Laura Iseppi

title.none: Hill-Vásquez, Sacred Players (Laura Iseppi)

identifier.other: baj9928.0805.010 08.05.10

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Laura Iseppi, Università di Verona,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Hill-Vásquez, Heather. Sacred Players: The Politics of Response in the Middle English Religious Drama. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2007. Pp. vii, 223. $59.95 (hb) 978-0-8132-1497-9 (hb). ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.05.10

Hill-Vásquez, Heather. Sacred Players: The Politics of Response in the Middle English Religious Drama. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2007. Pp. vii, 223. $59.95 (hb) 978-0-8132-1497-9 (hb). ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Laura Iseppi
Università di Verona

The relevance of Heather Hill-Vásquez's contribution to the investigation of religious drama in Middle English is perhaps best expressed in her own words. Sacred Players: The Politics of Response in the Middle English Religious Drama, through the analysis of numerous textual examples and spanning a century and a half, aims at showing "the ability of religious serve as a force of conversion, change, and reform" (171). I will say right away that I found the overall emphasis on dramatic "power" quite fascinating and, though not entirely convincing in all the declensions offered by the author, definitely worth reading about. I particularly enjoyed Hill-Vásquez's attempt at overcoming "traditions" in a number of ways: by reading a couple of cycle plays as the result of Protestant rewritings-when their belonging to the Catholic mainstream has never really been discussed; by attributing to late medieval audiences the capacity to appropriate an active role in the performances to "shape, define, and even challenge devotional experience" (78)--a role which is usually attributed to the clerical authorities responsible for controlling the liturgy; and finally, by suggesting that a "fluid approach to gender" might be at work "in uniting the meaning and power of Christ's birth and death with the present-day experiences of the drama's participants"(125)-when gender "fluidity" in this kind of drama is generally linked exclusively to a comic intent. Furthermore, and laudably, Hill-Vásquez spurs her readers to "reconsider what we mean by 'medieval' and 'Renaissance'". "Thus," she adds, "a main goal of this book has been to complicate the historical categories we apply to this genre of texts, whose own fluidity of performance possibilities seems to have been eagerly embraced and usefully politicized by various competing (and coexisting) forces with various allegiances: clergy and laity, artisans and merchants, Catholics and Protestants" (204). Whether we concur thoroughly in her textual analysis or not, whether we agree that "such possibilities" were actually "eagerly embraced" by the parties she mentions, we cannot but appreciate Hill-Vásquez's attempts at "recycling" (77) and "reshaping" (78) our notions of what Middle English religious drama is.

Sacred Players is divided into three distinct, though related, sections, each focused on a different kind of "response". The study opens with a part entitled "Reforming Response: Protestant Adaptations", which deals with a few aspects of the Chester Cycle and with the Digby Conversion of Saint Paul. Hill-Vásquez proceeds then to the analysis of what she calls examples of "Sanctifying Response", whose subtitle is "The Church and the 'Real Presence'". Here she mainly discusses the Croxton Play of the Sacrament and themes related to "response and responsibility" in the York Cycle. The third and final section is dedicated to questions of gender, its title being Gendering Response: Christ's Body and God's Word. In this case, the author's attention falls on the Digby Candlemas Day and the Killing of the Children of Israel and on a couple of explicitly Protestant plays.

In her Introduction Hill-Vásquez acknowledges her debt to Hans Robert Jauss's "reception aesthetic", to "new historicism", and to "feminist criticism" (5), referring in particular, but not only, to Judith Butler's work on the "subversion of identity". Her references to these theoretical attitudes seem though, throughout her study, to be simply applied on a matter that is too complex and too linked to its specific historical, geographical, economic, and social environment to be dealt with in general terms. The difficulties that this genre poses-not least the textual integrity of the cycles, the question of dating, and that of their performance history-have been at the center of scholarly investigations for a long time, of course, and the readers of Hill-Vásquez's study might feel that highlighting the possibility that some of the cycle plays were "recycled" as reformed texts, with reformed agendas, based on a renewed attention to their dating is in itself a stimulating new reading without the need to justify it referring, for instance, to Jauss's equally stimulating "Rezeptionsästhetik", which, by the way, is misspelled in the text (21). Or, if the need is strongly felt, it should be dealt with through an accurate study of the ways in which that theory is applicable to the material under investigation and not simplistically stating that "the late [Chester] Banns appear to participate in [Jauss's notion of the] 'change of horizons'" (21) or that Butler's "fluidity of identities" is what explains the subtle, and most importantly, hypothesized multi-layering of gender characteristics in the Digby Killing of the Children. These are all excellent theoretical statements, but applying them to fifteenth-century English religious drama requires, I believe, more than a simple appropriation of terms.

