Stage, Cathedral, Wagon, Street
Ramon Casas paints “The Corpus Christi Procession Leaving the Church of Santa Maria del Mar” in 1907. The medieval Corpus Christi Feast that gave rise to the procession is in the significant way responsible for the rebirth of drama in Europe and in England especially. The Feast became increasingly theatrical, came to involve plays, and eventually spawned a three-day biblical cycle festival during Whitsuntide. This dramatic church event celebrating the miracle of transubstantiation and the continual reenactments of Christ’s death is the theatrical ancestor of the plays of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Middleton, Jonson, and Fletcher. This sort of inter theatrical, trans-Reformational connection is key to the questions I ask in Stage, Cathedral, Wagon, Street: Theatricality and Religion in Early Modern England — a book forthcoming in 2018 with the University of Notre Dame Press.
What do early modern commercial plays, political ceremonies, public sermons, religious festivals, jigs, ballads, liturgies, burlesques, and morality drama have in common? The answer to this question influences how we think about each one of these performance genres individually, from the famous plays of Shakespeare to the ubiquitous ballads sung by hawkers and peddlers in the streets of London. Should we differentiate between “high” and “low” performance types? Between “religious” and “secular,” or “Catholic” and Protestant?” Perhaps between “medieval” and “modern?” What through-line connects these performances to one another as shows, events, and spectacles—or, in the words used by the early moderns, games, jests, gambols, sports, and pastimes?In short, are there practices and ideas that comprise a quality that we can call early modern “theatricality?” My answer to this questions challenges the binaries listed above. The presentational mode that connect sermons, postlude jigs, and seasonal feasts of misrule is not a specific element of story, character, intent, or venue but, rather, a certain commitment to the here and now, a way of inhabiting a space or playing a character.
Early modern theatricality manifests in a practical belief in the ability of a spectacle to both say and do at once. In this way, early modern performances are related to contemporary performance art where the lines between actor and audience, representation and presence are purposely erased. Early modern performers and authors of performances depend on this erasure. Donne’s public sermons at St. Paul’s Cross, for example, are written not just despite but for an audience immersed in distractions, acoustical echoes, and social stratifications. Likewise, a sensational play like Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus blurs the line between theatrical spectacle and devilish incantation, harnessing the energy flung about by antithetical writers. And balladeers, easily the most populous performers in a city like London—their songs transformed the spontaneous environment around them, effectively changing calls for attention and piety into immediate occasions for charity, that is, opportunities to help a poor hawker by purchasing a ballad.
In my comparative exploration of performance genres, I discover a particular overlap between early modern theatricality and religious practice. And this overlap parallels a similar overlap between being and doing. The understanding of plays and shows as performative in their ability to draw on their present occasion, personnel, and material surroundings is indigenous to Christian festival culture and to the ways that play was integrated there. I describe early modern inter-theatricality as “trans-Reformation,” thus, because it is difficult to clearly differentiate Catholic and Protestant performances in this way—or at least, the overlaps and continuities between pre- and post-reformational performance practices are more interesting to me.
As it turns out, many early moderns were acutely aware of the medieval inheritances of their performance culture, and, in fact, audiences and practitioners alike freely exploited tension built into the reformation of images, spectacles, and devotion that scholars have uncovered in recent decades. Such tension indeed incited some of the most exciting innovations in early modern dramaturgy, rhetoric, virtuosity, theatrics, and symbolism.Chapters explore a variety of performance genres and their overlapping strategies and performative conceits.
Individual performance types I explore include: the Chester Corpus Christi Cycle and its namesake liturgy, Donne’s St. Pauls sermons and sermon culture, Shakespeare’s Henry V, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, the boy bishop festivities, religious broadside ballads, Elizabeth’s coronation procession, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and its many afterlives in theater and balladry, and the postlude jig.
CHAPTER 1 – Early Modern Theatricality Across the Reformation
CHAPTER 2 – The Real Presence/Absence of God in the Chester Cycle Plays
CHAPTER 3 – The Ceremony of Theater and the Making of Character in Henry V
CHAPTER 4 – God’s Idioms: Sermon Belief in Donne’s London
CHAPTER 5 – Performing Religion in Early Modern Ballads
CHAPTER 6 – The Devils Among Us: Intertheatricality in Doctor Faustus and Its Afterlives
POSTLUDE – Ending with a Jig