The Theatre of War_Morality Play’s Theater and Johan Jacob’s war formation and settlements

From Middle English theater, theatre, from Old French theatre, from Latin theatrum, from Ancient Greek θέατρον (théatron, “a place for viewing”), from θεάομαι (theáomai, “to see”, “to watch”, “to observe”).

One might easily draw a conclusion to suggest that the theatre as a space, rather than just as a place of spectacle comes from the roman typology of the coliseum, whereby the idea of battle, and performance were understood as one entity for the observation and entertainment of the Caesar. The idea of the coliseum as a typology is rather of axiomatic quality. One understands the stage as a battlefield, a place to understand the local and individualistic qualities of warfare, as well as the collective quality of military strategy and execution, along with presenting such qualities as military representation of the performative arts. The theatre, as an origin, starts from three main trajectories from the Greek ontology; Satyr, Comedy, and most importantly Tragedy, which is the Greek understanding of the dramatization of war.

In this essay, the intention is not to draw a conclusion between war and theatre, or how war affected theatre and vice versa, but instead, it is to rather to attempt a conclusion, that both entities, when looked at from the representation of design and architecture, they operate on a very similar, and a very fine line of projection. The exploration draws attention to examples from history, whereby depiction of a specific narrative of warfare can be read, from an architectural phenomenology, as design strategies that formulate space, place, and scene. Similarly, theatre can be quickly read as architecture, and for that, an attention is drawn between blurring the lines between spaces created through the effect of war strategies, and through the affect of dramatic tragedies, that ultimately can operate on parallel projections of themselves, or perhaps, one might do the leap and suggest that somehow, they are mere mirror images of one another[1].

Rather than presenting and empirical history of the origin of things viewed from the sensory allocation of what theatre might [looks like] it depicts, it is important to be explicit about how drama has influenced the design of the theatre, a theatre that operates as a fortress of itself, which both operates as a theatrical quality for the drama, but also a representation of how architecture can inject a narrative of itself through a dramatic tragic scenario. The morality play is a genre of Medieval and early Tudor theatrical entertainment. In their own time, these plays were known as interludes, a broader term given to dramas with or without a moral. Morality plays are a type of allegory in which the protagonist is met by personifications of various moral attributes who try to prompt him to choose a Godly life over one of evil. The plays were most popular in Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries.[2] One of those morality plays is the Castle of Perseverance is a c. 15th century morality play and the earliest known full-length (3,649 lines) vernacular play in existence. Along with Mankind and Wisdom, The Castle of Perseverance is preserved in the Macro Manuscript he Castle of Perseverance contains nearly all of the themes found in other morality plays, but it is especially important because a stage drawing is included, which may suggest theatre in the round. Fig 1

Thee earliest drawing of a stage and set design in England is preserved in the manuscript. In the center of the drawing is the castle from the play’s title. The writing above the castle explicitly says that the audience should not sit in the area. At the base of the castle is a bed on which Mankind rests. The circle around the castle is labeled as a ditch, which the audience should not cross. The five short text blocks around the circle label scaffolds for some of the characters, including God, Belial, and World. The map is oriented with north towards the bottom, which suggests that it is not merely some abstract suggestion by the playwright or scribe, but rather a real set design that may have been implemented — if not merely an literal implementation of the trope of ‘a world turned upside down’.

“Whether the drawing truly represents theatre in the round or not is debatable. Although the ditch circles the castle completely and it is stated that the audience should not cross it, nowhere does the text state that the audience should sit on all sides of the play. It is possible that they sat on only one or some of the sides.” [3] The Castle of Perseverance shows the progression of Mankind from birth to death, illustrating his temptations and the process necessary for Christian salvation[4]. The play pictures men in this world as besieged on all sides by sin with the only comfort and salvation coming from virtues. The play is allegorical battle between good and evil over the soul of mankind. The two sides are equal, with 15 good characters balanced against 15 bad characters[5].

