Carol Symes

title.none: Streitman and Happé, eds., Urban Theatre (Carol Symes)

identifier.other: baj9928.0710.031 07.10.31

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Carol Symes, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Streitman, Elsa, and Peter Happe. Urban Theatre in the Low Countries, 1400-1625. Medieval Texts and Cultures of Northern Europe, vol. 12. Turnhout: Brepols, 2006. Pp. xii, 317. $85.00 (hb) ISBN-13: 978-503-51700-1. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.10.31

Streitman, Elsa, and Peter Happe. Urban Theatre in the Low Countries, 1400-1625. Medieval Texts and Cultures of Northern Europe, vol. 12. Turnhout: Brepols, 2006. Pp. xii, 317. $85.00 (hb) ISBN-13: 978-503-51700-1. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Carol Symes
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

The essays gathered in this volume make an important contribution to the related studies of theater and urban life. Many open windows onto a world in which scripted drama was only one manifestation of a culture that was inherently performative and representational, and the cumulative effect of this scholarship (some of which has never been accessible in English before) is to demonstrate that the understanding of plays and pageantry is inextricably bound up with the history of communities and their modes of communication. Indeed, the very richness of the Low Countries' historical record stands as a challenge to conventional narratives of theater's history, which tend to reify modern generic categories, national boundaries, and temporal divisions. The mere fact that one cannot describe this region and period using familiar geographic and historiographic terminology is instructive. Readers whose knowledge of the Netherlands and its theater has hitherto begun and ended with the Middle English translation of Elckerlijc (Everyman ) will be enlightened.

Although its editors assert that the book's "chronological scope is extensive" (24), most essays deal with the role of Chambers of Rhetoric (rederijkerskameren) in the production and publication of plays over a century and a half, from the early sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth centuries. This period certainly deserves close attention, but the editors' suggestion that it can be taken as normative is problematic, for it conveys the misleading impression that there was little theatrical activity in the region earlier on, and that only four surviving antecedents of early modern drama deserve consideration (Lille's annual procession on Trinity Sunday, first attested in 1270; the so-called Maastricht or Ripuarian Passion Play from the fourteenth century; and two surviving Marian pageants from fifteenth-century Brusssels). On the one hand, this narrow focus fails to account for the urban theater of cosmopolitan Arras, which was producing and preserving a wide spectrum of vernacular entertainments as early as the twelfth century and which had a demonstrable impact on other towns in the region, notably Bruges, Gent, Saint-Omer, Cambrai, Tournai, Valenciennes, Mons, and-- farther afield-London and Paris. (Arras is firmly situated on the book's excellent map but is mentioned only fleetingly in the text).[1] On the other, it obscures the age-old connection between dramatic formulae and the traditions of forensic and didactic rhetoric so ably dissected by Jody Enders, whose Rhetoric and the Origins of Medieval Drama (Ithaca, 1992) receives a lonely mention in a single essay. The volume's implicit argument would have been more forcefully advanced by a forthright acknowledgment that the Low Countries' theatrical vocabulary had long been rooted in political, social, and economic realities. As Galbert of Bruges observed in 1127, the peaceful governance of Flanders not only fostered trade but led its urbane inhabitants to devise "all manner of ingenious and studied arguments," so that "it came about, in fact, that everyone became proficient in rhetorical skills, some by diligent study and some by nature." [2]

The book is divided into five sections. The first, "Precursors," opens with Carla Dauven-van Knippenberg's "Borderline Texts: The Case of the Maastricht (Ripuarian) Passion Play." The text under reconsideration (Den Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek 70 E 5, fols. 233v-247v) furnishes a wonderful illustration of the chauvinistic contortions performed by modern academics at the expense of medieval artifacts: probably not from Maastricht, possibly not a Passion play, and only partially scripted in the Ripuarian dialect of the Lower Rhine. Assigned by nineteenth-century Dutch philologists to Germany (specifically Cologne) and by German philologists to the Limburger town of Maastricht in the Netherlands, it has since been firmly replaced in its manuscript context by J. Peter Gumbert, who demonstrated that the play was deliberately copied alongside a collection of Middle Dutch homilies known as the Limburgse Sermoenen in the early decades of the fourteenth century, and that it also shares space with vernacular sermons and mystical writings testifying to the influence of Hadewijch of Brabant (fl. c. 1250) and Beatrijs of Nazareth (c. 1200-1263). The codex itself thus invites renewed consideration of the play's participation in a contemporary culture of vernacular piety. In addition, the political circumstances of its composition can be teased out of the macaronic mixture of German and Dutch elements, most strikingly apparent in the Middle Dutch ballad sung by Mary Magdalene, which strongly resembles lyrics composed by Duke Jan I of Brabant (c. 1254-94), the victor in the War of the Limburg Succession (1280-1288). Hence, Dauven-van Knippenberg theorizes that it may have been inserted into the play by German-speaking supporters on the losing side, as a comment on the decadence of the Brabantine court. Puzzlingly, however, she concludes that this new understanding of the play's codicological and historical contexts unfits it for study as drama--that somehow the fact that it is "not just" a play must mean that it was not intended for performance (49). That "we have no corresponding records of performance" and that "the manuscript shows no signs of having been used for performance" are hardly damning proofs of antitheatricality, however; the same could be said of nearly every extant play text prior to 1400. In this case, as in so many others, one cannot expect medieval dramatic documents to exhibit the characteristics "usual" in the scripts of later eras.

