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Theatricality and narrative in Medieval and Early Modern Scotland.

Theatricality and narrative in Medieval and Early Modern Scotland

John J. McGavin

Ashgate, 2007

50 [pounds sterling] Hardback, 172 pages

ISBN 978-0-7546-0794-6

The Narrator, the Expositor and the Prompter in European Medieval Theatre

Philip Butterworth (ed.)

Brepols, 2007

59.03 [pounds sterling] Hardback, 343 pages

ISBN 978-2-503-52579-2

Would it not be fine to travel in time and see medieval drama, or Greek tragedy, presented in its original conditions? We can now debate these, but have no secure means of knowing what they truly were. Indeed, with our modern mindsets, how would we truly understand what we were seeing? A common underlying theme of the two books under review is just this difficulty of interpreting what evidence there is and the nature of that evidence. Both make a fascinating fist of the task of seeking to verify the unverifiable.

John McGavin brings to his task his accustomed combination of in-depth research, wide reading and grasp of contemporary theory. He explores a wide variety of written sources to find examples not of what we might call 'theatre' in a modern sense, but of theatricality as a means of publicly expressing social or political stances. McGavin shows acuity and insight as he discusses the lively subversion of public ceremony to achieve some form of justice. He relates and analyses, for example, the case of Sandie Furrour who, returning from imprisonment in England during pre-Reformation turmoil, discovers a local cleric has been "sleeping with his wife and using up his money and possessions'. Furrour's protests lead to a charge against him of heresy, a life-threatening matter. He evades punishment by appropriating the implicit theatrical throughline of his trial to assert his right to justice, and by using theatrical means does so without further endangering his own life. McGavin moves to and fro in the late medieval and early-modern period to identify other such occasions. His chapter 'Theatre of Departure' highlights, for example, theatrical means of protest by which subjects might maintain their posture of loyalty and yet publicly challenge kings themselves to pay their debts.

McGavin's historical contextualisation and analysis of the political, religious and social background to his case studies are admirable. His discussion of the assassination of an English marshal of Edinburgh castle in the 1330s is a model of its kind. He uses his sources to vivify an odd episode, in which Anglo-Scottish relations, personal revenge and the self-conscious theatricalisation of the assassination combine to make that act not only murder, but political theatre. McGavin shows the forthright ways in which theatricality in Scotland, as in the rest of Europe in the period he explores, was a central feature of social, political and religious consciousness.

Philip Butterworth's collection of essays explores non-naturalistic conventions of representation in mainly religious dramas ranging from the Low Countries to Poland, through France, Spain, Italy, Germany and England. If the role of editor can be seen as akin to that of expositor and prompter, certainly Butterworth has drawn together a varied--and generally lively--cast of contributors. Each offers a thoughtful discussion of aspects of Butterworth's theme as identified in the volume's title. And Butterworth very nearly brings off the difficult exercise of making this book seem a coherent collection of essays.

The problem lies in the various unreconciled approaches which different chapters take to the theme. John McKinnell, for example, describes a project to seek to produce in modern Durham Albertino Mussato's Ecerinus, while in the next chapter Jolanta Rzegocka describes the role of expositor in early-modern popular Polish theatre through a process of close analysis of surviving dramatic texts. Peter Meredith offers fascinating textual analysis of aspects of the N-town manuscripts, while Tom Pettitt and Christine Dymkowski discuss aspects of, respectively, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Pericles in order to explore continuities between late medieval and Shakespearean theatrical practice with regard to exposition and prompting. Pettitt focuses on analysis of the existing text, while Dymkowski includes detailed discussion of productions of Pericles in English theatre over the last half-century or so. In other words, although Butterworth's introduction makes a brave attempt to convey the impression that there is a logical progression from one essay to the next, there appears to be no clear unifying approach to research methodology, nor an overarching editorial vision.

McGavin's single-author volume, while dealing with a variety of materials from different sources, certainly demonstrates a coherent methodology and thematic development. Butterworth's useful multi-author volume would always, to be fair, have difficulty in achieving such coherence. Yet, his editorial decision to include material which, while worthwhile in itself, is often quite diverse in content, intention and methodology, makes the volume read less as a collection of interlinked essays than a very helpful reader. Yet both volumes can be recommended as providing valuable material and insight. Both illustrate the canniness and acuity required in seeking to understand the theatrical modes and methods of the late medieval and early modern period. And both in their different ways cast light not only on their explicit topics, but on the way in which good scholars can work from often difficult evidence to develop fascinating analyses of late medieval theatricality and theatre.
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Title Annotation:The Narrator, the Expositor and the Prompter in European Medieval Theatre
Author:Brown, Ian
Publication:Theatre Notebook
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2008
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