Fig 1: London: Jack, 1908, The Castle of Perseverance, Morality Play, Harvard university. P. 192

As an allegory, the theatre perhaps presents a battle scene, yes, a fictional one, but one nevertheless, whereby the theatre encompasses the greatest battle of all, good vs. evil, which, in a way, is perhaps always a narrative of a battle for either perspectives, a good is repelling evil, and an evil is attacking good. And for that, the theater needed to operate in a highly didactic and specific manner to suit the narrative of the battle, the battle is a morally play, but also a e typology of such theater design, which is the central stage, is a very important one, and rather unconventional representation of a battlefield, and the theater is the architecture that facilitates such narrative of design. That, whereby the theatre itself is in the middle and the audience surrounds the stage, and such design goes hand in hand with the narrative of the morality play. The stage is always in the center with the audience arranged on all sides, and is most commonly rectangular, circular, diamond, or triangular. Actors may enter and exit through the audience from different directions or from below the stage. The stage is usually on an even level with or below the audience in a pit or arena formation. This configuration lends itself to high-energy productions and anything that requires audience participation. In effect, theatre-in-the-round removes the “fourth wall”[6] and brings the actor into the same space as the audience.

This presents the didactic nature of the theater, where narrative is a crucial part in idealizing the architecture, and the architecture is crucial for the narrative to be perfected. The shift is then made to the representation of war, and specifically to Johan Jacob von Wallhausen, who was a 17th century German military writer who published his distinguished writing of “The Art of the Infantry” which is a six-part compendium of the war sciences that include a series of main military subjects; infantry, cavalry, artillery, tactics, fortifications, and sea war. Each of which is presented as a rather performative element that produces both organizational strategies and space planning to go along with the military training.

Johan’s publication, if seen parallel to the morality play theatre, is one that is rather not very different from the theatre, Johan presents a series of plates that work to illustrate how didactic war is, from the loading of the gun of the individual to the working of the army as a collective in battle. And through such didactic matters of training and theory, the entire army and his depictions of the army, work to represent spaces that produce grids in space, grids that are of specific construct that goes in parallel with the training.

To start with, Johan’s narrative goes from depicting the narrative of the solider as an individual, and how the nature of his theory for the soldier is a very didactic one, to the depiction of a small army trying to repel enemies from multiple sides, to the formation of camps and settlements and places. In the depiction of the solider, Johan presents the solider as if he was a character for a theater, the design if the wardrobe is one of immaculate detail, he does not stop at that, he continues to explain how the solider should specifically behave and act as he is reloading his weapon [fig 2] presenting both, a costume for the actor and the technique he should act with [fig 3].

Fig 2 : J.J Wallhausen, L’art militaire pour l’infanterie

Johan presents his first plate as a costume for the solider to wear, a highly specific costume that in Johan’s eyes is somewhat of high importance for his narrative, and through the first pate, we understand that the solider carries a series of weapons that are further presented in three plates [fig 3, fig 4, fig 5] which show how Johan understands the role of the solider as a procedural manner, one that is rather theatrical in its nature, from the movement of the solider to the loading of the gun, or the defense using the sword.

Fig 3: J.J Wallhausen, L’art militaire pour l’infanterie
Fig 4: J.J Wallhausen, L’art militaire pour l’infanterie
Fig 5: J.J Wallhausen, L’art militaire pour l’infanterie

Plate B [fig 3] shows the depiction of the soldier performing his training of using his riffle, not for the purpose of shooting just yet, but for the purpose of reloading and cleaning it, however, the narrative of preparing for the weapon of shooting is a much more theatrical than that, it is somehow a representation of the act the soldier takes during war, through his costume and through the didactic nature of his training of firing a musket. Plate C [fig 4] shows what occurs then after the cleaning of the musket, which shows the methodology in which the soldiers undergo the theatrical performance of shooting a musket. A recreation of such scene is shown in a video made by military historians on YouTube depicting the entire scene acted by an actor dressed specifically to represent the plates of Johan’s narrative[7], and shows how performative and theatrical the act is. What seems to be a primitive act of shooting, and a rather slow one, is but a very choreographed one that is continuously rehearsed by soldiers.


