To reignite the weekly stream of blog posts for this academic year, we take a look at the way one graduate student, Matthew Sergi, expanded on his scholarly week in medieval literature to produce a new play, Glory Glory, that ran for two weeks in San Francisco this summer.
Matthew Sergi, an advanced graduate student in the English Department who studies medieval literature and drama, spent his summer days working on his dissertation and his summer nights writing and producing a play, entitled Glory Glory, based on the texts of two medieval women, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe. Produced by Front Line Theatre, the play ran for two weeks this past June at the Northside Theater at Fort Mason in San Francisco and received glowing reviews from audiences and critics.
Sergi’s play centers around the meeting of Julian and Margery, who were two of the earliest women writers of whom we have a record, and it investigates, among other things, the way that theater and performance can open up a special kind of knowledge that differs from what one might receive from reading a text. Indeed, the idea for the play came to Sergi from reading Margery Kempe’s text, which is famous for its wild digressions, melodramatic accounts of her personal relationship with God and long-winded self-aggrandizements. Kempe’s prose, Sergi realized, not only needed to be dramatized, but Margery herself, by creating a highly theatrical public persona during the long pilgrimages she took through Europe, had already done so. As it embodies her insatiable appetite for fame and outrageous performance (she is, Sergi pointed out, a kind of early Lady Gaga), Margery’s text lends itself easily to theatrical adaptation. He realized that an artistic, rather than a scholarly, approach to this literature could open up new insights into both the work of both Margery and Julian. And, indeed, a Berkeley English professor commented that Sergi’s play brought out the human element of the texts that is often so hard to access when reading or teaching them.
Sergi detailed the useful conversations with fellow medievalists that his work on the play sparked. Putting on a play necessitated an almost extravagant amount of research in the practices of medieval daily life, even more, Sergi noted, than the heavy historicism of scholarly projects on the period. In a sense, he and his actors had to learn how to live in the medieval period, not just speak about it. Sergi found resources for this kind of thinking in a seminar he audited with Cambridge medievalist Vincent Gillespie who was a visiting professor at Berkeley last year. In thinking how to present Julian, who spent most of her life as a hermit, locked in a small cell, Sergi found rich details through his conversations with Gillespie: what rank of clergyman might have served Julian’s meals, or what events she might have seen, smelled, or heard through her cell window. Puzzling out details like these brought the world of medieval England to life for him and, by extension, for his audience.
As these texts are now securely fixed in the canon of English literature, Sergi found himself asking what it means to enact them in a play meant for audiences with little or no historical knowledge of this period or these writers? This is where Sergi’s specialization in medieval biblical drama came in handy: fifteenth- and sixteenth-century performers and audiences, too, were concerned about the ethics of their theatrical productions of holy texts. They, too, presented canonical and important works before a public that had relatively limited understanding of the subject matter. Like his medieval forbears, Sergi infused his play with deliberate anachronisms and twenty-first century touches. For example, Margery carries a Louis Vuitton purse on her travels and breaks into a musical pop number about her love for Jesus. She sings this song to Jesus himself, who is played by a member of the audience chosen each night at the beginning of the play (another practice which Sergi says that he stole from fifteenth-century theatrical performers). In this playful way, Sergi quite literally drew his audience into the world of Margery and Julian.
And, “playing” is, in the end, what his show was all about. In the program notes, he gives a brief overview of the play’s historical context but ultimately quotes Austin Powers: “I suggest you don’t worry about those things and just enjoy yourself.” As the play itself moves back and forth in time, repeating scenes and dialogue, shifting between “sacred” and “profane” registers (Margery screams out “Jesus!” with reverence and adoration as often as she uses the name as an expletive), it entertains and confuses the audience at the same time. The point, Sergi maintains, is not to “get it,” but rather to tolerate and revel in the confusion that inescapably comes along with thinking about things like God – or any other abstract concept, for that matter. This is, ultimately, the point of the play and of much aesthetic experience in general. As Sergi ends his liner notes, “Just enjoy yourself.”