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Death by Drama and Other Medieval Urban Legends.

Jody Enders. Death by Drama and Other Medieval Urban Legends.

Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2002. xxx + 324 pp. + 9 b/w pls. index. append. illus. bibl. $35. ISBN: 0-226-20787-0.

Jody Enders is a well known medievalist who extends her area of inquiry into the domain of the early modern stage in Death by Drama. She is interested in the relationship between theater and sixteenth-century religious controversy, as well as the continuing tension between modern and post modern views of representation and reality.

She begins with a miracle play performed in Metz in 1468 about Saint Catherine of Sienna, who entered a monastery by passing as a monk in order to escape the marriage her family had planned for her. The actor playing Catherine was so convincing that a young nobleman in the audience fell in love with her and persuaded her to marry him. Enders points out the radical discontinuity between this outcome and the view of marriage and conjugal life enacted in Catherine's story, but there is an even more startling disconnect in her next example, the martyrdom of Saint Barbara played twenty years later in the same city, for the actor who moved at least a couple of spectators to "go backstage to meet the star" was a young boy. One of his admirers was a widow while the other was a cleric; the cleric won out. Jehan Chardelly was so impressed with the young Lyonard that he sent him to Paris for his Master's in theology. Lyonard returned to his native Agen as a priest, and was last seen there officiating on his own--except that he appears again the next year playing a different Saint Catherine, but playing it less well, since his voice had changed in the meantime.

These first two examples illustrate what Enders means by "urban legends:" slippages between the texts of these plays and the historical record of their performance and reception. Not only does she include a detailed index and an immense bibliography along with voluminous end-notes, but she begins with a three page list of abbreviations, and concludes with a forty-page appendix that includes the original text of the principal documents, lovingly reproduced with detailed and ingenious philolgical commentary. My chief complaint about this volume is that I did not have enough bookmarks to mark all the resources Enders made available to help us follow the compelling examples she unpacks with such care. It is possible to quibble over a few of her treatments: I would have liked her to say more about the relationship between pedophilia and the medieval/early modern representation of homoeroticism in Chardelly's attraction to Lyonard, for instance.

Enders centers her inquiry on the distinction between the spectator as physical theatergoer and as psychic onlooker. She remains suspicious about our tendency to assume our own immunity to the doubts and desires embodied on the medieval stage, both because she is unwilling to assume medieval spectators' inability to make the distinctions upon which we have come to rely, and because she remains skeptical about our own ability or willingness to make them consistently. Her queries on these subjects ultimately led her to the determined efforts on the part of early modern political authorities to impose the kind of order on audiences that the advent of talkies imposed on cinema audiences, at least until recently.

It is more difficult than usual to do justice to this volume in a short review. There are fourteen chapters on a series of performances or questions such as the difference between Stanley Cavell's racist yokel who rushed on stage to save Desdemona and the medieval spectator, again in Metz, who saved a priest playing Christ from dying on the cross. While the first seven chapters are convincing and illuminating, readers of this journal will doubtless be drawn to the second half, where Enders demonstrates the permeability of early modern generic borders, for example in the enactment of Jewish desecration of the Host which [presumably] unknowingly reproduced earlier plays on the topic as if the incident depicted there had happened. As Enders ends her book by showing, whatever our doubts about hard and fast distinctions between our imagination and perception of truth, the difference did, and therefore does, matter.


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Title Annotation:Reviews
Author:Benson, Edward
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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