Matthew Boyd Goldie

title.none: Beckwith, Signifying God (Matthew Boyd Goldie)

identifier.other: baj9928.0212.010 02.12.10

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Matthew Boyd Goldie, Rider University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Beckwith, Sarah. Signifying God: Social Relation and Symbolic Act in the York Corpus Christi Plays. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. Pp. xviii, 294. $35.00. ISBN: 0-226-04134-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.12.10

Beckwith, Sarah. Signifying God: Social Relation and Symbolic Act in the York Corpus Christi Plays. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. Pp. xviii, 294. $35.00. ISBN: 0-226-04134-4.

Reviewed by:

Matthew Boyd Goldie
Rider University

Readers interested in late-medieval English piety and material culture have eagerly followed Sarah Beckwith's publications on vernacular theology, including Nicholas Love and Margery Kempe, in journals and in her 1993 book Christ's Body. She has also been at the forefront of what remains a small group of scholars who study in any depth the large and important traditions of English medieval drama. In Signifying God: Social Relation and Symbolic Act in the York Corpus Christi Plays Beckwith demonstrates the complexity and sophistication of the Corpus Christi plays within the York Cycle. In particular, she skillfully reveals how they address contemporary historical situations (such as fifteenth-century jurisdiction over productions in York), and she attempts to show how they render Eucharistic practices. Four previously published and four new chapters come together around themes of medieval, Reformation, and twentieth-century suppression and méconnaissance, especially of communal and bodily features in the plays.

Chapter one, "The Present of Past Things," looks at the 1951 Festival of Britain revival of the York plays and particularly at what it means that the plays were set in the ruins of York's St. Mary's Abbey in 1951 and subsequent productions up until 1992. Beckwith uses theories on the difference between memory and history, and examines the fetishizing of ruins when we try today to make the past, the inertly historical, "continuous with...the present" (11). She finds that the producers and directors consciously used the setting and the plays to further a nostalgic nationalism. She suggests that only analyses of individual present-day productions can show which ones join with the past sufficiently to effect successful mourning, "reparation for perceived loss" of the past (19).

Chapter two, "Ritual, Theater, and Social Space in the York Corpus Christi Cycle," and chapter three are grouped under the section title of "Social Relation and Symbolic Act." They contain the clearest discussions of the significance of the plays because they are analyses that look at the content of the plays in relation to material economic factors in York. Beckwith shows in chapter two that in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the body of Christ was synecdochic of York's community. York Corpus Christi plays were an articulation, a performance, of the structure of "social existence" (24). This and the next chapter look at the plays as rituals that "assuaged" the "fissures and tensions" between the "mercantile oligarchy" of mayor and aldermen, and the artisans. This is no simple process she argues because ritual can cause tension, but the actors' bodies and the stations around York disguise ideology and ultimately the oligarchies were able to exploit the advantages the plays enabled. She acknowledges, through a list of suggestions and questions, that it is difficult really to tell what would have been the effect of the performances of particular plays at significant sites around the city (the prisons, the marketplace, outside a mayor's house). Ultimately, the chapter sets up a number of dynamic paradigms that point to the next chapter as well as other possible studies of the significance of the plays as performed in York.

Chapter three, "Work, Markets, Civic Structure," is her strongest chapter. In it she focuses on the figure of the laboring body in the plays, a thematic feature Beckwith is one of the first to point out. Noah and the Crucifixion plays in particular demonstrate that the artisanal guilds responsible for putting on the plays emphasized labor rather than mercantile exchange. This is an expression, in her reading, of resistance to the strategies of the city's mayor and governing councils, which sought to divide up the guilds and then control the flow of goods and services among the factionalized units. She follows Heather Swanson's historical research on the guilds in seeing the craft system as a way for these local mercantile rulers to profit. Some of their proceeds included regular fines on guilds for transgressing the prescribed parameters of their crafts, fines ironically used to finance the plays.

