A Network Visualization of the 1391 Innsbruck Easter Play – Part I


I found a character network visualization tool for simplified analysis online, https://ezlinavis.dracor.org/, tried it out with data from a medieval religious German play from 1391 and replicated the visualization and analysis in Gephi and deliberated about some constraining factors for future analyses.

I’ve been playing around with https://ezlinavis.dracor.org/ – an easy visualization tool for networks in plays, developed by Frank Fischer and Carsten Milling. It takes a simplified input of roles in a play, with their names by scene and act and then visualizes the interaction by drawing a line between the roles that are active in the scene. So, if there is Faust on the stage as well as Mephistopheles, but no one else, then both characters are nodes and an undirected edge is drawn between them. We got, however, no indication of the quality of their interaction. It might well be that one character has no dialogue or serves as background staffage or has significantly less dialogue than the other. Their ‘presence’ is thus simply them being on the stage at the same time during a scene.

Now, I have been working with medieval religious German plays and one of my favorite plays is the so called Innsbruck or Neustift Easter Play, which has survived in a well used, vertically folded folio manuscript dated 1391. The play is one of the better know German religious plays, mainly due to it featuring an extended burlesque scene around the ‘purchase of ointment’ by the three Marys on their way to Jesus’ grave. It also features an extensive satire of the three estates (‘Ständesatire’) accompanied by a devils’ play (‘Teufelspiel’).

My idea was to try and see how the character network of a medieval religious play might look like – potentially opening for a collective visualization of all a large enough number of plays – something like the Dramaviz poster by Fischer et al. that features >400 German dramatic plays from the modern times. And think about the potential of this as a comparative study where modern German theater (meaning: plays that were created in the classical tradition roughly from 16th century onward) is compared with medieval plays (that were, according to literary scholars, of an entirely different nature).

The first problem I faced was with the EasyLineVis tool’s basic assumption about how a play is structured: you have a number of acts (in classical drama it’s usually 5) and scenes within acts where characters enter (and leave) the stage. These are clearly marked, so it’s relatively easy to extract this kind of information. However, in medieval religious plays, there is no such thing as the common classical/modern notion of acts and scenes. This has – among other things – to do with the staging of these plays on the simultaneous stage (‘Simultanbühne’), where the characters are present ‘on the stage’ at the same time and coming forward and interacting with each other when it’s their turn. So, a simple ‘enters the stage’ or ‘leaves the stage’ cannot be found in the stage directions of the plays. A common method to structure the plays (for analysis or philological treatment) is thus to determine scenes according to the narrative of the salvation history that forms the plot basis for these plays. Alternatively, one could determine scenes by finding indicators for a ‘shift of focus’, that is, when the plot shifts to a different set of characters (e.g. the Jews, Pilate and the Soldiers, the Soldiers and the Angles; the three Marys etc.). Or – and this would be more according to the physical features of the simultaneous stage, they could be determined in accordance with the concrete stage locations, the so-called huts (‘Häuser’). It is, however, often not clearly stated in the stage directions or elsewhere in the plays’ text and paratext, what kind of  huts are on the stage and which characters belong to which hut.

For a first try out, however, I’ve attempted a separation of the Innsbruck Easter Play into scenes using Wikipedia’s suggestion of thematic units, based on Johan Nowé’s “Wir wellen haben ein spil: Zur Geschichte des Dramas im deutschen Mittelalter” (1997), p. 36, and this is what I came up with:

  1. prologue
  2. ordering of the guards
  3. resurrection
  4. decent into hell
  5. plaint of the Marys
  6. peddler’s play
  7. the grave and the apostles’ run
  8. epilogue

So, we have 8 scenes – let’s look at the graph for this!

How to do that:

(1) download the file “InnsOS_characters_scene.txt”  from my GitHub repository,

(2) copy-and-paste its content into the left blank pane of the ezlinavis tool.

(3) the tool will automatically create a network graph in the right pane and provide a .csv-file of your input in the middle pane

(4) which you can download if you want to do your own visualization, with, let’s say, Gephi.

(5) click on ‘Graph’ in the right upper corner and chose ‘ForceAtlas2’ as a layout for your graph.

ezlinavis doesn’t let you download the graph as an image file – it’s an educational tool and serves a different function – so I took the .csv-file and uploaded it into Gephi. After some tweaking of parameters (e.g. visible labels for the nodes and a change in scale) I applied the same layout that ezlinavis uses as default (ForceAtlas2) – et voilà! A first character network visualization of the Innsbruck Easter Play looks like this

Character Network Visualization for the Innsbruck Easter Play (1391) Using 8 Thematically Determined Scenes

I’m not unhappy with the outcome – you can clearly see which characters have the most connections (the Angels and Jesus) and the peddler’s play stands out as separate pretty visibly. Interestingly, the devils’s play – which I am tempted to call a ‘cluster of devils’ (as in: a murder of crows) – is also neatly defined.

However – and this is a big however – this visualization has at least two big flaws which make it unusable outside a mere context of discovery. I.e. you cannot prove or disprove anything with this.

  1. The connections (edges) between the characters are ‘undirected’ – you do not see who talks to whom – and the basic data model is relatively simple: it doesn’t account for actual interaction, nor does it take the characters’ performative actions, movements, or (length of) dialogue, or time spent in a scene into account. This can, however, be helped with modifying the data model and adding the info to the csv-input.
  2. The division of the play into 8 scenes is in my opinion rather superficial. Nowé does determine the scenes thematically and in accordance with salvation history. And not based on the text of the play and the division indications that can be derived from the stage directions and the dialogue.

I will take it from here and fix these issues, starting with the division into scenes. I will then run the same data (who’s on the stage at the same time) with different scene divisors again and see what happens. As a second step, I will account for direction of action and possibly length of dialogue and/or time spent in a scene (likely to be derived by analyzing dialogue length) as well as movement (characters moving from one stage location on to another). But this will have to wait!

So far, I can recommend trying out the ezlinavis tool for simple exploration of character networks in performative genres such as plays – it looks like it could be especially useful in a teaching context! But for more in depth and deliberate analysis of character networks, a tool like Gephi – and more knowledge of the underlying assumptions of modeling networks – will be the most sensible way to proceed!


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