The second aspect of Johan’s writing is the depiction of small groups of military formations and depicting how the small masses undergo organizational strategies. These organizational strategies form grids on the ground that suggests a specific narrative for each grid formation. Each formation happens for a specific reason, some might be a settlement on a piece of land; others might depict movement of small forces of the army together towards a destination; or small forces preparing for defense against and incoming force of enemy’s army; or it could show the small army preparing to attack or invade a settlement. All of which are theories depicted by Johan, however, what is to be understood here, is each typology of battle has a specific organizational field designed specifically for itself, which starts suggesting a narrative of design that involves an architecture of organization that forces the soldiers to behave and act in a very specific and very didactic manner. It is almost a script, written for theater, were each script is meant to describe a set of scenarios and specific scenographics that the army or the small group of soldiers take in order to face a specific set of problems, not very different than the castle drawn for the morality play, were the spectators have to undergo specific set of instructions for the scene to be fulfilled. Here the scene is played by the soldiers, who are the actors in this case, actors that organize themselves through very specific set of instructions, be it a natural organization or one that is rigorously studies, it is an organization nevertheless, an organization that suggest that a collection of men can form a space or a place, a place that derived from facing a problem which produces a different set of conditions from the space created through another set of problems.[8] [Fig 6].

Fig 6: Wallhausen, L’art militaire pour l’infanterie
Copyright: Houghton Library, Harvard University Rare books

Johan’s interpretation of battle on foot and land moved away from just understanding formations as square grids in spaces, but illustrated the possibilities that formations can take o multiple shapes and forms and organizational strategies on foot [fig 7] and how different types of soldiers can take on different roles in battle in protecting the middle, and here we see a pattern occurring, which is the formation of a center place or space that all other points on the formation work to defend.

Fig 7: Wallhausen, L’art militaire pour l’infanterie
Copyright: Houghton Library, Harvard University Rare books

As the battle grows larger, the formations grow with it, and as the formations grow, the organizational strategies grow in complexity. Johan starts illustrating how it would be to form an entire army that is meant to organize itself against an empty piece of land, to both supports itself in times of danger and defense, and in times of preparation for attack. These formations produce centralized squares that protect their center, however, as they aggregate, they produce what seems to look like a 9-square global grid, whereby the surrounding squares work together in forming the protective space around the central square. [Fig 8] it is clear that the nature of the organization is one of nesting quality, where soldiers hover around each square and the surrounding squares have larger area than the central one. The organization of the global grid allows access and escape from the central square however with remaining protection for all 4 sidess.

Fig 8: Wallhausen, L’art militaire pour l’infanterie
Copyright: Houghton Library, Harvard University Rare books

Another typology of formation is one that illustrates inner battle defense strategies that work to articulate how an army can defend itself while being surrounded by armies from all sides, this typology is a highly organized one, because the space it takes place in is one of rather compact qualities, so soldiers need to move as efficiently in a narrow space to allow for defense to operate successfully. The illustration shows how the infantry takes position, always protecting its center. The soldiers adopt the same narrative as the ones explained in fig 3 and fig 4, however, what is required of them is to adopt a narrative that allows them to circle around each other while cleaning their musket and reloading it to allow for more efficient time and fire speed. [Fig 9+10]

Fig 9 : Wallhausen, L’art militaire pour l’infanterie
Copyright: Houghton Library, Harvard University Rare books
Fig 10: Wallhausen, L’art militaire pour l’infanterie
Copyright: Houghton Library, Harvard University Rare books

One could understand that fig 10 is transformation of fig 9, as the attacking army becomes dandified, the formation adopts a different type of organization, whereby the cruciform allows for more corners to accept and surround further enemies and defend in a more efficient manner, and here we see the reformation of the squares and how the are of relational qualities to each other, and how the cruciform becomes a rather ingenious strategy in defending the center.