Chapter four, "Real Presences," shows how Corpus Christi theater engages with and articulates in particular ways some of the long-standing debates about the nature of the Eucharist. The central problem lay with the Eucharist's transubstantiation: that although the physical senses could not perceive that the Eucharist had been transformed into the body of Christ (the Aristotelian "accidents" remained the same, i.e., bread), the substance of it had indeed been transformed into Christ's body. Beckwith analyzes the pinning scene in the York Crucifixion to show how the actor plays Christ in such a way that encourages audience identification with him when he is raised up at the end and speaks, a visible sign that also "reproaches" the witnesses and therefore the audience's "detachment" from him (66). Yet for most of the main action, he is silent and we can see and hear only the soldiers' actions. This interplay between the visible and the invisible (including that the actor stands in for Christ who stands in as the savior of the world) is like the Eucharistic "tensions" and so she designates this play "sacramental theater." She argues that ideas and issues about the sacrament are not antagonistic but parallel to theater's own ploys and inconsistencies.

Chapter five, "Presence after Presentness," further explores the theme of absence and presence in the sequence of plays about the resurrection and the subsequent witnessing of Christ's reappearance in another form. Beckwith demonstrates how the resurrection sequence is similar to scriptural resources and Wycliffite discussions of resurrection. For instance, these plays dramatize the keeping secret of Christ's resurrection, elaborating the quem queritis trope, which she finds similar to Wycliffite interest in the concealment from the laity of Christ's body, Christ's truth, and the word of Christ in the vernacular. However, she does not suggest that the plays are directly influenced by Lollardy. Like the previous chapter, she argues that theater is particularly effective in conveying a non-doctrinal, participatory kind of theology whereby the audience must truly experience penance and carry out real neighborly forgiveness.

Chapter six, "Penance, Presence, Punishment," is similar to chapter five, this time looking at a larger sequence, from Christ's Entry into Jerusalem to Judgment, and more closely at confession and penance. She notes an "unmistakable kinship" (113) between the plays and Wycliffite criticisms of and fears about how the Church had transformed the requirement of annual confession from being a communal practice to a "punitive arm of the state" (91) whereby the penitent could be punished because of what he or she revealed in confession. The judgment of Christ in the plays reveals a "sacramental perversion in which processes of reconciliation have turned into processes of persecution, prosecution, and execution" (104).

Chapter seven, "Theaters of Signs and Disguises," is on the array of forces and changes that led to the suppression of the Corpus Christi plays in the Reformation, particularly the 1540s. These included changes that affected the plays "concretely" (122): separating out the embodiable meaning of the plays from community life, nationalizing religious practices, abolishing the Corpus Christi feast day in 1548, professionalizing actors, and moving the plays indoors to halls. Also, she examines changes in Eucharistic and other religious practices brought about by the Book of Common Prayer, reformers, and plays by other playwrights, all of which helped to divorce theater from the Church and so also removed the performative and transformative power of the Eucharistic rituals from theatre.

In chapter eight, "By the People for the People," Beckwith returns to ideas of nostalgia and alternatives to nostalgia. She examines Barry Unsworth's 1995 novel Morality Play and Denys Arcand's film Jesus of Montreal, then Bill Bryson's 1985 "workerist" production of Tony Harrison's Mysteries (a blend of York and Wakefield Cycles) and Katie Mitchell's 2000 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Edward Kempe's Mysteries (principally based on the N-Town Cycle). She looks at these productions to expose recent expectations and prejudices about medieval plays and the Middle Ages, which not surprisingly manifest themselves in various anachronisms. However, Beckwith is interested in more than this, in particular in the difficulties of performing the plays because "our forms of life cannot sustain...medieval plays" (180). In this final chapter she seeks to answer the following questions: how can the theater "once again become 'holy'" and "how can the actor become (against and above the church) the only authentic embodiment" of Christ (163)?

A hint of the nostalgia reappears here in the final chapter, a tinge that also colors (particularly) chapters four and five. When Beckwith analyzes, for instance, York's repressive mercantile forces and how they may be resisted in the plays or the Reformation's actual objections to Corpus Christi plays, she is on firm ground. However, when she moves away from the negative forces and tries to show the plays' positive aspects, her descriptions become more opaque and potentially problematic. "Presence," "authenticity," and the "holy" are abstractions about which it is very difficult to avoid universal and transhistorical generalizations. Readers might also think it puzzling that Beckwith seems to hold these concepts out as ideals for us while expressing such a blanket dissatisfaction with "our forms of life." Ultimately, however, the value of the studies in Signifying God lies in the ways Beckwith indicates future avenues of research, which combine sensitive close readings of the plays with insightful historical analysis. Her work remains among the most thoughtful in the still-burgeoning area of medieval English drama scholarship.