Topic 5: Theatre as a Channel for Religion


According to Zarilli, religion emerged as an engine to maintain social, civic, and cosmic cohesion. Cultural performances were at the forefront of the earliest civilizations, from the Upper and Lower Kingdoms of Ancient Egypt, Greece, South America, Persia and Europe. While the advent of writing and introduction of new technologies may have shaped the production of drama, it still sought to ‘provide distinctive ways of encountering myths, epics, or narratives’ (Zarrilli, 52). Religious festivals were accompanied with dramatic productions served to enhance communal relationship, honor appropriate figures, communicate with the divine, and celebrate historical moments. The theme of good vs. evil, featuring the battle of Gods having access to supernatural abilities, is consistent throughout the history of religious performances. Christianity becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire in 312 C.E paved the way for works preaching the “Word of God”.


Hrotsvitha was a noble member of the all-female Abbey of Gandersheim, in Saxony. Some of writings included six plays, based of Terence, a Roman playwright. While her works were not necessarily designed for theatre performance, she was one of the first writers to blend elements of comedy with religion. She based her works upon the legends of the saints, aiming to glorify religion in its most supreme and exceptional efforts. This phenomenon is exemplified in Dulcitius. Even though the play was probably intended for Hrotsvitha’s sisters’ reading in the convent, its elements of wit, comedy, tragedy, and religious manifestations make it enjoyable and interesting for peasant to serf to monarch.


In the play, general Dulcitius is motivated by evil desires to rape three young maiden named Chionia, Agape, and Irena. Supernatural forces then posses him and Dulcitius hallucinates, convinced that scalding pots and pans are the three ladies he soughts. He then burns from head to toe. He then orders Sisinnius, the general’s right-hand to perform the killing of the three maiden but supernatural forces take hold of him as well as he becomes delusional. Eventually, however, he succeeds in killing the 3 girls, which serve as a sacrifice to the Holy Spirit.


Hrotsvitha wrote Dulcitius to honor the strength and presence of God. When the general becomes burnt, even his soldiers believe he is the Devil. Their loyalty for him is all but destroyed when they notice him covered in black soot: “The voice is our master’s voice, but the face is a devil’s. Come, let’s take to our heels! This devil means us no good” (Hrotsvitha). The soldiers are not willing to question what they believe is an act of God, even when it comes to obeying their master in commander. God acting in almighty ways to save the three girls is evidenced when the flames, that were originally intended to burn them, ends up saving them by retaliating the act against the general. In the Bible, flames are regarded as a sacred manifestation and they may a symbol of God himself in Dulcitius to save those that are faithful in him. Hrotsvitha wrote about the mysterious strength of the Lord, trying to spread the ‘Word of God’ by using supernatural powers to gain followers of the religion.


The printing revolution pushed Europe from the medieval age into modernity. It gave way to the Enlightenment by accelerating learning and serving as an agent of freedom. Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1439 permitted the vast spread of religion. With copies of the bible flowing throughout cities, people could learn and appreciate the lessons of God and interpret them themselves. However, this revolution put a dent into the power and prominence of the Catholic Church, as “the church had an exclusive monopoly on information, and enforced it efficiently and ruthlessly’ (Kovarik 21). The church sought to control the availability of written texts by issuing the First Index of Prohibited Books in 1559. This censorship only fueled forward thinking attitudes by individuals like John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau, pushing for freedom. Revolutions arose throughout Europe and even North America for people to obtain their freedoms.


With regards to Dulcitius, the text was written prior to the invention of the printing press. Considering Hrotsvitha’s intentions for writing it, though, it would be surprising if it were published as a mass-scale work if she did have access to such a printer. The work was intended for her sisters in the convent and wasn’t meant to be a large production. If Dulcitius were to enter common households, it would have been another individual, seeking a profitable opportunity, responsible for its widespread and not Hrotsvitha. While the work clearly has some religious elements to it, it also serves as a piece of entertainment and comedy and not particularly for the spread of learning either. Hrotsvitha probably had no intentions of the work reaching mass publication and that would not have changed regardless of the time period in which she lived. Much like the printing press, Dulcitius was revolutionary in its own right. It was one of the first works to combine religion and comedy, featuring witty situations and symbols, aiming to spread the ‘Word of God”.





-What were Hrotsvitha’s intentions with Dulcitius? Was she trying to reach a larger segment of the population than her sisters in the convent? Would the story be different if she had access to the printing press?


-How did Gutenberg’s printing press change the way in which religious performances were carried out as depicted by Zarrilli? Did people follow their religious beliefs more independently as a result of their new access to texts?


-Why did it take so long for comedy and religion to intertwine in Theatre? Had it always been some combination of religion and tragedy up until Hrotsvitha? What caused this change?