Theatricality’s borderlands: Poetry, poetics, practice

Pogranicza teatralności. Poezja, poetyka, praktyka,
(ed.) Andrzej Dąbrówka, Wyd. IBL Warszawa 2011.

The volume contains studies of selected theatrical phenomena outside of the fully-fledged professional theatre. The big amount of material representing such phenomena allows only for a preliminary treatment of some interesting specimens of non-dramatic theatrical customs, works and traditions. The presented studies show the possibilities of research in three aspects of the non-dramatic performativity. What becomes clear is the great potential of the topic, observable in the cultural heritage of the whole of Europe, and not only in the Middle Ages.

As it is shown in the table of contents, that theatrical potential has been identified and used by poets, reflected on by teachers of poetics, and broadly applied by the common people during their daily interactions: this is the meaning of the words in the subtitle of the present volume: poetry – poetics – practice (poezja – poetykapraktyka).

The theatrical potential of poetry has been scrutinized for the purposes of this book by two specialists in oldest Scandinavian poetry with its two branches: the eddaic and the skaldic.

Professor Terry Gunnell in The Drama of the Poetic Edda: Performance as a Means of Transformation made a special contribution to this volume. With his important monograph The Origins of Drama in Scandinavia (1995) he initiated the modern study of hidden forms of theatricality. After having reassumed earlier work (Bertha Phillpotts The Elder Edda and Ancient Scandinavian Drama, 1920) and adding the newest concepts and theories of performativity and orality he delivered a long series of detailed studies giving a firm basis for the idea of skaldic drama. He can now rightly say it would be today necessary to prove that the Old Scandinavian drama didn’t actually exist. Gunnel’s chapter is elaborating his workshop given to other co-authors of the volume during his short stay as a scholar visiting the Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

The main thesis in his chapter tells how deeply and inseparably dramatic devices and performativity are rooted in essential human needs and procedures of knowing one’s self. Those procedures enforce the establishing of identity through transformation, continuing trespassing and denial of reached levels or self-definitions by masking and pretending to be another. Humans constituted themselves as species and as individuals against two neighbouring worlds – that of animals and the metaphysical sphere. This explains the rich presence of animal masks in the folklore. They helped the actors to hide their identity, returning them back the state of undefined personality which was substituted with pre-human identities by the audience. On the other hand the world of gods manifested itself in human everyday life by way of evocations arranged in costumed declamations of poetry, having possibly the impact of transcendence, only artistic, not spiritual. Especially for Iceland where the archeology found no traces of specific sacral buildings, we have to accept that the only way of communication with the world of gods was the performative one.

We understand better this hieratic aspect of the skald’s institution thanks to the description of the behavior of poets in their relations with royal courts, in the chapter by Jakub Morawiec: Characteristic of Skaldic Court Performances. Assertivity and conviction about the importance of his mission go along with both persistence in search for a patron, but also with diligence in developing his professional skills. The rulers expressed authoritatively their expectations against the poets which confirms the official status of poetry and the skald as the kingdom’s official.


In the above chapters on poetry their authors did not avoid more general remarks on questions of poetics or literary theory. The co-authors of the book’s second part do it in a systematic way, looking respectively at verse treatises on poetry of the 12th–13th c. (Gacka),  at divisive genre attribution of a corpus (Glińska), and at a popular type of prose narrative (Bering).

Dorota Gacka (Theatrical elements in treatises on poetics of the 12th-13th centuries, in Polish) collected many and multifarious statements concerning the components of theatricality. Her most detailed analysis covers the two treatises she translated recently into Polish – the Poetria nova of Geoffrey de Vinsauf (2007) and the Laborintus by Eberhard of Bremen (2011). Those and other important schoolbooks on poetics from that time give us much first-hand knowledge about the apparatus of literary theory and rules of practice.

