Christoph Houswitschka

title.none: Clopper, Drama, Play and Game (Christoph Houswitschka)

identifier.other: baj9928.0207.001 02.07.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Christoph Houswitschka, Otto-Friedrich-Universitaet Bamberg,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Clopper, Lawrence. Drama, Play and Game: English Festive Culture in the Medieval and Early Modern Period. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. Pp. v, 342. 45.00. ISBN: 0-226-11030-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.07.01

Clopper, Lawrence. Drama, Play and Game: English Festive Culture in the Medieval and Early Modern Period. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. Pp. v, 342. 45.00. ISBN: 0-226-11030-3.

Reviewed by:

Christoph Houswitschka
Otto-Friedrich-Universitaet Bamberg

Lawrence M. Clopper calls his book a revisionist study of medieval drama which was motivated by the new perspectives that opened up to this field after Alexandra Johnston established the Records of Early English Drama project. REED helped to coordinate the collecting and publication of all major references to drama, ceremony, and spectacle before 1642, and brought about what Greg Walker calls "the ongoing rehabilitation of medieval drama" (Medieval Drama, An Anthology [Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000], viii; see Carol Symes' review in TMR 01.05.04).

After years of stagnation in medieval drama studies, many assumptions that had been taken for granted are being reconsidered. Last year saw two more major publications on medieval drama and theatre. William Tydeman's bulky The Medieval European Stage, 500 P 1550 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001) and Dunbar H. Ogden's The Staging of Drama in the Medieval Church (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press; Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 2001) could not be included in Clopper's study. Other publications were omitted, for example, Alan E. Knight's The Stage as Mirror: Civic Theatre in Late Medieval Europe (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1997), which includes an important contribution by R. B. Dobson on "Craft Guilds and City: The Historical Origins of the York Mystery Plays Reassessed" (91-106) in which Dobson not only supports Clopper's argument, but also gives some valuable information on the problem of how to define medieval guilds (a term used by Clopper without differentiation).

Clopper takes as his point of departure two questions which have puzzled for decades those scholars who did not accept some traditional assumptions of drama history: first, why is drama presumed to have "(re-)originated in the monastic choirs given the thunderbolts directed against the theater in the late empire and early Middle Ages" (1); and, second, why is antitheatrical polemic almost absent from the late Middle Ages--when drama was re-invented (1). Clopper analyzes the mute assumptions about culture which are hidden behind observations such as these. The second emergence of a dramatic tradition in Western history ought not to be imagined as an evolutionary process: "The desire for origins...resulted in a history of the drama that was continuous. The Middle Ages did not have to take on the burden of the rebirth of the theater; rather, that renewal." (2)

Clopper wants to present "a simpler answer to the two questions posed: Christian Europe in the later Middle Ages was able to develop a drama--an enacted and staged script-- because most persons did not associate such dramas with the theatrum either in mode or in content." (2) This holds true for both clerics, who presented biblical stories in church, and for lay people, who began to organize and perform biblical and moral dramas in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Clopper warns not to apply a well- informed, modern perspective and a modern terminology to late medieval Western stage history. Particularly, the meaning of the term theatrum is different from the modern 'theater'.

Clopper repeatedly returns to this central thesis of his study. In the wake of similar theories about the secular rather than clerical origins of the re-invention of drama, his emphasis on his disagreement with research sometimes seems unnecessary and forced. The impressive scale of his material and the methods of proving his point, however, thoroughly dismantle all notions of a continual evolution of medieval drama from classical times. Although most scholars no longer subscribe to the evolutionary thesis, as Clopper admits (19), "the notion lurks in our histories, in our curricula and textbooks, and in the variety of other ways we talk about and organize what we have to say about the early drama." (202)

Clopper refers to Hardison as the first to criticize, in Christian Rite and Christian Drama in the Middle Ages (1965), the evolutionist thinking of earlier scholars. In recent studies, scholars have refuted the idea that the re- invention of drama was a process of secularization, as Chambers claimed; even though they might still use the term "evolution" (see, e.g., Dobson 1997: 98). Clopper's main point, that the re-invention of drama is mainly an achievement of lay people, has become generally accepted. Dobson, for instance, regrets the "absence of civic administrative records from before the 1370s". (Dobson 1997: 98) It is this absence of sources which leads Clopper to a more philological reasoning.

