Lana Schwebel Discusses Medieval Drama at Mount Union College Slater Lecture

April 13, 2010

Lana Schwebel, assistant professor of English at Stern College of Yeshiva University, presented the Thelma Tournay Slater Lecture on Thursday, March 29 at Mount Union College.

Her lecture, Playing God and Speaking of the Devil on the Medieval Stage, discussed medieval drama in conjunction with the plays that were performed Wednesday, March 28 during the Medieval Faire at Mount Union.

With an introduction from previous student Janelle Phinney, lecturer of music at Mount Union, and the warm recognition of Thelma Tournay ('42) Slater accompanied by her son, Niall Slater, Schwebel began with an overview of medieval cycle plays in the 15th century, which were based on Christian stories.

Schwebel said the main point of the medieval plays was to take stories from the Bible and make the message relevant today. 'These plays took an eternal story and made it more local, more personable,' Schwebel said.

To explain, Schwebel discussed how in medieval times York Cycle plays took place on the feast of Corpus Christi in honor of the celebrated presence of Christ. All plays were performed outdoors, on pageant wagons, moving from location to location, from sunrise until sunset. The cycle plays were 'a kind of assembly line of drama performances,' Schwebel said.

The stages did not look like the wagon of which one would normally think. Schwebel explained that it was 'more like a housing structure on top of a wagon.' The structure was divided in three parts, heaven on top of the structure, hell below where the wheels were and in the center was Earth.

God was usually portrayed with an actor wearing a mask. Satan was on the floor with the audience and was usually seen running around the audience and interacting in a mischievous way.

The plays were performed and sponsored by members of craft guilds, which are similar to the labor unions of today. Each craft guild would perform a story that was relevant to their craft. Schwebel said they were 'using external stories to explain and honor the people who were responsible for their existence.'

An example was that of the shipbuilders' craft guild performing Noah's Ark. 'Humanity was saved by Noah, and he was a shipbuilder like us,' Schwebel said, explaining the shipbuilders' mindset.

The craft guild that sponsored the play would also advertise their product and/or craft by including it into the performance. Schwebel gave the example of a jewelry guild using its own jewelry to accessorize the actors.

Referring to the plays performed at the Mount Union Medieval Faire, Schwebel explained how the students did a similar type of advertising. 'Yesterday's plays used students' talents,' Schwebel said.

The Medieval Faire, presented by the Medieval Drama and Song Society, featured a number of theatrical and musical performances, including The Fall of Man and Moses and Pharaoh from the York Cycle of Mystery Plays. Music was provided by the Mount Union Collegium Musicum, Mount Union flute choir, Jaclyn Kurtz on harp and Wandering Minstrels featuring Andy Morales, Tarion Young and Kayla Moles.


Schwebel expressed her joy in how the plays performed at the Medieval Faire were similar to those performed in medieval times. Dramas performed in medieval times were very informal and expressed a message specific to the audience.

'The plays performed here were informal and even got the audience involved,' Schwebel said. 'In Moses and Pharaoh, we became the Red Sea.'

Schwebel, who specializes in late-medieval literature including English drama in the Middle Ages, studied art history at Barnard College and Columbia University and earned a doctoral degree in English at the University of Pennsylvania.

Before accepting her current position, she taught English at Vassar College and religion and literature at Yale Divinity School and the Institute of Sacred Music.

Schwebel is currently writing a book about grief, loss and ghost stories in the Middle Ages.

The Thelma Tournay Slater Classics Lecture is made possible through a gift of Mrs. Thelma E. (Tournay '42) Slater. Mrs. Slater's lifelong passion for the classics began at Mount Union College. The gift supports student enrichment through an increased appreciation of the civilization and cultural achievements of ancient Greek and Rome that stand at the core of a liberal arts education.

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