CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A re-creation of the oldest medieval vernacular play, in a new English translation, will be staged at the Chapel of St. John the Divine on the University of Illinois campus.
This production of “The Play of Adam” premiered in December at The Met Cloisters in New York City, the branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art dedicated to medieval art and architecture. Carol Symes, a U. of I. professor of history, medieval studies and theatre, wrote the new English verse translation. The entire production – with its director and cast of U. of I. students and New York-based musicians – will be restaged on campus Jan. 19-21.
Written in the 12th century, “The Play of Adam” depicts Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, their expulsion from paradise, the rivalry between Cain and Abel, and the Old Testament prophets who foretell the birth of Jesus.
The play is unique among medieval plays in two aspects. It was the first medieval play written almost entirely in common language (in this case, a French dialect), and it has detailed stage directions indicating how the production should be staged and how the actors should gesture and interact with one another.
Symes’ translation is the first verse translation in English and the only one in any language to fully translate all of the Latin chant texts in the play. “The Play of Adam” is also unusual in that sung Latin chants derived from Scripture (performed in English in Symes’ version) are interspersed with the fast-paced vernacular verse. Symes said there are two distinct forms of verse in the play – one that is used for informal “street slang” exchanges between characters and a more formal, stately verse.
University of Illinois scholar Carol Symes portrays The Playwright in “The Play of Adam.” Symes wrote a new English verse translation of the medieval play.
Photos courtesy of The Met Cloisters
Edit embedded media in the Files Tab and re-insert as needed.
She said her translation “is intended to be actor-friendly and entertaining, while capturing the rhythms, rhyme-schemes and colloquialisms of the original text.”
The play balances seriousness and humor, and is “really focused on engaging with an everyday audience,” said Kyle A. Thomas, the play’s director and a U. of I. doctoral student in theatre studies who specializes in historical plays with a focus on the Middle Ages.
Thomas said few plays of that time period have as many and as detailed stage directions as does “The Play of Adam.”
“It instructs where to move, but really the focus is more on how (the actors) are performing, that they are saying things clearly, gesturing appropriately and talking to the people they should be,” he said. “There was a lot of effort to make sure it was done correctly.
“It’s not just the play that’s medieval. The acting is kind of medieval too,” Thomas said. Instead of the actors seeking to understand the internal motivations of their characters to portray their emotions, they rely on gestures and body positions to communicate.
Because of the detailed stage directions, Symes chose to include the playwright as a character in the play.
“We found so many places where the interactions among the narrator and actors could be funny or profoundly moving, so we made that a feature of the production,” she said.
The play is accompanied by vocal and instrumental music. Musical director Drew Minter, a Vassar College music professor who is currently a visiting professor at the U. of I., composed original music for the production.
“The Play of Adam” will be performed at 7 p.m. Jan. 19 and 20 and at 3:30 p.m. Jan. 21 at the Chapel of St. John the Divine, 1011 S. Wright St., Champaign. The performances are free and open to the public, but seating will be limited. Doors will open 30 minutes prior to each performance. Contact Casey Griffin at email@example.com with questions or to request reserved seating.
Sponsors for the production are The Met Cloisters and the U. of I. Program in Medieval Studies, the theatre department and the George A. Miller Endowment. Additional funding came from the U. of I. College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; the College of Fine and Applied Arts; the School of Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics; the School of Music; the unit for criticism and interpretive theory; and the French and Italian, religion, classics and history departments.