The study by Klementyna Glińska (Between rhetoric and theatre. The theatricality of the elegiac comedies according to classical and medieval theories [in Polish]) takes us into the centre of the disputable unconfirmed theatricality of the text corpus well-known under the modern label of elegiac comedies. Their genre status has been an object of so much debate that the question became intractable without changing the categories of description into more productive ones. Glińska sets the entangled picture into the frame of rhetorical theory. Poets and even theorists who wrote the new generation handbooks of poetics have reduced the performative aspect of poetry to mere declamation and advised the declamators against anything that would create an aura of showiness.

One more dimension of making the written word visible is being disclosed by Piotr Bering in the field of chronicle writing (Relationen zwischen der Chronistik und dem Theater oder das geschriebene und das inszenierte Wort). He is pointing at certain stylistic features in written chronicles, and he is calling those devices “putting words on stage”. The aim of this “literary staging” is to strengthen the words’ message and their impact on the reader in the way theater performance influences its audience.


The third part of the book shows case studies of social practices depending on an essential amount of means of theatrical communication, mostly that of spectacle.

In the chapter  “Blasphemy of the Passion? The case of dance” (in Polish) Sylwia Konarska-Zimnicka leads us into the sphere of game and play, paying special interest to moral-theological assessments of dancing. Negative opinions concerned dancing which was serving the mere pleasure outside of any ceremonial frame (such as a wedding feast). Critical arguments against such dancing were brought together by an anonymous author in the treatise De coreis from the beginning of the 15th c. (Biblioteka Jagiellońska MS 2603). Main argument relied on a comparison of dancing with Christ’s Passion, necessarily proving the inappropriateness of such behavior abandoning the moral paragon of virtues recommended by the imitatio Christi paedagogy.

A culturally meaningful repertory of worldly games generated by the courtly form of life were knights’ tournaments. They became the showcase of court culture. It is confirmed by Bogdan W. Brzustowicz in the chapter devoted to the case study “Participation of Czech knights in tournaments accompanying the coronation of Casimir Jagiełło in 1447” (in Polish). Following step by step the biography of a Czech knightly family we get an insight into the late medieval universe of participation in courtly-chivalric culture as it was common for almost all of Europe of that time. Uninterrupted and prevalent mobility of knights between courts of different kingdoms was a cultural manifestation of common values and served the establishing of their hierarchy.

All previous chapters presented results of the research made by application of theatricality categories to the study of medieval matters and circumstances.

In the last chapter we acquaint with possibilities of this research apparatus applied to specific problems of early modern society – not only multicultural but politically complicated as the Polish-Lithuanian monarchy, followed since 1569 by the union of Polish Kingdom with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Clarinda Calma and Jolanta Rzegocka (Locating Theatricality: The Case Of The Grand Duchy Of Lithuania) accept the perspective of “minimal exclusion” as they are looking for all possible manifestations of theatricality in public spheres of politics, religious life and in education

* * *

Authors of this book

Piotr Bering – Professor of Latin at the Adam Mickiewicz University of Poznań. Interested in codicology, in relations between Latin and the vernaculars, in medieval theater practices, and in genre theory (especially the chronicle). Member of the SITM, board member of the Centro per la Ricerca sul Teatro Medievale, Genova.

Bogdan W. Brzustowicz, PhD – Independent scholar, specialized in the history of chivalry in Poland and Central Europe.

Clarinda E. Calma, PhD – Lecturer at the Tischner European University in Kraków. Her fields of investigation include metaphysical poetry, sixteenth and seventeenth-century British Culture and Literature, especially the legacy of the English and Scottish Jesuit recusants in Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Andrzej Dąbrówka – Professor at the Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences, since 2007 the head of the Medieval Literature Section. His writings cover Medieval Literary Theory, Early Drama and Theatre, Netherlandic Studies, Literary Medievalism and History of Polish Literature.

Dorota Gacka, PhD – Documentalist at the Medieval Literature Section of the Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences. Secretary of the series Bibliotheca Litterarum Medii Aevi. As its main contributor she published so far the scholarly translations  of the Poetria nova by Geoffrey de Vinsauf (2007), and of the Laborinthus by Eberhard of Bremen (2011).

