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Drama and Sermon in Late Medieval England: Performance, Authority, Devotion.

Drama and Sermon in Late Medieval England: Performance, Authority, Devotion, by Charlotte Steenbrugge. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2017. Pp. 192. Hardback. $89.00.

The conclusions reached in the book are ones that might have been predicted in respect of existing knowledge but the author conducts a thorough and persuasive investigation to support her conclusions. And she is to be congratulated on that.

The territory of this book is one that has not received much analysis since G. R. Owst published his extensive work Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England (1933). Owst was intent on establishing the influence of sermons on the construction and performance of plays. In picking up many of the unresolved and contentious issues outlined by Owst, Steenbrugge states: "There is no historical or textual evidence to argue that Middle English religious plays were profoundly influenced by contemporary preaching. And, indeed, neither was preaching particularly affected by drama: late medieval English preaching is, on the whole, less theatrical than some of its continental relations" (155).

The author makes continual reference to the limited amount of available evidence upon which she is able to conduct her analysis and thus the difficulty of accurately determining the relationship between the sermon and the play (pp. xi, xiii, xv, xvi, 10, 14). Such difficulty arises from the lack of evidence of practice, motivation of the instigators and, most importantly, identification of their purpose. It is the articulation of this difficulty that strengthens the work. However, lack of evidence inevitably leads to the kind of speculative discussion that feeds on speculation from other scholars.

Steenbrugge pursues examination of the fallacy that "didactic addresses" (viii) should be regarded as manifestations of the "sermonic voice" which interupt "the dramatic business of the play". She is critical of the notion that many examples of sermonic influence in plays actually interupts the flow of dramatic action. Her discussion recognizes that such use of direct address is not an interupting addition to the play but an integral aspect of the conception of the play. She is right to point out the complete misunderstanding of the purpose and value of such didactic intention.

In examining the relationship and possible inter-relationship between sermons and plays the author does not develop discussion of the distinction between the sermon as delivered by one person and the play as executed by more than one person. Such discussion might have helped her towards her developing view that plays were didactically more effective in their transmission than sermons. The social, imaginative, and physical three-dimensional delivery of plays is what presumably created their religious and theatrical impact. Thus, it is hardly surprising that theater is far more capable of delivering powerful didactic influence than the sermon. There may also have been advantage in developing discussion of the relationship between oratorical practice and conventions and sermon delivery. Although Steenbrugge consistently talks of plays as "drama" she is, in effect, talking about plays as "theater" since it is the effect of plays in practice of which she talks.

The power of the practice of theater over the sermon may also be recognized through the versatility of the player's options in delivering "direct address". Unfortunately, the author does not go into much detail of what she means by "direct address". She does not say what "audience address" is or what she means by it; it needs to be discussed through "what it is", "what it is intended to be", "what it intended to do" and "how it is intended to affect its recipients". Clearly, direct address is not one thing; it exists through different purposes and processes. The player may speak "at", "to", "with" or "through" his audience. These stances and their adopted intentions are fundamentally different and capable of infinite and rotatable change according to religious, imaginative, and didactic purpose; they stimulate spectator responses in ways more difficult to achieve by the preacher in the delivery of his monologue.

The most significant distinction between the didactic nature of sermons and plays occurs in the imaginative detail and its framework. Even if a play closely follows the biblical narrative and thus may not be seen to consist of imaginative content, the context in which the material is delivered, through a socially imagined dynamic, called a play, is capable of presenting audiences with profound experiences. The sermon, on the other hand, is delivered by one person, the preacher, who may well present an imaginative context but one that is presented through words and not three-dimensional action and interaction as delivered by the play.

The roles of expositor and expounder (here using the fashionable term, "presenter") are discussed (70) to suggest that they were were probably included for "practical reasons rather than didactic or religious ones". The separation of these functions seems to miss the point of their inclusion; they are not mutually exclusive in their didactic contributions which are designed to fuse into an organic whole. These figures are integral and conceived along with the defined purpose of the play.

Discussion is expanded to include the contentious sacrament of penance and the extent to which it influenced the content of plays such as Wisdom, the Croxton Play of the Sacrament and the Baptism. The didactic value of this influence was to be seen in the reinforcement of orthodoxy. Concepts and practices such as confession, contrition, satisfaction, salvation, shame and absolution are discussed in relation to orthodoxy, Lollardism and the practical possibilities of staged enactment.

It is unfortunate that the author chooses to refer to sermons and plays as "literary genres": "We should think more in terms of cross-fertilization across literary genres rather than posit an especially marked relation between late medieval English religious drama and sermons" (14).To place the label "literary genres" on these different forms is to plant a false description and purpose on their respective constructions. The motives of the clergy and lay organizers of plays are not literary ones.

The author's analysis would have been helped if she had probed somewhat deeper into the purposes of sermons and plays. As it is, her investigation tends to stay on the surface of her selected material through discussion of the "what" and less so, the "why". This is probably through the lack of available evidence. Discussion of "purpose" would have helped her in her examination of the identity of the sermon and the play; it would have thrown up issues concerning their differences and reasons for existence. Preachers and play instigators created purposes that were related but different from each other in order to deliver them. Both activities were intended to be disseminated to groups of people who, themselves, brought different purposes to their engagement. A church congregation is not the same as a play audience even though they may consist of the same people. Each of these differences are promoted by different motivation and resultant purpose.

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Author:Butterworth, Philip
Publication:Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2019
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