Clopper's book is divided into eight chapters. Two Appendices, one entitled "References to Miracula, Miracles, and Steracles in Medieval and Early Modern England" (295-298) and one on "Communitas: The Play of Saints in Late Medieval and Tudor England" (299-306) accompany the book. In the first chapter, "The Theatrum and the Rhetoric of Abuse in the Middle Ages" (25-62), Clopper makes the point that theatrum was associated with obscene pagan practices such as the games of the Roman circus; however, medieval clerics lost the concept of "drama"--thus, it would not face clerical opposition when it was reinvented. Our understanding of drama is not comparable to liturgical representations, which developed separately. Clopper argues "that not only did most clerics fail to conceive of what they were doing as theatrical but that, insofar as they were enjoined not to attend upon spectacula, they were not particularly involved in establishing or encouraging a vernacular dramatic tradition." (3)

In the following two chapters, "Miracula, Ludi inhonesti, 'Somergames,' and the Treatise of Miraclis Pleyings" (63-107) and "Communitas: The Ludi of Monasteries and Cathedrals, Towns and Parishes" (108- 137), Clopper examines all uses of the term "miracula" in England, whether in Latin, Anglo-Norman, or English. In records prior to 1377 and in the Treatise of Miraclis Pleyings, the term miracula is consistently used to refer to ludic practices including wrestling and games. Some were the lay equivalent of clerical miracula, the sort of activities which were prohibited by Pope Innocent III and some English bishops (105). It is important for Clopper's argument that this antitheatrical tradition, which can be found well into the seventeenth century, differs from the Puritan attacks on theater because it did not include drama.

Clopper begins with philology and then moves to cultural history, thereby intending to avoid evolutionary assumptions hidden in "the tyranny of chronology". Regarding cultural history, he focuses on "communities--lay and clerical; national and regional; cities, towns, and rural areas". (20) These smaller arenas that exist within larger ones help him "to show how communities conceived of unholy and sacred play in the period from the late Middle Ages until the early years of Elizabeth's reign" (20); thus, Clopper is concerned with the larger question of how biblical representations could appear in the Christian West in spite of the early Church's condemnation of the ancient theatrum.

In "Civitas: Drama and the City" (138-168), Clopper describes the forms of resistance with which clerics confronted lay groups. These groups often responded by turning "to 'play' by substituting biblical and moral dramas for 'unholy' festivities". (22) In the late sixteenth century, fully enacted vernacular scripts could be found in the provinces rather than in London, where authors such as John Lydgate preferred pageant presentations with little interactive dialogue. This demonstrates that certain economic and political conditions are necessary to make drama possible. Whether drama is produced, however, is dependant on many more circumstances: whether the corporate body wishes to display itself through drama or other spectacle and "whether the body perceives itself to have an obligation for religious and moral instruction." (143) The author thinks it remarkable that these instructive plays were provided by "secular guildsmen and secular governments rather than the clergy". (159)

The following two chapters, "Texts and Performances" (169- 203) and "The Matter of these Plays" (204-234), turn from a cultural-historical perspective--asking why dramas should have developed only in certain cities and towns--back to a philological examination of the surviving texts and to production techniques. Clopper tries to gain information on who produced and used these texts. He argues that in the cities the civil authority successfully took some responsibility for the citizens' spiritual welfare away from the clergy. Thus the productions of dramas became a legitimizing duty displaying urban prestige, power, and commercial opportunity. The "matter" of the biblical plays was changed in a specific manner to represent urban concerns and anxieties. This holds true for both the performances of plays and the versions which were printed for reading.

Clopper tries to reconstruct the various medieval modes of reception, which were motivated either by the "tailoring of the 'text'" (182) or by historical developments such as the Reformation, i.e., by the "Anglican point of view". (185) "The cycles are the products of the citizenry, and their composition and development often reflect the power structure of the corporation." (207) The citizenry was not a homogeneous group; therefore, different groups of people were targeted simultaneously. For example, the legitimate need for soldiers was recognized; however, it was suggested that they often misuse their power (229). Thus, Clopper provides some complex insights into the cultural environment of these productions which offered biblical cycles written under Catholicism after the Reformation had begun.

