Sapientia: Food, Gender, Theatre, and History

Earlier this year, the Historical Cooking Project had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Lynn Kozak, an associate professor in McGill University's Department of History and Classical Studies who performed a weekly, one-person production of Homer’s The Iliad at Bar des Pins in Montreal’s Plateau Mont-Royal. Kozak's latest project was acting as a literal translator for Hroswitha of Gandersheim's Sapientia. Joseph Shragge adapted the script.

From August 16-25, Scapegoat Carnivale theatre company of Montreal is staging Sapientia. Tickets are available here.

Hroswitha of Gandersheim wrote this play in the 10th century, creating a work that is often considered to be un-stagable. During her lifetime, this secular canoness wrote six plays. She is now considered to be the first person since antiquity to compose drama in the Latin West, as well as Western history's first female playwright.

The Historical Cooking Project had the great pleasure to speak with the play's director, Mia van Leeuwen and hear her thoughts about the role food played both in Hroswitha's work and in making her pieces more accessible for audiences.

Interview with director Mia van Leeuwen

HCP: This play is often considered un-stagable. For your adaptation you set the play in a kitchen and utilized object theatre and puppetry techniques. Why? What was the significance of the kitchen in your adaptation?

Mia: I have questioned this question of 'un-stagability' since we last spoke and have come to this conclusion: I do not actually think that anything is un-stageable. Some works require extra-extra imagination. In the case of Sapientia, many theatre directors may have not wanted to touch it because of the religious extremism of the story, the flatness and unrelatability of the characters, the complications of staging the excessive tortures and miracles within theatrical limitations, the role of comedy in the play, along with the fact that Hrotsvitha's name is little known and that the duration of her plays is often deemed too short.

Object theatre has been a part of my theatrical training via Grant Guy, the artistic director of Adhere + Deny, an avant grade object/puppetry company that was based in Winnipeg, MB. I learned from Guy that objects could tell any story, allowing the imagination to re-interpret and play through the animation of things. Also, with my devised theatre company, out of line theatre, we often used food as a way to represent the humours of the body. So my artistic background has a big influence on my choices.

For Sapientia, the process began with choosing the objects first, in this case, domestic/found objects; a mirror, three tea cups, an espresso maker, a flashlight. Furthermore, object theatre is often played upon a table-top of sorts. In our production, I wanted a table to point to the domestic and other-worldly realms and therefore needed a space that could suggest a kitchen and point to spaces such as an altar, Rome, a prison, a burial ground, etc. So yes, the kitchen is a major element in the production and acts as a baseline for other spaces to occur.

Overall, choosing to stage the play in a kitchen/domestic realm would allow for the actions in the play, namely the tortures and miracles, to be performed in a mechanical and absurdly represented way (ex. torture played through devices such as a George Foreman grill) to provide theatrical distance housed in domestic familiarity, to re-imagine the work of a 10th century playwright. It has all been an experiment fuelled by intense curiosity inspired by the playwright.

Cred: Patrick Andrew Boivin
HCP: The characters are played primarily by kitchen appliances and accoutrement.  What shaped your decisions behind what objects you selected? Was there a special significance in the selection of food items used as well? Was there a significance behind choosing to make some characters non-kitchen related?

Mia: Yes, as mentioned, the kitchen is an important element, a baseline of sorts, but I think it is more helpful to consider the overall project as staged in a domestic space where objects transform the world as we know it.

Choices of objects:

The mirror/Sapientia: 'reflection' ... Having to consider the character of Sapientia, an 'alien woman' reflected in us, the audience, in a 21st century context. Also, the brass vanity appears noble, beautiful and strong.

The tea-cups/Faith, Hope, Charity: I needed three sizes to reflect the daughters and their varying ages. The cups could act as 'vessels' for their bodies that could be easily and readily discarded after their ascension to heaven. What appears to be fragile (porcelain) is actually strong for these three daughters who are clearly empowered by their faith, however problematic their upbringing appears to us.

