Donnalee Dox. The Idea of the Theatre in Latin Christian Thought: Augustine to the Fourteenth Century.
Donnalee Dox's most welcome skill as a writer has been her clarity when transmitting the complex mystical meditations of medieval Church luminaries to a modern reader (my own research is indebted to her explanation of the "millet seed" paradox of Albert of Saxony, for example). The Idea of the Theatre in Latin Christian Thought is primarily a series of such explications, beginning with a concise analysis of Augustine's infamous (to readers of Jonas Barish) philosophical and religious objections to the drama. Contextualizing Augustine within the intellectual traditions of the early Church, as Dox here does, brings more focus on the inadequacy of theater, in Augustine's estimation, as a producer of authentic meaning (signa propia), than on the more oft-remarked-upon Augustinian view of theater as a source of wickedness, paganism, and sexual promiscuity. The next subject of Dox's study is Isidore of Seville, who a mere two centuries after Augustine would analyze theater more objectively and historically, as one form of pagan wisdom among many. Thus does Dox begin to complicate our generally held suppositions about the relationship of the medieval Church to dramatic art. She goes on to tell some very revelatory tales, such as those of the eighth- and ninth-century attempts by Rabanus Maurus and Remigius of Auxerre to render classical theater into the Christian cosmology, of the controversial Amalarius of Metz (who created a very theatrical interpretation of the liturgy), of the eleventh-century Honorius Augustodunensis (who drew links between classical tragedy and the Mass), and of Hugh of St. Victor, who would include the theater as a legitimate art form (albeit a pagan one) in his twelfth-century Didascalion. The final chapter is devoted to a series of writings (certainly new to this reviewer) through the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, beginning with Hermannus Alemannus's transmission of Averroes' commentary on Aristotle; this commentary brought the theater securely within the compass of medieval arts practice, and was used as a platform for Bartholomew of Bruges's Brevis exposito. Presented to the theological seminaries of Paris in 1307, the Brevis exposito is evidence of a "reconfiguration" (in Dox's words) of Greco-Roman-style dramatic art within the medieval Christian philosophical mind, permitting the drama to be recognized as a viable means of transmitting genuine meaning and logical argument, even on the level of the sacred, over a century before the destruction of Byzantium predicated a massive influx of new classical texts and Greek interpreters to the scriptoriums of Europe.
Dox's relatively slim (127 pages, with 47 pages of notes) volume seeks to complicate two conventions of medieval theater historiography, the first being a tendency to understand those writings of Christians of late antiquity and the medieval periods that take theater and performance as subject matter to be "dramatic criticism." Modernly, "dramatic criticism" presupposes a particular set of material circumstances necessary to identify a given event as performance; these circumstances include, for instance, a discrete playing space of some kind and the impersonation of characters by actors speaking scripts with mimetic plots. But this set of assumptions is a notably post-Renaissance way of looking at things, Dox argues, and it tends to illegitimately influence our contemporary readings of medieval treatises on the theater as greatly as the relationships between rival scholastic traditions influenced medieval writers on the dramatic art.
The second convention Dox wishes to interrogate is perhaps of more immediate interest to theater historians who might not be so easily seduced into her play-by-play of the knotty philosophical skeins of medieval theological discourses. That convention is the understanding of the relatively sudden emergence of Greco-Roman-style performance art and its attendant methods of dramatic criticism in the fifteenth century as the result of a "rediscovery" of classical texts thought lost to the scholars of medieval Europe (or at worst secreted away by some Eco-esque Jorge of Burgos). If, as Dox's research demonstrates clearly, some of these texts were not, in fact, quite as lost as all that, and the leaders of the Church not so much threatened by the drama and associated classical documents as they were, more or less, disinterested in them as inadequate tools for the production of meaning, then a new discussion regarding the continuity of "dramatic criticism" and other aspects of Classical culture through the so-called Dark Ages emerges.
Whether the reader accompanies Dox to the frontiers of her conclusions or no, this very close look at the minute mechanisms of Christian thought is very useful, and not merely as a comprehensive, brilliantly framed summation of some of the most difficult twists of Christian theology concerning the drama. With The Idea of the Theatre, Dox demands that those of us who are prone, perhaps, to skip lightly over the Dark Ages in our undergraduate theater history surveys acknowledge, at least, that the great theologians of Christianity's formative millennium were not exclusively vitriolic, bile-spewing antitheatrical polemicists, stupidly and myopically using their considerable power to blast out any vestige of the "pagan" lively art for fear of its use in the development of free thought and action. On the contrary, Dox presents these thinkers as deeply thoughtful and pious men who, like all priests, sought tools for the perfection of the human soul, and who, like all academics, found themselves swimming with (or against) powerful and ever-changing currents of thought. By necessity, Dox's treatise is dense, in some places extremely so, but it is patient without being condescending, and direct Without being simplistic.
The usefulness of this text to theater historians committed to the ongoing New Historicist project of debunking myths associated with the discontinuities between the medieval period and the Renaissance is readily apparent, as is the book's utility to students of medieval theology and philosophy. It is certainly not a book for an introductory undergraduate course, but would be a boon to any PhD classroom with students who are serious about complicating our stereotypes of the antitheatricalism of the early Christian Church, and a must for the bookshelf of any scholar of medieval theater practices.
MICHAEL M. CHEMERS
Carnegie Mellon University
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|Author:||Chemers, Michael M.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2005|
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