David Klausner

title.none: Sponsler, Ritual Imports (David Klausner)

identifier.other: baj9928.0509.015 05.09.15

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: David Klausner, University of Toronto,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Sponsler, Claire. Ritual Imports: Performing Medieval Drama in America. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004. Pp. viii, 235. $35.00 (hb). ISBN: 0-8014-4295-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.09.15

Sponsler, Claire. Ritual Imports: Performing Medieval Drama in America. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004. Pp. viii, 235. $35.00 (hb). ISBN: 0-8014-4295-8.

Reviewed by:

David Klausner
University of Toronto

Most of this book is a thoroughly delightful and well researched exploration of the ways in which earlier forms of drama have been appropriated in America over the past three centuries, the purposes and mechanisms of these appropriations, and the changes--some limited, some massive--by which earlier modes of performance have entered American life. If I have substantial reservations about one of the chapters, this in no way detracts from the achievement and the many pleasures of the rest of the book.

Sponsler examines six points of reference in which earlier (European) dramatic forms were (and in some cases, continue to be) adopted in the New World. These are the matachine dances of New Mexico, in both their Indian and Hispanic manifestations; Albany's annual Pinkster celebration; the New Year's Mummers Parade in Philadelphia; Brooklyn's giglio of St Paulinus; the American passion plays; and the 'historically informed' performance of medieval and Tudor plays. Each of these case studies provides a thorough exploration of the multifarious changes that can take place when a performing tradition is adopted and reinvented in a new place and for a new purpose.

The matachine dances display one of the most complex problems, since their (unwritten) history remains mysterious in many ways--their relationship to the European matachin, their possible introduction through the Spanish conquest, and their uncertain relationship to indigenous narrative dances. As Sponsler points out, the result of these long-standing questions is that while the form of the dances is remarkably similar in its various cultural manifestations, its meaning and social function vary widely, as the different traditions (Indian and Hispanic) offer radically different interpretations of the content of the dance. The contested areas are principally culture (Spanish/native), gender (female sexuality) and religion (Catholic/indigenous). Sponsler also demonstrates the ways in which a performance where the past is 'obliquely recorded' can also absorb and give meaning to contemporary issues, in this case those of an ecological and environmental nature.

The springtime festival of Pinkster in Albany, New York, shows how radically a performance can be changed when it is appropriated and reinvented for purposes far removed from its original context. As celebrated by Albany's Dutch settlers in the seventeenth century, Pinkster (Ger. Pfingsten, Pentecost) was a religious holiday providing comfortable recollections of the homeland; by the late eighteenth century the festival had become an African-American celebration, in which the long-standing processional element allowed slaves and freemen to take over, if briefly, the core of the city. The festival survives now in a reinvented (and somewhat debased) form as an annual Tulip Fest on Mothers' Day weekend. The most striking aspect of the Pinkster story is its movement from a sedate Dutch Reformed festival to a carnivalesque celebration of Albany's black community to the tourist aims of the contemporary tulip festival.

An entirely different narrative sequence appears in the history of the mummers' parade in Philadelphia, which has throughout its history been primarily a method for civic control of the disruptive elements of misrule and the carnivalesque. Since this festival has been reported in some detail in Philadelphia's press for several centuries, Sponsler is able to show how the tenor and content of such reports has influenced the celebration itself, and how the terminology used in them demonstrates "the power of semantics" (68). She connects the Philadelphia festivities with early modern English traditions of misrule and "permissible disorder" which she discusses at some length, though the evidence for any direct connection with English traditions is slim in the extreme. It is clear--as Sponsler herself points out--that the more likely derivation of the Philadelphia tradition is from German rather than English sources, so the extensive discussion of English mumming traditions seems a bit beside the point. That minor point aside, the history of Philadelphia's New Year's parade provides a clear object lesson in the methodology of civic control in its 'taming' of potential disorder.

On my first reading of the book, my eyebrow was slightly raised by Sponsler's use of 'medieval' in her title, since many of the originary traditions to which she traces more recent American performance phenomena are in reality early modern, at least in their documentation. With the giglio from the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn she is on solidly medieval ground. Moreover, the tradition provides a startling example of a medieval festival--the feast of St Paulinus of Nola--imported virtually complete from its home (Nola, where it is still celebrated) by an Italian immigrant community. Sponsler rightly concentrates on the small but significant differences between the Italian and American festivals, using these variants to show how a transplanted and reinvented festival can be used to forge a notional link with a perceived homeland. As she points out, there is strong pressure to mask the "reinventedness" of the giglio tradition, which she relates to a "demand for an authentic, not spurious or made-up, cultural heritage," spawning a "rhetoric of authenticity" which in the previous case studies has been either unnecessary or unvoiced (119).

