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Sacred Players: The Politics of Response in the Middle English Religious Drama.

Sacred Players: The Politics of Response in the Middle English Religious Drama, by Heather Hill-Vasquez. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2007. Pp. vii + 229. Cloth $59.95.

Heather Hill-Vasquez in Sacred Players examines medieval drama in its most vulnerable period, early Protestant England, suggesting we should see it as "an important second life for the religious drama in England" rather than as a time of decline (3). In focusing on the period of decline, and as she argues, change, Hill-Vasquez raises questions about the power and use of the drama that are a welcome contribution to the field. She argues persuasively that these late plays survived in part because they could be effectively reworked to reflect Protestant rather than Catholic concerns, and indeed that they could be used as condemnation of the earlier religion. Like David Mills (1998) and Paul Whitfield White (1993), she examines how these plays might be recycled to adapt to changing societal needs. She builds on this scholarship by theorizing that the reformation of the Catholic drama relied not only on an emendation of the text but also on a shifting audience response. These plays thus "taught" the audience how good Christians should read the play and demanded they take an active role in constructing the play's meaning.

The work has been subdivided into three sections, all of which draw on Jauss's Rezeptionsasthetik as their theoretical basis: "Part I: Reforming Response: Protestant Adaptations," "Part II: Sanctifying Response: The Church and the 'Real Presence,'" and "Part III: Gendering Response: Christ's Body and God's Word." In these later chapters she also draws on New Historicist and gender theories to a lesser extent, though these theoretical premises are not always clearly delineated.

The political argument in part 1 is the most complete and persuasive of her theories. In chapter 1, Hill-Vasquez examines the Chester Whitsunday play and in it sees a change in the audience role from the Catholic participatory experience in Christian history to the more intellectual Protestant view of biblical history. Where the play draws the audience into the action, she sees remnants of the pre-Reformation play. In contrast, the Expositor, a character she argues is likely a late addition, places the action in the past and explains the "true meaning" of the past to the audience, at times "correcting" the more Catholic elements of the play. This perhaps sets up a New Historicist argument as well that Hill-Vasquez does not yet fully explore.

In chapter 2, "The Conversion of St. Paul," Hill-Vasquez argues that the subject matter of this play made it more easily adaptable to Protestant theology and thus saved it where other saints' plays were suppressed. She states that, like the Expositor in the Chester play, the Poeta in The Conversion of St. Paul consistently reminds the audience of the importance of Scripture, privileging it over the more participatory nature of the play itself. Hill-Vasquez's argument here is intriguing, yet the play itself does seem to embrace much of the view of Catholicism as well. The audience is clearly drawn into the play in a way that blurs the boundaries of past and present, making them part of Christian history and contemporaneous witnesses to Paul's conversion. The exhortations of the Poeta to the learned men that the procession continue "under the correccyon of them that letteryd be" (line 355) would be more persuasive as a Protestant interpolation if it did not follow the more general "under your correccyon" (line 8; my emphasis).

In part 2, Hill-Vasquez examines how even in the medieval Catholic drama plays could be used to mold audience response into its "proper" form, correcting and criticizing the behavior of established authority. This analysis thus furthers her argument about the power of drama to shape belief, yet it does not substantively contribute to her larger argument about Protestant reform. Her third chapter explores the question of who should have access to the sacred, examining The Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge and the Croxton Play of the Sacrament. She argues that while the Tretise cautions against religious drama because it inappropriately merges the sacred and the mundane, the Croxton play demonstrates both the danger in inappropriate handling of the divine and the audience's ability to correct that misuse through proper behavior.

Hill-Vasquez turns to a New Historicist argument in chapter 4, asserting that the York Corpus Christi plays emphasize the connection between human and divine labor; at the same time they question the sanctity of the mercantile class, condemning work that is not creative. She argues that this may be a response to the control that the ruling elite had over the Corpus Christi plays, and their use of the plays, and the fines levied in their benefit, to control the crafts. This argument assumes that the support of the plays was primarily involuntary, and supposes an essentially oppositional relationship between the merchant and craft trades.

In the third part, Hill-Vasquez returns to the question of Protestant versus Catholic response in drama, examining gender roles in medieval and Protestant examples. Her fifth chapter investigates the role of gender in the Digby Candlemass Day and the Killing of the Children. She asserts that gender roles become fluid in these plays and this echoes the fluidity of temporal and sacred bounds that we see elsewhere in medieval drama. Her last chapter once again returns to the question of post-Reformation medieval drama. Where the fluid gender roles of the "Catholic" play encouraged the crossing of gender boundaries in order to attain a complete religious experience, in Lewis Wager's Protestant play The Life and Repentance of Mary Magdalene, the feminine becomes a sign of the "old" religion and thus a point of "contention, critique, and religious condemnation" (169). Her return to the question of Catholic versus Protestant response in chapter 6 is a welcome reminder of the overall argument about the revision of medieval drama, a thread that gets lost a bit in her exploration of Catholic drama in part 2.

The questions raised by Hill-Vasquez in Sacred Players about the role of late medieval drama in a new Protestant society are good ones, and she supports her analysis well with careful close reading of the texts. While the focus moves away at times from what I see as the central argument of the text--the transformation of Catholic to Protestant drama--and per force relies at times on assumptions about audience response, it is, nevertheless, both well researched and clearly written. More important, it asks us to consider late medieval drama as both reflective of societal change and as a means of effecting that change.

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Author:Harbin, Andrea R.
Publication:Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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