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.
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.