Klementyna A. Glińska, M.A. – PhD student in medieval studies at the Paris-Sorbonne University (Paris IV), Ancient and Medieval Worlds, and at the University of Warsaw, Institute of Classical Studies.

Terry Gunnell – Professor in Folkloristics at the Faculty of Social and Human Sciences, University of Iceland, Reykjavik. Research topics: Legends, folk beliefs and festivals in Iceland, the Nordic countries and the British Isles; Old Norse religion; drama (medieval; Ibsen, Strindberg; Absurdism, Shakespeare, Total Theatre; comedy), folk drama; performance studies.

Sylwia Konarska-Zimnicka, PhD – Lecturer in medieval history at the Jan Kochanowski University of Kielce.

Jakub Morawiec, PhD – Lecturer of Medieval History at the Institute of History, Silesian University, Katowice. His research focuses on history of medieval Scandinavia (mainly Viking Age), skaldic poetry and Old Norse literature.

Jolanta Rzegocka, PhD – Lecturer of Anglo-American Literature at the Tischner European University in Krakow. Graduated from Warsaw University, obtained her PhD at the Central European University, Budapest. Former Dean of Applied Linguistics Dept. (TEU), currently Secretary to the Chair of Interdisciplinary Research Programme (TEU). Her research interests include vernacular Biblical drama, playtexts and performance records, early modern performance culture in Poland, modern Central European literature.


The present book is the result of the cooperation of about 30 scholars interested in the research of the performative aspects of medieval culture.[1] In spite of repeated applications our project has not received any research grant and only some participants could contribute to the publication. Still, their support deserves gratitude. My thanks belong to following colleagues who have contributed to the project or will do so in a better future:

Piotr Bering, Krzysztof Bracha, Bogdan Brzustowicz, Clarinda Calma, Małgorzata Dowlaszewicz, Katarzyna Dybeł, Dorota Gacka, Klementyna Glińska, Grzegorz Gołaś, Mateusz Kapustka, Mariusz Kazańczuk, Sylwia Konarska, Kamil Kopania; Łukasz Kozak, Anna Loba, Anna Madys, Przemysław Marciniak, Jakub Morawiec; Maria Maślanka-Soro, Piotr K. Morawski, Marcin Morawski, Jan Okoń, Jerzy Pysiak, Magdalena Ryszka-Kurczab, Jolanta Rzegocka, Krzysztof Rzepkowski, Dorota Szeliga, Marta Szewczyk, Magdalena Sakowska, Andrzej Wolański, Rafał Wójcik, Ewa Dorota Żółkiewska.

Special thanks go to professor Terry Gunnell for joining our group as co-author, and for his lecture and talks during his visit to our workshop in Warsaw.

[1] More details reported in: A. Dąbrówka, Kategoria teatralności w mediewistyce, „Litteraria Copernicana” 2, 2008, s. 55-59. See also the project’s homepage:


Andrzej Dąbrówka – Wstęp


Terry Gunnell

The Drama of the Poetic Edda: Performance as a Means of Transformation

Jakub Morawiec

Characteristic of Skaldic Court Performances


Dorota Gacka

Elementy teatralne w XII- i XIII-wiecznych poetykach – Rekonesans

Klementyna Aura Glińska

Między retoryką a teatrem. Teatralność komedii elegijnej w świetle teorii starożytnych i średniowiecznych

Piotr Bering

Relationen zwischen der Chronistik und dem Theater oder das geschriebene und das inszenierte Wort


Sylwia Konarska-Zimnicka

Blasfemia Męki Pańskiej? Przykład tańca

Bogdan Wojciech Brzustowicz

Udział czeskich rycerzy w turniejach z okazji koronacji Kazimierza Jagiellończyka w 1447 roku

Clarinda E. Calma, Jolanta Rzegocka

Locating Theatricality: The Case Of The Grand Duchy Of Lithuania


Informacje o Andrzej Dąbrówka

Tenured professor, Institute of Literary Research (Polish Academy of Sciences), Warsaw.
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