Still, as I mentioned at the beginning of this review, Hill-Vásquez manages to tackle a few interesting points that should stimulate further work on these texts. And her original contribution to the field is what I really enjoyed. In Part I, for instance, and after having reminded her readers that the Chester Cycle dates "from late Elizabethan and early Jacobean times" (18), that its existing later Banns date to the beginning of the seventeenth century, and that "the last two performances of the Chester cycle occurred in 1572 and 1575, each under the authority of a Protestant mayor" (22), she suggests that some traits of this rather late cycle reveal the intention on the part of the "civic sponsors of the plays" to "align their popular performance text with Protestant sensibilities" (18). In order to demonstrate her point the author contrasts the audience-addressing figures of the messenger Nuntius to that of the "interpreter" Expositor. According to Hill-Vásquez, Nuntius represents the old Catholic attitude towards the audience, an attitude that "encourages a temporal as a spatial continuity" (24) between the events represented and the present-day performance, thus including the audience "in the process by which historical events are recreated and reexperienced" (24). Expositor, on the contrary, "adopts an interpretative stance . . . privileging clear and immediate understanding" (25): Expositor would thus appeal to the new reformed religion since here "the audience is called upon to approach the plays differently, to view them as opportunities for uncovering sacred truths through attentive interpretation rather than participatory engagement" (27). Paralleling this new attitude to the iconoclastic destruction of images that characterized the Reformation, Hill-Vásquez points out a similar process in drama emphasizing the tendency "of exposing a corrupt use of religious performances in order to distinguish a proper understanding of (and attitude toward) such performances" (68). The presentation and ritualistic destruction of traits-whether visual or verbal-of an older custom to accommodate a new one, though a long-standing practice since antiquity, resonates here with new and stimulating possibilities, and it might contribute to clarifying a number of issues related to the actual uses of religious drama in this specific cultural environment, not least the ways in which reformers approached the systematic destruction of decorative elements in English parish churches.

Part II, Chapter Three of Sacred Players (entitled "Accessing the Divine in the Croxton Play of the Sacrament") offers an equally engaging reading of texts related to late medieval Middle English drama production. Here Hill-Vásquez purports to demonstrate how "audience roles and concerns over proper responses to and uses of the drama were not uniquely Reformation or Renaissance preoccupations" (78), but also informed the medieval Catholic clerical authorities. To support this idea the author offers a rereading of a traditionally Lollard-attributed text, the Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge. Focused (just as the Croxton Play of the Sacrament) on a transubstantiation miracle, the Tretise may be read as a warning against the danger that a transformative devotional exercise such as the performance of miraclis pleyinge might confer on its participants, audience included, the "power of Corpus Christi" (79). In the author's words thus "rather than an unmitigated condemnation of the drama inspired entirely by Lollard belief, then, the Tretise may reveal instead a complex attention to a style of production and audience response associated with the religious drama that threatened the Church's universal claim to mediate the sacred and the mundane" (79). The concern with the possible theological uses of such a popular means as religious drama expressed in the Tretise, as Hill-Vásquez suggests, can, therefore, help clarify the extent to which pre-Reformation English religious authorities faced internal tensions and dissent which cannot be safely assigned exclusively to the influences of 'heretical' sects such as the Lollards.

Part III of Sacred Players (Chapters 5, "Incarnational Belief and Gender in the Digby Killing of the Children", and 6, "Reforming Religious Performance: Feminine Response and Catholic Behaviour") comes out, overall, as the least convincing of Hill-Vásquez's takes on Middle English religious drama. Here she suggests that "gender fluidity", and the resulting "gender crossing" (128), may have played a significant role in the establishment of this kind of drama's dialogic role between the matter represented on stage and the audience's response. Taking as an example that paragon of "hypermasculinity" (129) represented by Herod of the Digby Killing of the Children she, for instance, hypothesizes that "a fully interactive audience [], intent upon invoking the transcendent power of religious drama, would thus embrace the opportunity to experience the disempowered and potentially emasculated state Herod's brutish treatment seeks" (129-130). Consequently, she concludes, the audience-"feminized" in reaction to the brutal "male" behavior of a character on stage-would be in a privileged position to understand "the ostensibly incomprehensible", i.e. the birth of a divine child to a human woman. Of course these are suppositions, and Hill-Vásquez often (though not always) uses the conditional; yet the suggestions she advances in this last part of her study sound just as often quite far-fetched. Imagining, for instance, how a fifteenth-century audience would "likely" (128) react to a dramatic performance of religious matter is possible, but, it must be admitted, must perforce also be tentative and partial; stating that the role of characters like the "indefinitely gendered" messenger Watkyn "may be read as more than comic relief" (136) is intriguing and a potentially fruitful line of research, but concluding that "rather than being figures of humor and/or irreverence [] Watkyn, Joseph, and Plough Monday cross-dressers may instead serve as active references to a late medieval devotional practice that extended the re-creative potential of the sacred drama to the role of gender" (148) sounds definitely strained, not lastly because these characters are humorous. While gender is certainly a recurring element in the cycle plays, we may wonder what this issue meant in that cultural context and even whether it was at all relevant to the performance and contemporary understanding of this very specific kind of drama. And if it was, I believe it should be read in the light of the "theory" of the time and culture that produced it.

I enjoyed reading Sacred Players because it reminded me of a number of important factors at work in the cycle plays, not least, as I mentioned above, the actual "force" they must have had on contemporary society. Even though I don't share all of Hill-Vásquez's conclusions, I believe she manages to raise relevant questions regarding such a complex theme providing, at times, stimulating answers.