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Staging Scripture

Biblical Drama, 1350-1600

Series:

Edited by Peter Happé and Wim Hüsken

Against a background which included revolutionary changes in religious belief, extensive enlargement of dramatic styles and the technological innovation of printing, this collection of essays about biblical drama offers innovative approaches to text and performance, while reviewing some well-established critical issues. The Bible in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries appears in a complex of roles in relation to the drama: as an authority and centre of belief, a place of controversy, an emotional experience and, at times, a weapon. This collection brings into focus the new biblical learning, including the re-editing of biblical texts, as well as classical influences, and it gives a unique view of the relationship between the Bible and the drama at a critical time for both.

Contributors are: Stephanie Allen, David Bevington, Philip Butterworth, Sarah Carpenter, Philip Crispin, Clifford Davidson, Elisabeth Dutton, Garrett P. J. Epp, Bob Godfrey, Peter Happé, James McBain, Roberta Mullini, Katie Normington, Margaret Rogerson, Charlotte Steenbrugge, Greg Walker, and Diana Wyatt.

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Sarah Carpenter

Abstract

From the late 1530s, when the translation of the Scriptures into English was authorised, there rapidly developed a new book-body of lay Bible-readers with new practices of reading and interpretation of the Bible. While the traditional biblical drama of the late middle ages was gradually suppressed or abandoned, a new generation of plays on scriptural subjects emerged, written by and addressed to these new readers. This paper explores the ways in which mid-sixteenth-century playwrights responded to the lively culture of Bible-reading in the early years of the Reformation. Increased focus on the literal, social and ethical implications of biblical stories guided playwrights towards a greatly expanded body of powerful narratives, which raised challenging human issues, allowing strong theatrical interpretation in relation to contemporary concerns. But the new theatrical strategies do not always sit quite comfortably with the special status accorded by Protestantism to the Bible as the word of God. These Reformation plays begin to suggest crucial tensions between drama and doctrine, inadvertently reinforcing the gradually increasing Protestant unease with the stage as a forum in which to address the Bible.


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David Bevington

Abstract

The present essay asks why this unusual play was written when it was written, and how its remarkable staging devices, including an oven that is riven asunder to reveal the speaking image of Christ, are deployed to convey its homiletic idea. The essay argues that theatre and liturgy coalesce in a way that, while characteristic of other medieval religious plays, is here given a sharpness of focus that may owe its sense of urgency to then-current debate over the Real Presence of Christ in the Mass. We encounter in this play a striking ambiguity as to whether the audience is witnessing a theatrical fiction or a liturgical celebration of the ‘truth’ of the Real Presence. Although liturgy and theatrical mimesis are theoretically incompatible with each other, since liturgy insists on the Real Presence of Christ in the Mass rather than a metaphorical or historical remembrance, The Play of the Sacrament erases the distinction between liturgy and imitatio. The action may conclude in an actual church with a Bishop presiding over a ceremony of conversion and baptism of the Jews.


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Bob Godfrey

Abstract

From the story of the Epiphany in Matthew’s Gospel this chapter offers a brief account of the evolution of Christian attitudes to Herod the Great and how the slaughtered Innocents became subjects of devotional attention, the first martyrs for Christ. Taking then a variety of examples of how the story of the Epiphany captured the imagination of Christian poets and liturgical and religious playmakers the discussion proceeds to an examination of two plays from the Towneley collection, The Offering of the Magi and Magnus Herodes. Focussing on the character of Herod as presented there it is shown how his character can be interpreted as both violently threatening and yet obviously absurd. This ambivalence is brought out most strongly in Magnus Herodes where the Wakefield Master skilfully manages audience reception to see Herod as a character in a play, an entertainment in his own right, as much as a target for Christian vindictiveness. Herod’s envoi in the Towneley play is cheeky since it foregrounds the character’s humanity as against his culpability. In comparison with other examples this playwright seems to have been reluctant to join the almost universal moralising and condemnation of Herod in favour of a perfectly theatrical outcome.


