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Staging Reform, Reforming the Stage: Protestantism and Popular Theater in Early Modern England.

Huston Diehl. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1997. 16 pls. + xviii + 238 pp. $39.95. ISBN: 0-8014-3303-7.

Huston Diehl lodges a compelling thesis that popular theatrical performances under Elizabeth I and James I functioned as both reformist products of the English Reformation and reforming producers of Protestant habits of mind. Her ideas concerning the role of religion in the shaping of consciousness draw eclectically upon the findings of symbolic anthropologists and cultural theorists. This book breaks new ground in basing its analysis of dramatic texts upon iconographical evidence derived from woodcuts in John Foxe's Book of Martyrs and works by German Lutheran artists including Durer, Cranach, and Ostendorfer. Her well-grounded claim that Calvinistic theology and anti-Catholic ideology pervade Elizabethan and Jacobean popular drama subscribes to the consensus that has come into being during the last fifteen years concerning the dialectical interplay between Protestant antitheatrical and antipoetic attitudes and the generation of iconoclastic drama and poetry that interrogates its own artifice.

Focused on Foxe's Book of Martyrs, two opening chapters consider iconoclastic responses to popular iconophilia. They claim that a revolutionary rhetoric of reform reshapes iconoclastic and martyrological scenes in theatrical terms. Five ensuing chapters argue that iconoclastic impulses generate distinctively Protestant forms of tragedy that interrogate and contain antitheatrical anxieties. Diehl asserts that Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge tragedies recapitulate competing ritualistic experiences grounded upon controversies concerning the Roman-rite Mass as opposed to Protestant celebration of the Lord's Supper. Anxieties concerning the mystifying spectacle of "false" images surface in plays such as Othello and The Atheist's Tragedy. Iconophobia and gynophobia converge in Stuart love tragedies that undergo analysis in terms of a chiasmic interchange between the figuring of beautiful idols as women and beautiful women as idols. The book closes with an extended consideration of how The Duchess of Malfi dramatizes Protestant theories of conscience that embody a rhetoric of witnessing. The analysis of Webster's play, a work focused on clerical hypocrisy, religious images, and martyrdom, is richly rewarding.

Despite the subtlety of its the close readings of dramatic texts, Staging Reform, Reforming the Stage contains a variety of elisions and failures to resolve critical problems. For a text that proclaims its historicism, the argument is curiously ahistorical. For example, the argument that Foxe "invents a new, Protestant form - an iconoclastic drama" (43) neglects decades-old iconoclastic plays by Thomas Kirchmeyer [Thomas Naogeorgus], John Bale, and others, in addition to Foxe's own Christus Triumphans, an iconoclastic play published in Basel seven years before the Book of Martyrs. In positing that the Reformation is both static and finished by the reign of Elizabeth, Diehl is disengaged from current historiographical debate concerning the different phases of the English Reformation as a prolonged movement that remained unfinished until well into the seventeenth century. Her assumption that Foxe is the author of the Book of Martyrs distorts his actual role as compiler and editor of printed and manuscript accounts written by an encyclopedic array of authors. Her further assumption that he designed the woodcuts for the book distorts his role as a collaborator with the publisher John Day, who commissioned the wood blocks that he used to produce the best-illustrated books of the Elizabethan era. Diehl's unawareness of recent scholarship concerning Foxe and sixteenth-century iconography leads her to cover familiar territory and lodge some misreadings (e.g., in Figure 2, Edward VI is enthroned in the royal presence chamber rather than the stylized "interior of a church" [p. 11]). She interpret woodcuts merely as images on printed pages without reference to the rich influence of Continental sources for illustrations in the Book of Martyrs or Day's reuse of wood blocks commissioned many years earlier for books unconnected to Foxe's book (e.g., the picture of Anne Askew's execution cited on pages 193-94).

One may wonder, furthermore, about the exact meanings of "theatrical," "dramatic," and "iconoclastic," terms that Diehl uses in a slippery way to connote that which is spectacular, controversial, and rhetorical. Does limitation of this study to major canonical plays by Kyd, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Webster, and Middleton cut reformist drama off from its pre-Shakespearean roots in popular interludes composed for production by Protestant ideologues such as Bale, Richard Weaver, and Thomas Becon? Why is the study limited to tragedies of revenge and love when Shakespearean problem comedies and romances, and seventeenth-century history plays influenced by the Book of Martyrs dramatize issues related to martyrology, idolatry, iconoclasm, illusion, artifice, and conscience?

Despite issues that it leaves unresolved, Staging Reform, Reforming the Stage represents a provocative contribution to the present back-to-theology movement in early modern cultural studies. Diehl's alertness to the religious complexity of Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy inspires a variety of rewarding close readings. Scholars will continue to debate important questions that she raises concerning the sacramental gaze, self-reflexivity, memorialism, and kindred issues.

JOHN N. KING The Ohio State University
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:King, John N.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1999
Words:805
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