DULCITIUS and PAPHNUTIUS by Hrotsvitha (translated by Sister Mary Marguerite Butler, R.S.M.)

These are really fascinating plays. I read them in John Gassner’s great anthology Medieval and Tudor Drama.  Hrotsvitha was a well-educated Saxon nun from the early Medieval period. Apparently, she was troubled by people enjoying the works of Terence, the Roman comic playwright. She found his plays clever but sinful and decided to provide Christian alternatives. Naturally, her work is a little preachy! Still, both plays demonstrate a surprising amount of theatrical skill and, even better, an ability to approach her characters as human beings. The female characters are especially well-drawn.  In Dulcitius, the horrible subject of rape is viewed powerfully from a woman’s perspective, incredibly rare for the era.  Paphnutius is, aesthetically speaking, the better play, in my opinion. It concerns the legend of Thais, a harlot who repented and became a saint. The friendship that develops between Thais and Paphnutius, a monk who converts her, is drawn with amazing subtlety. While Hrotsvitha is primarily concerned with the religious conversion of Thais, she does not ignore the personal dimension. Beside the religious message, Hrotsvitha gives a moving depiction of an unlikely friendship. This element probably inspired the French novelist, Anatole France, to have Paphnutius fall in love with Thais in his novel based on Hrotsvitha’s play. The best single passage is the speech of Paul, the holy hermit who has a vision of Thais glorified in heaven. To be sure, there are numerous aspects of Hrotsvitha’s devout Catholicism that I found annoying and unpleasant. Nevertheless, I was delighted by discovering this engaging figure and I found her work sincere and accomplished. I’d love to read her other work. Small theater groups should take a look at Hrotsvitha. She’s worth it.

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