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Philip Crispin

Abstract

In March 2013, I directed two Passion Pageants from the York Mysteries – The Conspiracy and Christ before Annas and Caiaphas (hereafter Conspiracy and Annas and Caiaphas). Each of them is both sacred and profane, devotional and political, providing an arena for social contestation. I analyse the two pageants through the prism of festive drama and play: the ludic interrogation of society, power and violence in both word and ritual. My interdisciplinary approach ranges from the carnivalesque and anthropology to Christian hermeneutics and art history; and I examine key discourses, rituals and plot developments nourished by both religious and secular sources. I proceed to apply the performance theories of Jerzy Grotowski and Jacques Lecoq, two twentieth-century theatre-makers, to the pageants; their thoughts and observations (alongside Walter Benjamin’s theory of history and anachronism) complement medieval theatre scholarship and further inform how to approach the performance of this drama, in terms of theatricality, performance practice and acting styles. Informed by all the above, I discuss how I approached my own production in terms of staging, performance and interpretation.


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James McBain

Abstract

Critics have often noted the inclusion of Marian lament in medieval biblical drama and how playwrights draw upon the affective conventions of Planctus Mariae lyric poetry to develop a compelling narrative from bare scriptural sources. Whilst demonstrating an influential relationship with an affective tradition, most notably developed from a study of elements of Nicholas Love’s The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ, this essay argues that the portrayal of Mary in the N-Town Crucifixion play both performs affective piety and also importantly considers, challenges, and refines its use. In addition to providing a close study of the play and a comparison of N-Town with similar extant examples, the essay seeks to engage with Mary’s complex theological and literary reception, within which she has been described as demonstrating the impossible synthesis of both ‘perfection’ and ‘realism’.


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Clifford Davidson

Abstract

The York Corpus Christi play cycle was a remarkably long-lived civic event requiring concerted and enthusiastic local effort. The plays dramatized sacred history from Creation to Doomsday. Sponsored by the city Corporation rather than the Church, they were designated as a work of charity for the benefit of the spectators. Their object was not didactic but rather a representation of salvation history that would be held in the memory of participants and spectators for their spiritual benefit. Designed to make the past present, they were expected to reinforce cultural memory of the Christian narrative, especially the events at the centre of history (the time of Jesus the Saviour). A goal was the formation of civic identity as catholic Christians. The plays, using canonical and other sources available to the authors of the texts, provided a view of the past from biblical history that would make the central events of past salvation history to be present for spectators. In conclusion, the Doomsday play brought to mind that which was expected to come at the end of history.


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Margaret Rogerson

Abstract

In arguing for possible reactions to the pageants of the York Corpus Christi Play in the early-fifteenth century, this essay looks at a range of material, not all of it contemporary with the period under consideration. It investigates evidence from sermons and other religious writing, memoirs of spiritually-inspired women, a letter from the year 600 written by Gregory the Great, pictorial narrative in the twelfth-century St. Albans Psalter, and civic documents, including records from York relating to two pageants for which no texts survive, The Hanging of Judas and The Funeral of the Virgin (Fergus). Much of this material has been examined before by theatre scholars, but consolidated re-examination here allows for further speculation. While it is impossible to define audience reception of theatrical events in any age or any culture with anything approaching precision, this discussion takes into account the social and spiritual nature of the York Play to suggest ways in which the ruling civic authorities and the guilds that had responsibility for the financing and presentation of the pageants may have attempted to shape audience responses to their Play, and in turn, may have shaped their Play in response to perceived audience reactions.


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Garrett P.J. Epp

Abstract

While the Wycliffite Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge famously condemns religious theatre as sinful idleness and ‘signs without deed,’ biblical drama has the potential to be highly productive, as a form of performative theology. Much like the meditative mode of affective piety, likewise common in the later Middle Ages, when undertaken seriously by or for those who believe in what it represents, the performance of biblical drama can create rather than merely represent theological meaning. This paper examines a variety of texts and performances, medieval and modern, in order to demonstrate how religious belief and theatrical make-believe can intertwine.


Series:

Greg Walker

Abstract

This article examines Sir David Lyndsay’s treatment of religious reform in Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis. It begins by examining the play’s representation of the Bible, but subsequently widens the perspective to look at the complexities and apparent contradictions evident in the play’s discussion of clerical wealth and immorality and the failure of clerics to preach and teach those in their cure. Rather than accepting the once conventional line that the playwright was advancing a proto-protestant position in the play, this essay sets his careful negotiation of questions of clerical corruption and failure in the context of the programme of progressive catholic reform led by Archbishop John Hamilton in the early 1550s. It suggests that, rather than advancing a radical confessional agenda, the play reflects the fluid state of religious politics in the Scotland of the 1550s on the eve of the Reformation.