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Death by Drama and Other Medieval Urban Legends

Part of every legend is true. Or so argues Jody Enders in this fascinating look at early French drama and the way it compels us to consider where the stage ends and where real life begins. This ambitious and bracing study explores fourteen tales of the theater that are at turns dark and dangerous, sexy and scandalous, humorous and frightening—stories that are nurtured by the confusion between truth and fiction, and imitation and enactment, until it becomes impossible to tell whether life is imitating art, or art is imitating life.

Was a convicted criminal executed on stage during a beheading scene? Was an unfortunate actor driven insane while playing a madman? Did a theatrical enactment of a crucifixion result in a real one? Did an androgynous young man seduce a priest when portraying a female saint? Enders answers these and other questions while presenting a treasure trove of tales that have long seemed true but are actually medieval urban legends. On topics ranging through politics, religion, marriage, class, and law, these tales, Enders argues, do the cultural work of all urban legends: they disclose the hopes, fears, and anxieties of their tellers. Each one represents a medieval meditation created or dramatized by the theater with its power to blur the line between fiction and reality, engaging anyone who watches, performs, or is represented by it. Each one also raises pressing questions about the medieval and modern world on the eve of the Reformation, when Europe had never engaged more anxiously and fervently in the great debate about what was real, what was pretend, and what was pretense.

Written with elegance and flair, and meticulously researched, Death by Drama and Other Medieval Urban Legends will interest scholars of medieval and Renaissance literature, history, theater, performance studies, and anyone curious about urban legends.

354 pages | 9 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2002

Literature and Literary Criticism: Romance Languages

Medieval Studies

Religion: Christianity

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Abbreviations
Introduction: Medieval Urban Legends?
Part I: Telling the Difference
1. Lusting after Saints
2. Queer Attractions
3. Of Madness and Method Acting
4. Two Priests and the Hand of God
5. Dying to Play
6. The Eel of Melun
7. The Devil Who Wasn’t There
Part II: Make-Believe
8. The Laughter of the Children
9. Burnt Theatrical Offerings
10. Theater’s Living Dead
11. The Mysterious Quarry
12. Seeing Is Believing
13. The Suicide of Despair
14. Death by Drama
Epilogue: The Moment of Truth
Appendix: Original Documents in French and Latin
Works Cited


American Society for Theatre Research: Barnard Hewitt Award for Excellence in Theatre History

Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

Theatre Library Association: George Freedley Memorial Award

New York University Dept. of English: Joe A. Callaway Prize
Honorable Mention

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