Sponsler's fifth example, the American passion plays, contrasts strongly with the previous chapters. Although a biblical play would seem among the most obviously medieval of Old World sources, the large-scale passion plays imported to America (and surviving today in places like Black Hills, SD) derive almost universally from the passion play of Oberammergau which had its start not in the Middle Ages, but in 1634. Sponsler's fascinating narrative of the importation of the passion play is centered on the crucial question of packaging as a means of avoiding controversy, especially over the potentially blasphemous presentation of sacred figures on the stage. The contrast between Salmi Morse's failed productions (presented as professional theatre) and Josef Meier's highly successful ones in Black Hills (presented as community-based festival) makes clear the problems religious theatre has always had in America, as well as the mechanisms by which these problems could be circumvented.

Each of these five chapters provides a fine case study of the extraordinary range of earlier performance traditions into American life, and in each case the primary subtext has been appropriation--the ways in which these traditions have been reinvented and adapted to fit the America of a particular time and place. If I have reservations about Sponsler's final chapter, it is in part because it does not fit well with the others, in that it has relatively little to do with appropriation (rather the reverse) and, unlike the previous chapters, is substantially governed by the author's own bias. The story of the "historically informed" performance of medieval and early modern drama in North America has already been told by John R. Elliott in Playing God: Medieval Mysteries on the Modern Stage (Toronto, 1989) and Sponsler's discussion does not supercede that account. Sponsler sees the story in terms of three 'waves,' the first two largely taking place in the UK: first, the experiments of William Poel and Nugent Monck and represented in America by Ben Greet's touring companies; second, ranging from the ritualistic plays of T.S. Eliot and Dorothy Sayers to the 1951 Festival of Britain production of the York plays; and third, represented by the increasing interest in the use of contemporary records in creating historically aware performances. The stories of the first two 'waves' are well known and well rehearsed here; it is with the third wave that Sponsler's bias becomes clear. She begins by claiming that "archival- and performance-based work in medieval drama studies" is based on "a preference for performing rather than interpreting medieval theatrical texts" (172), sidestepping the question of whether it is possible to perform a play without interpreting it. Far too often motives and conclusions are attributed to those involved in the 'recuperation' of medieval drama which they are, by and large, unlikely to hold. A "yearning for recovery and restitution" (173) does not mean that participants are unaware that such recovery is in the end impossible--but that is no reason not to carry the attempt as far as possible. Sponsler's final criticism of historically informed performance seems intended as damning: "No matter how accurate it may be, no reconstruction can reveal a performance's original meanings or functions for spectators, nor can it reweave a play's connections to its initial cultural milieu" (179). But it is a damp squib, since I doubt that any of those seriously involved in such reconstruction would disagree. Sponsler's claim that medieval performances "cling to the idea of a past that can, with the right amount of work and research, be restored in all its fullness" (183) is, I think, wholly unsupportable. Full restoration is without question impossible; the things to be learned from historically informed productions are not of this scale, but they are real, and our understanding of some (admittedly limited) aspects of early drama is far greater now than half a century ago, largely because of such productions. Unlike the earlier chapters, this one is marred by a few errors of fact: the National Theatre production of "The Mysteries" can hardly be called a "reconstructed performance" and in the very large number of productions of biblical drama I have seen it has not been the norm to cut anti-Semitic sections, rather to deal with them in a variety of imaginative ways. Until very recently (the last few weeks), the Canadian government has not provided any funding for the performance of medieval plays; much of the information on the University of Toronto's Poculi Ludique Societas is many years out of date, a problem that a brief interview with any of its participants could have solved.

I must emphasize that my reservations about this book are limited to this final case study. Sponsler's other examples of 'ritual imports' (a description which does not actually fit historically informed productions very well) are exciting and well researched. Each chapter is illustrated, often with pictures of historical interest; the Brooklyn giglio with the author's own pictures. This is an important book and a delight to read, placing the study of these adopted and reinvented traditions firmly in the realm of cultural studies and performance historiography. Its wide geographical range, even slipping over the northern border occasionally, and the extraordinary range of the traditions covered, should give it wide readership beyond the field of early drama. If I disagree with the arguments of chapter six, let us hope that they will expand the discussion of the nature, purpose, relevance, and conclusions of the historically informed performance of early drama.