05.07.07, Scoville, Saints

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Tom Pettitt

The Medieval Review baj9928.0507.007


Scoville, Chester N.. Saints and the Audience in Middle English Biblical Drama. Toronto:University of Toronto Press, 2004. Pp. vii, 140. ISBN: 0-8020-8944-5.

Reviewed by:

Tom Pettitt
University of Southern Denmark, Odense Campus

It takes a moment--or a review--to think through the logic behind this study's title, and its implications for strategy and perspectives. The "saints" discussed--Thomas the Apostle, Joseph, Mary Magdalene and Paul--are not the figures one instinctively associates with this designation in connection with medieval culture in general or medieval theatre in particular--say the early virgin martyrs like St Catherine or (notoriously pictured) St Apollonia, or latter-day figures like that other Thomas (of Canterbury; not to mention the Danish Holy Canute). This is accordingly not a study of the Saint's Play as a dramatic genre: The Digby Conversion of St Paul and Mary Magdalene are generally reckoned (faute de mieux, perhaps) under this genre in England, but the Joseph here is from the York Mystery Cycle, while the Apostle Thomas is as encountered in the Towneley, N-Town and York cycles. Expectations of something otherwise may be exaggerated by the title on the dust-jacket, in which--in the manner of a liturgical clandar--SAINTS is in large capitals and bright red script. But there follows a significant restriction (in black) of the coverage as "Biblical Drama," the "saints" involved all making an appearance in the New Testament, even if some of the the materials which provide the plots have sources elsewhere.

And as the coverage just specified indicates, in a further complexity of the textual basis, while Mary Magdalene and St Paul (in their own chapters) are treated as they appear in only one play each, both Joseph and Thomas are pursued through several plays in a given mystery cycle and/or across several different cycles (with due discussion of Paul and Mary as extras when they put in occasional appearances). This complexity may be a strength or a weakness for comparative purposes, but the choice of materials underlines that this is emphatically a study of specific, individual characters (and their discourses) in specific plays, rather than dramatic saints as such or saints' plays as a genre.

The term "saints" in the title, as indicated in a comment on the dust jacket, actually derives from the expression "saints and sinners," which points to rather different criteria for selection. The colourful tyrants, rogues and villains of medieval drama (the ranting Herods of the mysteries, Noah's Wife, Mak the sheepstealer or the entertaining vices of Mankind) having been accorded more than their fair share of critical attention, this study is prompted by the very reasonable belief that it is more than time the good guys (and girls) were subjected to equally sustained and informed attention. It cannot have been an attractive task: the more familiar analogous "saints" of later cultural traditions--from Richmond in Richard III to the Prince in Snow White--are pale shadows in relation to their wicked antagonists. And from the perspective of modern sensibilities and perspectives their medieval dramatic antecedents (the pompous and long-winded Mercy; the pious Abel) seem analogously dull and earnest in their goodness. It undoubtedly helps that the four figures chosen here (in a manner which the book might have heralded more elaborately), "flawed human beings who nonetheless achieved sainthood" (8) share a liminal quality which undoubtedly made them more interesting but which actually places them in the interstices between the saint and the sinner. ("Flawed Saints" or "Sinful Saints" or "Saintly Sinners" might have been a better title.)

The study's eminently successful efforts to prove that these "saints" spoke (in the affective as well as the purely linguistic sense) to their audiences is far from sharing the dull and earnest qualities of these characters and some of their speeches, but the sense of duty in the achievement of a worthy task is perceptible throughout: this is a serious essay on the serious core of medieval Christian culture to which the Bakhtinian carnivalesque was a challenge, or from which it was a relief. The task may have been made more difficult by the author's reticence (which may in turn however have been determined by the material) in deploying to the full the insights into medieval theatre in general, or to these plays and characters in particular, gained through his experience with the original staging production of medieval dramatic works which has been such an exciting and inspiring feature of the research field in recent years, particularly in North America, and not least in Toronto, where the author's academic affiliations lie. Some of the plays discussed, not least The Conversion of St Paul, have a significant visual dimension and deploy a very active dramaturgy. While performance perspectives are indeed--and to good end--invoked from time to time (if sometimes relegated to footnotes), the study's prime loyalty is to the plays' textual dimension, as indeed suggested by another characteristic feature of the title: "Middle English Drama" (a concatenation occurring in only two previous book titles) signalling a distinctly philological commitment. But to a degree at least the peformance aspect is given its due, for the orientation is towards the verbal rather than the strictly textual--the text as spoken--for this is essentially a study of rhetoric. It examines the means by which, through language, these "saints" are both characterised and made to provide a conduit for the message of the plays in which they occur into the hearts and minds of audiences.

It is thus the central thesis of the study, quite plausibly given the training of the authors of the plays in which they appear, that Joseph, Mary Magdalene, Thomas and Paul make their impact--and thus their contribution to the plays' homiletic purposes--through what they say and, particularly, the way they say it, and that it is therefore through their (these characters') rhetoric that the plays are best appreciated. The scholarly core of this study is accordingly an intense, informed, intelligent and convincing analysis of the rhetorical strategies involved in making an audience aware--or perhaps rather in making it feel--that its primary allegiance and identification was ultimately to be with these "saints", rather than the--in many other ways more colourful--sinners. The argument makes good use of strategically well identified and tactically well quoted late-Roman and medieval authorities on rhetoric. A limited Latinity on the part of the book's readership is assumed in the provision of full translations for all quotations from such sources, but there is little by way of a corresponding concession to any commensurate limitation in that readership's familiarity with rhetorical terminology: central concepts such as ethos and pathos, as well as specific devices such as anaphora, diacope and epitome, purgatio and insinuatio, or qualities such as apodictic and nonapodictic are deployed with little or no introductory explication, in the absence of which a "glossary of rhetorical terms" would have been a major advantage (as its absence is a major drawback).

This is an altogether impressive interpretation of a serious and central aspect of late-medieval English drama, deploying an extensive array of secondary sources, whose relative brevity (103 pages of main text) may nonetheless excuse the suggestion of topics or material which would have enhanced its value and interest, not least by way of contrast and/or contextualization: say a direct introductory confrontation with some of the textual problems behind the received texts of the plays discussed, mentioned sporadically, but often enough to prompt anxiety; a sustained review of rhetoric, its major technical tools and its place in medieval culture and education; the relevance of these plays/figures in the debate on whether there ever was a distinct "saint's play" genre in England; their place in the overall late-medieval cult of saints in discursive, performance and visual culture; comparison with the "unflawed" saints and martyrs of medieval biblical drama; more systematic juxtaposition with the rhetoric evinced by these same characters in late-medieval non-dramatic narratives, or in analogous European drama. It would have been extremely interesting--and true to the work's potential significance--to see whether the pathos achieved by (for) these characters, or their human quality altogether, anticipated the "invention of subjectivity" claimed by New Historicist critics for the sixteenth century (and hotly contested by medievalists).

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Author Biography

Tom Pettitt

University of Southern Denmark, Odense Campus