The other designated "precursor" of urban theater in the Dutch vernacular is discussed by W.M.H. Hummelen in "Pausa and Selete in the Bliscapen," with reference to the first and last installments of what was originally a seven-year dramatic cycle celebrating the Seven Joys (bliscapen) of Mary, inaugurated in Brussels in 1448 and performed by the Archers' Guild in the Grote Markt after a festive procession held annually in honor of the Virgin. Hummelen mines the texts of these two plays (first "discovered" in 1962 and 1882, respectively) for insights into the meaning of two seminal terms which occur very frequently in later scripts, and performs a clever analysis of the directorial interventions added to the rubrics of one original manuscript. He concludes that selete was used to designate occasions when singing alone was called for, while pausa indicated a need for instrumental music--as distinct from occasions when stage directions call indiscriminately for either one or the other, or both. He also stresses the fact that all of these musical interludes would have been executed ad libitum, with only occasional descriptors guiding musicians or metteurs-en-scne in the selection of appropriately "beautiful" or "joyous" material. His careful use of textual sources shows how conventions changed over time, and calls attention to the important fact that much of what we would like to know about medieval staging practices was never written down.

The first article in section two, "Politics and Religion," is Gary K. Waite's "Rhetoricians and Religious Compromise during the Early Reformation (c. 1520-1555)," a satisfying account of the methods used by rederijkers factors (the playwrights of the Chambers of Rhetoric) to help "their lay contemporaries understand the issues" that were being hotly debated--and occasionally more hotly punished--in the first decades of the Reformation. He argues, compellingly, that these influential dramatists, who were often "lay experts on religion," used the public sphere of their late-medieval towns to present ideas and doctrines tailored "to fit the unique culture and economy of the urban landscape of the Low Countries" (79-80). The result was an array of subtle plays that facilitated debate within communities where "political peace, economic growth, and religious tolerance ranked at least as highly as the call for religious change" (102). He suggests, indeed, that the influential reformer David Joris was nurtured within the thriving Rhetoricians culture of Bruges, where his father had been an actor, and that he brought that tradition of composition and performance with him to Antwerp and to his theological writings. Here is an essay that exemplifies how much a deep contextualization of dramatic fictions can reveal about reality.

Complementing Waite's study is Wim Hüsken's "'Heresy' in the Plays of the Dutch Rhetoricians," which also emphasizes the eclecticism of Dutch reform movements. It reveals that Rhetoricians reacted creatively and courageously to the increasingly strident but largely ineffectual attempts to ban their activities, which culminated in the official prohibition of 26 January 1560 and which may have spurred even more subversive performances. Examining the scripts made available in print prior to that date, Hüsken inventories some of the techniques used by playwrights to express controversial opinions even in this relatively regulated medium, concentrating on accusations of 'heresy' that can actually be read as referring to representatives of the Church and not (as has been assumed) to Protestant reformers. He thereby calls for closer and more sophisticated readings of the surviving texts, which may reveal even more powerful strains of religious dissent than have hitherto been uncovered and which may have befuddled contemporary censors as well as modern scholars.

In the lead essay of section three, "Literary Traditions of Rhetoricians Plays," Bart Ramakers offers a radical re-assessment of what allegorical drama was, how it functioned, and how it was received by contemporaries. In "Dutch Allegorical Theater: Tradition and Conceptual Approach," he questions some fundamental assumptions about medieval dramatic genres, which (he rightly asserts) cannot be understood as separate from the genres of public oratory and argumentation, notably preaching and disputation (it is he who cites Enders). As he points out, all are based on monologue and dialogue, the building blocks of "everything that is said on stage"--and, for that matter, in real life (128, 133). Furthermore, allegory's visual impact must also be understood in terms of public display. In short, Ramakers argues against the stubborn notion that allegory is essentially a lesser form of dramatic representation, both less immediate and less theatrical. He makes a passionate case for the intellectual demands and payoffs of allegory--for playwrights, actors, and audiences--and for its place in the "public oratory of the town."

The remaining two essays in this section are devoted to drama's literary relationships. Peter Happé's "Pyramus and Thisbe: Rhetoricians and Shakespeare" compares and contrasts the treatment of Ovid's story as lampooned in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (first printed in quarto in 1600) and as moralized in two earlier Dutch plays: the spel van sinnen performed by the Haarlem Rhetoricians around 1518 (extant in their manuscript collection of plays) and the illustrated Pyramus ende Thisbe first printed at Antwerp around 1520 (and reprinted at Gent in 1573 and at Rotterdam in 1612 and 1616). Happé shows how the Dutch playwrights of the sixteenth century expanded on both classical and Christian treatments in strikingly different ways and, in turn, shows that Shakespeare's more famous version of the story is part of a long tradition--as are his play's performers. Elsa Streitman's "God, Gods, Humans and Sinnekens in Classical Rhetoricians Plays" further demonstrates that many Dutch playwrights were experimenting with Christian interpretations of classical material, using humanist-inflected allegory in ways that bear direct comparison to contemporary English dramas like John Heywood's The Play of the Weather or John Redford's Wit and Science. Clearly, further comparison of the urban theaters that flourished in England and the Low Countries during this period could reveal some surprising links and borrowings, fostered by shared commerce and shared political objectives and increasingly facilitated by shared printing presses.

The fourth section of the book, "Urban Dramatic Culture," features articles by three prominent Anglophone scholars of Continental medieval drama. Alan Knight's "Guild Pageants and Urban Stability in Lille," the fruit of many years' research in the archives of that border town, provides a much-needed perspective on the development of urban theatrical traditions over a relatively longue durée. "Rhetoricians and the Drama: The Francophone Tradition," by the late Lynette R. Muir, is a fitting testament to its author's lifelong engagement with the drama of French-speaking lands, and brings together some of the scattered evidence for the composition, organization, and production of late-medieval plays. In "Worthy Women of the Old Testament: The Ambachtsvrouwen of the Leuven Ommegang," Meg Twycross looks closely at the extraordinary cavalcade performed annually at Leuven on the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin (8 September) and recorded for posterity in the local history of Willem Boonen in 1593-94. Working from Boonen's description and drawings of this remarkable event, which featured thirty-four Old Testament heroines and their entourages on horseback, Twycross explains how spectators were "enticed into a mode of interactive reading" which invited them to "crack" the code of its riddling iconography (238).

The final section, "Performance and Material Culture," consist of two essays: "Accommodation and Possessions of Chambers of Rhetoric in the Province of Holland" by Th. C. J. van der Heijden and F.C. van Boheemen, and Femke Kramer's "Producing Late Medieval Dutch Plays Today." The former surveys what can be known about the actual chambers in which Rhetoricians met, the furnishings of those rooms, and the other properties they contained. (In addition to printed and manuscript collections of plays, many groups owned Bibles and works of history, both vernacular and Latin. Somewhat surprisingly, the Latin translation of Josephus's Jewish Wars appears to have been a staple reference.) The latter surveys recent productions of medieval Dutch plays.

Overall, this valuable collection of essays is not well served by its introduction, as I have already indicated. Given its intended audience, it should have attempted to define Dutch terms with accuracy; for example, factor would be more faithfully rendered "wright" or "playwright" than "official poet" (15); and spelen van sinne are not the same as English "moralities" (16), as Waite (101) and Ramakers (133-134) show. The introduction should also have explained what the Chambers of Rhetoric were, how they came into being, and how they governed themselves (the few sentences on page 12 are too brief and too sketchy to be helpful). Instead, it consists largely of an "Historical Prologue," featuring an inadequate and confused summary of high politics and religious debates in a place and time where, admittedly, politics and religion were notoriously complicated. And it makes several troubling assertions about the relationship of plays in performance to plays in manuscript, and about the relationship of dramatists to the printed publication of their works, repeating canards (e.g. "The Reformation was predicated upon the spread of print," 13) that have been challenged by many scholars, including some of the volume's own contributors. It would have been better to have used this space to deal thoughtfully with the larger questions raised by a book for which the editors otherwise deserve praise. These questions are important: the very "nature of the drama produced by this urban society" (9), the relationship between what was written down and what was performed, the reception of plays in production and in print, the interaction between theater and lived reality, the effects of entertainment on public policy (and vice versa), the shared techniques and ambitions of both dramatic and political actors. Happily, English-speaking scholars interested in such questions now have access to an urban milieu that is both similar to that of neighboring territories and strikingly distinctive: in its social porousness, its political indeterminacy, its spiritual diversity, its susceptibility to public opinion, and its resistance to categorization.


[1] Carol Symes, A Common Stage: Theater and Public Life in Medieval Arras. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2007.

[2] Galbert of Bruges, De multro, traditione, et occisione gloriosi Karoli comitis Flandriarum, ed. Jeff Rider, Corpus Christianorum continuatio medievalis, 131 (Turnhout, 1994), c. 1 (7). "Qua pacis gratia legibus et justitiis sese regebant homines, omnia ingeniorum et studiorum argumenta ad placita componentes ut in virtute et eloquentia rhetoricae unusquisque se defensaret cum impetitus fuisset, vel cum hostem impeteret qua colorum varietate oratorie fucatum deciperet. Tunc vero habuit rhetorica sua exercitia et per industriam et per naturam." A similar observation is made still earlier, in the Disputatio de rhetorica attributed to Alcuin and dedicated to Charlemagne (c. 794): see The Rhetoric of Alcuin and Charlemagne, ed. Wilbur Samuel Howell (New York, 1965), 68-70 (cc. 2-3).