The flashlight/Antiochus: One who watches over Rome, whose objective is to 'look' and discover anything that might threaten the state.

The moka-pot expresson maker/Hadrian: I wanted a contrasting metal to Sapientia's brass mirror. Also, lines spoken by Hadrian such as "boiling with indignation" was a clue!

The tortures also shaped a lot of the decisions. Domestic objects such as a cheese grater, a George Foreman grill, a clothing iron, scissors etc. had great potential to interact with the food items, portraying the violence by deconstructing it via familiar actions that become incredibly unfamiliar in a new and surprisingly violent context.

Also the Roman gods/goddess' that are represented by various lamps in our production were yet another way to bring in everyday objects that hold extraordinary implications in the world we are creating.

HCP: In your post performance discussion you mentioned the choice of using tofu to represent the flayed girl's flesh instead of chicken breast (which you had originally used). Can you elaborate upon that choice and its relationship to the violence within the play itself?

Mia: It is pretty simple for me. Although I am not vegetarian, I did not feel comfortable using any animal life products in this production. Even the milk is not dairy based. It just did not seem necessary to create the image with. Overall, I am much more interested in artifice anyway.

Cred: Patrick Andrew Boivin

HCP: The text plays with ideas of the consuming mother, digestible/indigestible femininity, and embodiment/disembodiment vs. the soul/heavenly body. How did food make these topics more apparent?

Mia: In general, when I use food in a production, it is to create the possibility of a visceral response in the audience. For example, witnessing a pomegranate being torn apart as a stand in for torture creates the potential for the audience-body to feel what is happening. At least, it is another level to consider when viewing. Also, I had no desire to represent the violence in this play through realistic means. Using food items to represent the body was much more interesting to me.

What do you think? How did the food make these topics more apparent to you, a member of the audience?

HCP: I loved the irony of staging Sapientia in the kitchen as the character of Sapientia breaks away from gendered expectations and domesticity. In her post-performance talk, historian Dr. Colleen Butler discussed how Hroswitha continuously plays with gendered language and gender roles. As Buter explained, Hroswitha does this in her nods towards the works of classical dramatist Terence (Publius Terentius Afer). Yet while Sapientia leaves the domestic realm to try to convert others and offer her daughters as martyrs, she still does not fully transcend this role. The dialogue concerning milk particularly re-roots her in a domestic maternal femininity. 

As an audience member, I enjoyed the multi-layered meanings behind each food object. For practical reasons, the pomegranate was both a great option to represent the tearing of flesh. In addition, it also harkened back to the Greek/Roman myth of Persephone/Prosperina having to return yearly to the underworld after eating the pomegranate seeds offered by Hades/Pluto. So even when Sapientia's Christian daughter chooses to die rather than praise the Roman emperor Hadrian's gods, her death is still represented by Roman polytheistic imagery. I loved that choice, especially with your  (SPOILER ALERT) choice to not let Sapientia ascend to heaven at the end of the play. 

Mia: (SPOILER ALERT CONTINUED) For me, it was a big experiment in this production to have Sapientia consume her children at the end. As I was exposed to Catholicism in my early days, I was often amazed with this notion of eating the body of Christ (transubstantiation) and the ritual of attaining it. It seemed oddly fascinating to me that a wafer could do the trick.

In our production, it worked out that the final food items added up to dessert (oreo crumbs, strawberry sauce and rice crispie cakes) -- the last meal. Once again, as we were playing out the actions in a domestic space, the final scene allowed the kitchen element to cross over into a burial scene and back to a kitchen again. In this space, it seemed inevitable that the hunger of Sapienita's devotion would finally be consumed/attained by the end image of the play. Her object, the mirror, really comes through for me here, as the audience is faced to reflect into this character and the journey her extreme faith took us on. Should we be laughing? Should we be horrified? Should we feel any shame? There is enough absurdism here to consider all this, and likely more.


Scapegoat Carnivale is producing five more performances of Sapientia at Mainline Theatre in Montreal between now and August 25. Enjoy the trailer below: