The Indian tales of the Jataka are part of a large body of folklore and literature concerning the previous births of the Buddha as Bodhisattva (one seeking or revealing Buddha-hood). The tales generally show the Bodhisattva, who has taken some particular human or animal form, displaying and teaching his wisdom to those around him, and sometimes performing miracles. The tales survive in various forms and collections in Pali (a vernacular dialect of Sanskrit), Sanskrit, and other languages, and influenced storytelling in many parts of the world—in particular, stories involving animals, from Aesop’s fables to the medieval fabliaux, and beyond. Though some tales from the Jataka go back to before the 3rd century BC, the Pali text may date from around the 5th century AD.

About the genre:
This story belongs to the tale tradition. 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.”

This story also belongs to the genre of hagiography. Stories about the saintly wisdom, heroism, or miracles of remarkable men and women exist in many religious traditions, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Such stories are termed “hagiography.” In medieval Europe, the saint’s life or legend was an extremely popular type of work. A great many stories (and plays) about male and female Christian saints exist in Latin and in all the vernacular languages. These works may focus on the saint’s dramatic death by martyrdom, or recount the remarkable miracles performed by the saint, or may relate the entire life of the holy man or woman. Among the most important collections of saints’ lives and legends is The Golden Legend by Jacobus of Voragine. Chaucer’s “Prioress’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales is a tale of martyrdom. Miracle and pious tales about the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, constitute a special, and highly important, category of saintly legends.

About the edition/translation:
The Jataka; or, Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births. Translated from the Pali by various hands under the editorship of Professor E. B. Cowell, London, Published for the Pali Text Society by Luzac & Comp., 1969, 6 v.; Vol. II translated by Robert Chalmers (1895), pp. 123ff; 127ff; 299ff.

About the performer/ensemble:
Dave Perlow is a Drama student in the CAP 21 Studio at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts (2005).

About the production:
This performance was created for a group independent study with Prof. Timmie (E.B.) Vitz in fall 2005; it was a final performance for the course, and was videoed in December 2005 at the Maison Française of New York University by Nick Spangler.