In his section on "Variety in the Dramas of East Anglia" (235-267), Clopper suggests a departure from the tradition of treating allegorical and moral dramas separate from the biblical plays since realism in the Middle Ages used universals: "Although Coleridge and Isidore and Maurus might seem to be speaking of the same operation, I think they are not. Coleridge speaks of abstraction; the medieval authorities do not mention abstraction. Instead they speak of a distinction between words and meanings." (250) A substance such as "chairness" is something which all chairs have in common, as Clopper explains, even though individual chairs may be different. (251) For this reason, personifications are not abstract and unrelated to the real world; rather, they are thrown into the same arena with history (238), allowing Pride and Christ to exist in the same play. (248) Clopper focuses on three East Anglian texts which show the variety of medieval and early modern drama. He warns not to compartmentalize and emphasizes the "commonality of its traditions". (267)

Clopper concludes his study with a chapter called "The Persistence of 'Medieval Drama' in the Tudor and Elizabethan Periods" (268-293). Consistent with an evolutionary view, scholars have not acknowledged the fact "that the biblical cycles continued to be performed into the 1570s". (23) These plays were not in decline as the production records might suggest. Contrary to other historians of the later Elizabethan stage, Clopper does not see the antiludic medieval tradition culminating in the Puritan attacks on theater: "During the crucial period, from about the 1530s to the 1560s, there is little or no evidence that producers of traditional biblical and moral drama understood royal proclamations against seditious plays to be directed at them". (24) It was this absence of an antitheatrical opposition to drama which made it possible for medieval plays to persist in the early modern period. (269) But "how can a text written or performed in the Tudor or Elizabethan era be medieval?" (269) Clopper concludes his study by addressing the double character of medieval dramas--their persistence in the Elizabethan period, but also their "medieval" character. Therefore, Clopper warns once again that any history of the drama which encourages an evolutionary model "is an intellectual scam to maintain a distinction between us, we moderns, and them, those medieval people." (269)

In two imagined itineraries, the first in the pre-Reformation 1520s and the second in the 1560s, Clopper presents the diversity of drama and ludic activity across England. According to Clopper's research, there is no evidence for the argument that the state or the church tried to censor biblical cycles before the 1560s, thus proving his "thesis that the absence of an antitheatrical tradition in the west enabled the development of dramatic representation and also accounted for the continuance of biblical drama during the explosive historical changes of the Reformation." (270) These developments motivated the revision of and even the omission of entire sections of traditional dramas; however, it was not caused by state censorship. (276) Clopper does not deny the crown's increasing interest in censorship, but wonders who could have read the growing number of books. (277) This kind of reasoning is unnecessary, however, as censorship was but one influence among many in forming Renaissance texts. Clopper's argument, of course, is also supported by Renaissance studies. Peter Stallybrass, for instance, argues that there was "a network of collaborative relations, normally between two or more writers, between writers and acting companies, between acting companies and printers, between compositors and proofreaders, between printers and censors. There is no single moment of the 'individual text'." ("Shakespeare, the Individual, and the Text," in Cultural Studies, ed. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson and Paula Treichler [London: Routledge, 1992, 593-612] 601). Why should this not have applied to biblical dramas, as well? After all, it is the central argument of Clopper's study that biblical dramas were not treated differently from other texts and that they were not regarded to be necessarily Catholic. (286)

But what factors led to the cessation of these plays? Again, there are conflicting ideological and economic interests. According to Clopper, there was a desire to preserve the northern cycles because they were "custom from 'tyme out of mind'". (286) The author believes that the extreme costs "helped create the conditions for the intervention of ecclesiastical and royal authorities". (286) Clopper is too careful to deny that it is "to some extent true" that the Chester Plays were suppressed because of the superstition in them. (287) The main concern, however, was with the civic mechanisms--the authority of which even those who opposed these plays would have honored and who could also have stopped them from continued service in the civic administration.

Not everything Clopper claims to be revisionist deserves that label. On the other hand, his argument does reflect complex reasoning, well-balanced judgment and thoroughness in confronting old stereotypes in medieval drama studies, guaranteeing a well-informed medley of methods and texts.