Performing Medieval Narrative Today

A Video Showcase

Orfeo: Opening scenes

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About the scene and clip:
The solo performer recounts and acts out the opening section of the tale of Sir Orfeo: the hero, a master harper, appears; and his wife, the beauteous Heurodis, while napping on the grass, suddenly has a mysterious frenzy (we discover later that she has just received an unwelcome summons from fairyland).

About the work:
Sir Orfeo is a Middle English tale, composed in rhymed couplets, dating from the late 13th or early 14th century. The story is an adaptation—and in important respects a transformation—of an ancient story. In the classical myth, Eurydice, beloved wife of the great harp-player Orpheus, dies; the grieving Orpheus goes down to Hades to win her back by playing his harp for the gods of the underworld. They agree to give her back to him—on condition that he must not look back as he leads her away. But, at the last moment, having looked back to make sure she was following, he loses her forever, and he must return home alone. In the Middle English story, Sir Orfeo is a king and a master harper, whose wife, Heurodis, is snatched away and taken off to fairyland. Orfeo follows, disguised as a minstrel, and manages to find her. The king of “Faërie” is so taken with Orfeo’s harp-playing that he promises to give him any reward—and Orfeo asks for Heurodis. This Orpheus (unlike his classical namesake) succeeds in bringing his wife back home—to great rejoicing and minstrelsy. The couple live happily ever after (or, more precisely: “long they lived, till they were dead”). Harpers were inspired by the story to compose beautiful lays in honor of the lovers.

A related clip on this website is “King Orfeo: Sung,” which is taken from another medieval English version of the story of Orpheus–an early ballad.”

About the genre:
A narrative lai is a short poetic tale composed in verse, which may claim to have a Breton original with harp accompaniment. The 12th-century Anglo-Norman woman poet Marie de France is the best known author of lais in French, and may be one of the creators of the genre.

About the edition/translation:
Sir Orfeo, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo, tr. J.J.R. Tolkien, New York, Ballantine, 1980, pp. 169ff. Original text: Sir Orfeo, ed. A.J. Bliss, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, 1966.

About the performer/ensemble:
Nick Spangler is a Drama student in the CAP21 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 took place on December 15, 2005, as part of an event titled “Making It Real: Performing the Middle Ages,” at an Off-off-Broadway venue in New York City—The American Place Theatre, 266 West 37th St (22nd floor). The performance was also sponsored by “Storytelling in Performance,” a workshop funded by the Humanities Council of New York University and co-directed by Profs. Timmie Vitz, Nancy Regalado and Martha Hodes. Gina Guadagnino was the videographer.