Finally, Johan moves on to depict what is the most theatrical and architectural of all military formations of all, which is the settlements on land, and the creation of town and urban organizations, and these are categorized under 2 types, camps that are temporary, and settlements that become almost permanent. The first category, which is the temporary camp type, is axiomatic is identifying that it derives from formation and preparations of battle, however, the formations of battle are transformed to adopt a longer stay in that specific space or place, and because of such long stay, the battle formation and organization needed to accommodate for a shelter for soldiers that can both work for overnight and instant battle formation without the effort of reorganization. [fig 11] such formations produce a town like identity that rather resonate with that of the theatrical organization of the morality play, whereby the effort to organize allows for specific units on the ground to operate in a very choreographed and dictated manner. Soldiers are depicted alongside the same scale of tents with annotations on the ground showing how the soldier to act in that specific vicinity, each annotation suggests a different role for the soldier to undergo, almost like a dance or a notation specifically designed to understand the movement of the soldier in such camp. We clearly understand a front of the camp and a middle of the camp because of how the organization is formed. Such idea suggests that a settlement is starting to emerge, and slowly, we start seeing a type of decentralized center that is more stretched out horizontally with wings that protect it, acting as a corridor with an array of an enfilade of rooms on both ends that work to both accommodate soldiers and offer protection.

The second type is one that produces a proper town, a town that starts identifying qualities of nesting [fig 12]. Nesting quality produces a fortress-like idea of organization and protection, whereby soldiers are operating to surround their tents, and their tents are there to surround the central square of the formation. This is the mere opposite of the earlier type because it is in total centrality. The aim is to form a central space and square and protect it, but rather than like fig 8 and fig 9, the tents themselves start operating to form the space inside, which suggests that this camp is both, here to stay for a longer time, but also, there might be a risk of an attack at any moment from surrounding areas, which then, such form can easily transform into a cruciform or a circular form to offer military protection for the center. And somehow, there is a genius in leaving the corners empty of soldiers; by maximizing edges and corners, more soldiers can operate in protection during a battle, a shape that is both rectangular and cruciform is one that both works to organize and protect, but also to offer centrality in space.

Fig 11: Wallhausen, L’art militaire pour l’infanterie
Copyright: Houghton Library, Harvard University Rare books
Fig 12: Wallhausen, L’art militaire pour l’infanterie
Copyright: Houghton Library, Harvard University Rare books

In conclusion, we must not understand that the theater is what derived the typologies of war, or that the depiction of war and their materialization in architecture affected the production of the theater, but rather that both of their qualities run on very similar lines and over very parallel directions. Both build up scenarios in the production of space and production of a scene, and controlling such scene from aspects of observation, motion, specific instruction of fire, or even costumes. And such ideas suggest that the theater is a rich element that produces architecture because of its narrative, and so does war. This essay is a matter of illustrating how narrative in both can influence architecture very similarly, it is not just about mathematical geometrical formations and organizations, but why such organizations took place, and what causes such organizations to form such platonic and rigorous organizational form in extremely different contexts. Both are about the control of the scene, and making present that the scene is to be choreographed because it is trying to achieve or tackle a very specific set of problems or achieve a very direct goal, and hence, what it produces is a very thoughtful organizational typologies that work to produce a highly controlled environment that might not necessarily be totally architectural, but as the timeline grows, and settlement is something to be part of, everything becomes materialized, be it the organization of the crowed around a central theater and their participation in the play, or the organization of a military group on an empty land and their formation and settlement around the center. Both are inherently different in context yet very similar in the production of architecture.

[1] Guido Beltramini, andrea palladio and the architecture of battle, Marsilo, Vezenza, 2007, p276.

[2] Richardson, C. and Johnston, J. (1991), Medieval Drama, New York: St. Martin’s Press. P. 97–98

[3] Kahrl, Stanley . J, The Macro Plays: The Castle of Perseverance, Wisdom, Mankind. Mark Eccles, Oxford Press, 1943, p. 169

[4] Ibid. p.170

[5] Ibid. p.173

[6] The fourth wall is a performance convention in which an invisible, imagined wall separates actors from the audience. While the audience can see through this “wall”, the convention assumes, the actors act as if they cannot. From the 16th century onwards, the rise of illusionism in staging practices, which culminated in the realism and naturalism of the theatre of the 19th century, led to the development of the fourth wall concept [Bell, Elizabeth S. (2008). Theories of Performance. Sage. p. 203]

[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ticD2jdFZ8A

[8] Wallhausen, L’art militaire pour l’infanterie, Houghton Library, Harvard, p. 45

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