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The Plays of Roswitha: Translator's Preface


The Plays of Roswitha

by Christopher St. John

The translation of the six plays Roswitha (there are really seven, for the two parts of Gallicanus practically constitute two separate dramas) was begun in the year 1912 and completed in 1914. The lively interest provoked by the stage performance of one of the translations (that of the play Paphnutius by the Pioneer Players in January 1914 led me to think that the publication of the whole theatre of Roswitha in English would be welcomed by all students of the drama. Unfortunately, the war delayed publication, and the manuscript was entirely destroyed by a fire at the publisher's premises in Dublin during the Irish insurrection of Easter 1916.

The work of collating the various Latin texts of Roswitha's plays and producing a translation which should preserve some of the naive simplicity of the original had been a difficult one, and to begin it all over again was a heart-breaking task. The consciousness that the interest in Roswitha provoked by the performance of Paphnutius had waned did not alleviate the heaviness of spirit in which the work of replacing the burned manuscript was undertaken.

Those readers who are unable or unwilling to compare the translations with the original should be warned that Roswitha's dialogue is characterized by a simplicity and concisness hardly attainable in any tongue but Latin. The difficulty of finding equivalents for these terse phrases employed tempts the translator to "write them up." Although I have aimed at producing a readable translation for lovers of the drama in all its forms rather than an exact paraphrase for scholars, I have tried to resist this tempation at the risk of making the dialogue seem at times almost ludicrously bald. Except in a few cases where the use of "thou" seemed dramatically fit, "tu" has been rendered by "you". Roswitha's style is colloquial, and the constant employment of the singular pronoun would mispresent its character. The Latin is not obsolete, and it would surely be a mistake to translate it into an obsolete vernacular. Although the author's syntax is decadent, and there is a tendency to make every sentence analytical, her use of words is classical, and her Latin in this respect superior to the scholastic Latin of the Middle Ages. The only principle observed in my translation has been the general one laid down by Edward Fitzgerald: "The live dog is to be preferred to the dead lion -- in translation at any rate," and if this has involved a loss of dignity, I hope there may be some compensating gain in ease and force. ** In regard to the names of the characters in the play, when there were well-known English equivalents such as "Hadrian" and "Constantine" I have not hesitated to use them, but when there were none I have given the Latin names. There is a good precedent for this inconsistency. We speak of "Rome" and "Venice," but we do not try to Anglicize Prugia or Assisi.

The plays are all founded on well-known legends, which Roswitha follows very closely as regards the facts. But she shows great originality in her use of the facts and in her development of characters often merely indicated in the legends. Three of the plays, Gallicanus, Dulcitius, and Sapientia, deal with the conflict between infant Christianity and Paganism, martyrdoms under the Emperors Hadrian, Diocletian, and Julian the Apostate being the chief incidents. Gallicanus, which comes first in the manuscript, shows considerable skill in dramatic construction. Incident follows rapidly on incident. The scene lies alternately in Rome and on the battlefield, yet the action is kept quite clear. The story is easily followed, although Roswitha, like all good dramatists, eschews narrative. Gallicanus, one of the Emperor Constantine's generals, claims the hand of the Emperor's daughter as a reward for undertaking a dangerous campaign against the Scythians. The Emperor knows that Constance has taken a solemn vow of chastity, but he dares not offend Gallicanus by a refusal, on account of the value of his military services. So he temporizes, and consults Constance, who shows great shrewdness in dealing with the situation. She sends her almoners, John and Paul, to accompany Gallicanus on the Scythian expedition, in the hope that they will convert him to Christianity before he returns to marry her. The strategem succeeds. Gallicanus, saved from defeat at a critical moment in the battle by the intervention of a heavenly host, becomes Christian, and on his return to Rome shows respect for Constance's resolution to remain in the virgin state, and renounces her. but he admits that the renunciation is bitter -- Roswitha often shows such touches of sympathy with natural human desires -- and we are made to feel that, although the dramatist was in no doubt that the life of chastity, poverty, and obedience is the highest life, she understood how hard it is for those who embrace it to believe that the yoke will be easy and the burden light.

The second play, Dulcitius, is poorly constructed and, as a whole, less interesting than any of the plays. Yet it has some features which repay close study. It is the only play of Roswitha's obviously designed to provoke laughter, and if the level of the opening scenes had been maintained would be a very droll religious farce. Here we have the usual tale of martyrdom interspersed with incidents of buffonery. The conventional cruel and bloody executioners are replaced by comic soldiers and a comic governor. Unfortunately, the farcical vien is suddenly abandoned, perhaps because Roswitha's Abbess thought such fooling undignified in a nun! There must be some explaination of the sudden disappearance of the comic character of Dulcitius form the play. However, even as it stands, Dulcitius is worth a great deal, since it affords the best proof we have that Roswitha's plays were written for representation. There is indirect proof in the fact that we know that plays were acted at Gandersheim, as at other monasteries, on great occasiona, but here is direct evidence. All the fun of Dulcitius lies in the action. No dramatist who had not in mind the effect on spectators could have conceived the scene in which the foolish governor, black as a sweep from his amorous encounter with the kitchen pots and pans which he mistakes for young women, is chased away from the palace gates, asking the while if there is anything amiss with his fine and handsome appearance. Stage directions, or didascalia, are very rarely found in old dramatic texts, but when Magnin compared Roswitha's original test with the first printed edition he found several which had been omitted by Celtes.

Callimachus, Abraham, and Paphnutius precede Sapentia in the manuscript but as the last belongs by reason of its subject to the same group as Gallicanus and Dulcitius, it is more convenient to discuss it next. It is the best constructed of the "martyrdom" plays, and is singled out for special praise by most of the Roswitha commentators. The final scene in which Sapientia, having buried the bodies of her martyred children outside Rome, lifts up her soul as in an estatic prayer for death is described by Magnin as "a ray of Sophocles shining though a Christian mind." Many, however, may find the repetition in the long-drawn-out "torture" scenes montonous, and the impertinence of Sapientia's daughters to their imperial persecutor as trying as the real thing must have been. These slips of girls defy "law and order" in the person of the Emperor Hadrian much as in our own day youthful suffragettes used to defy British magistrates. Probably this is in accordance with truth. Roswitha was separated from the days of the first Christians by a shorter space of time than that which separates us from her, and she based her narrative poem about the martyrdom of Saint Pelagius on an account given her by an eye-witness. While modern authors (with the exception of Mr. Bernard Shaw, whose Christian martyrs in Androcles and the Lion bear a resemblance to Roswitha's) love to dwell on the dignity of the early converts to Christianity, Roswitha conveys the impression that the dignity was mingled with impudence.

In Callimachus, Abraham, and Paphutias, Roswitha sets out to describe the war between the flesh and the spirit, and the long penance which must be done by those who have allowed the flesh to triumph. It is not enough for them to be converted and to realise their crime against the infinite beauty and goodness of God. They are called on to take practical measures to cleanse themselves. Callimachus is the first of these plays, and by no means the best, although it timidly sounds a note of passion, rare, if it exists at all, in medieval literature. Some commentators have laboured to establish a resemblance between Callimachus and Romeo and Juliet, and there are curious parallels. In both you see a sepulchre, a woman's open grave, and the shroud lifted by the desperate hand of a lover. In both two men come to this tragic scene, bowed down by grief, yet able to control it -- in Romeo and Juliet Capulet and Friar Lawrence, in Callimachus, the husband of the dead woman and the Apostle John. It would be idle to strain the parallels too far. They might not strike the attention at all if Callimachus did not possess a touch of the spirit of Romeo and Juliet. It is this which makes the play seem to belong to a later period than the others, and gives it a different character. The passionate language employed, the romance of the story, thc colour of the earlier scenes are extraordinary when we remember that the play was written in the 10th century. Haltingly, and apparently without any conscious intention, Roswitha describes the kind of love of which Terence her model knew nothing -- that feverish desire absorbing the senses and the soul, which leads to sin or madness or self-slaughter. As if frightened by her own daring (or did the Abbess intervene, as we guess she intervened in Dulcitius !), Roswitha spoils the play as a play by a lengthy and tedious final scene in which St. John appears to more advantage as a theologian than as a man.

Abraham and Paphnutius show Roswitha at her best as a dramatist. In both plays the scenes are well knit, the characterization deft and sure, and the dialogue admirably expressive. The opening scenes of Abraham reveal that power to suggest character and situation without wordy explanations which is essential in drama. We know at once, although we are not told, that Mary, mere child as she is, is not made of stern stuff, and that her vocation is doubtful. Her replies to the two holy hermits are all that they should be superficially, but through them penetrates a materialism antagonistic to their mystical exaltation. Equally rich in the quality of suggestion is the scene in the house of ill-fame which Abraham visits to rescue his niece from her evil life. She does not recognize him at first, but melancholy seizes her at the supper which it is her duty to enliven by her gaiety. There is the beauty which never ages and appeals to all nations in all times in the following scene, when the hermit, throwing off his worldly disguise, shows his hair grown white through vigils and fasts, and his tonsure, the badge of his thorn-crowned Master, and in words more compassionate than upbraiding moves his lost child to contrition. It is indeed amazing that so true and touching a scene, dealing with a subject which has led later dramatists into false sentiment, coarseness, or mere preaching, should have been written nearly a thousand years ago by an obscure nun in a convent in Lower Saxony.

Perhaps nothing in Paphnitus on quite the same level of achievement, but a play is not made by a single scene, and Paphnitus as a whole is better than Abraham as a whole. Few will question that it is Roswitha's masterpiece. It is very creditable to her that, although the stories of the two plays are similar, she should have shown such variety in the treatment of them. When we compare them we find hardly any repetition. It is interesting to notice that it is not Mary, brought up to the religious life from which she lapses and to which she turns again, who becomes a saint, but Thais, whose life from childhood has been spent in "dangerous delights." There is a spice of irony in the fact that the penitence of Thais, who had not had Mary's opportunities, is represented by the dramatist as being on a much higher spiritual plane. With true insight Roswitha makes Paphnutius treat his penitent with far more severity than the hermit Abraham treats Mary. Yet the angelic love of Paphnutius for Thais, thanks to the dramatist's power of suggestion, penetrates through his austerity, although he never manifests it until the moment when he is assured through the vision of Paul, St. Anthony's disciple, that the repentance of the sinner has caused that joy in heaven which exceeds all the joy that can be given by the righteous Paphnutius alone among Roswitha's plays has stood the test of stage representation in modern times,**** and come through it triumphantly, although the miraculous swiftness of Thais's conversion was considered most " unnatural " by the critics who witnessed the performance.

Roswitha, it must be remembered, believed in miracles. The average Englishman is sceptical. As Mr. Chesterton has pointed out, he will not swear to the possibility of a thing he has not seen, although he is quite ready to swear to the impossibility of a thing he has seen. In the foreword which Mr. Chesterton wrote for the programme of the first performance of Paphnutius he compared Roswitha's treatment of the story of Thais's conversion with Anatole France's in his well-known novel "Thais." "This very strong and moving play (Paphnutius) was written by a person about as different from the author of 'Thais' as could be capable of wearing the human form, a devout woman, vowed to a restricted life, and writing in the light of a Latin that was gradually going out like a shortening candle.... It is inevitable that such darkness should breed dangerous and even savage things, and that even religion should become almost as fierce as its enemies. . . . This nun of the Dark Ages wrote without any of that modern comfort and culture which ought, at the very least, to make men kind. When M. Anatole France was the author of 'Silvestre Bonnard' it did make him kind. But about Paphnutius and Thais, the harsh ascetic of the hardest times of the 10th century is far kinder than he. In the 'Thais' of the great French romancer the whole point is that Thais repents but that Paphnutius relapses. The nun saves both souls. Anatole France loses one of them. That is modern universalism."

I hope that the publication of these plays in the English language will confirm Roswitha's right to a high place in medieval literature, and a place also among the few writers of plays which have more than a transitory interest. Perhaps a certain predilection for medieval art is necessary before we can love her wholeheartedly. I do not imagine that those who see no beauty in the primitive art of Cimabue, Giotto, Sana di Pietro, or Lorenzetti will admire the work of a primitive dramatist. But others who find sincere simplicity, as opposed to affected simplicity, a charm in itself, will take Roswitha to their hearts and will have no difficulty in recognizing her merits. In addition to the six plays I have translated the five prefaces printed in Roswitha's complete works, in the hope that the " strong voice of Gandersheim" speaking directly to the reader, may win a fresh interest for the plays, and give some idea of the character and attainments of the remarkable woman who wrote them.

Footnotes

  • * I have adopted this form of the name in preference to "Hrotsuitha," "Hrotswitha," or "Hrosvitha," as being more easily pronounced and more pleasant to the eye. The name is said to be derived from the old Saxon word "Hrodsuind" (strong voice), a derivation accepted by Roswitha herself in her preface to plays, when she writes "ego, clamor vildus Gandeishermensis," and approved by Grimm.
  • ** Believing that the representation of the plays is possible, even desirable, I have also aimed at making the dialogue speakable.
  • *** The manuscript is now in the Munich City Library. Recently another manuscript, containing four of the six dramas, is reported to have discovered among the state archives of Cologne. (Times Berlin Correspondent, May 9, 1922)
  • **** Since this was written Callimachus (translation by Arthur Waley) has been produced by the Art Theatre. Paphnutius, in my translation, was produced by Miss Edith Craig for the Pioneer Players at the Savoy Theatre on June 4, 1914, Miss Ellen Terry appearing in the part of the Abbess.

Source.

Hrotsvitha, ca. 935-ca. 975. The Plays of Roswitha. Translated by Christopher St. John, with an introduction by Cardinal Gasquet and a critical preface by the translator.(London, Chatto & Windus, 1923)

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Paul Halsall, October 1999
halsall@fordham.edu