12.09.19, Granger, The N-Town Play

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John T. Sebastian

The Medieval Review 12.09.19

Granger, Penny. The N-Town Play: Drama and Liturgy in Medieval East Anglia. Westfield Medieval Studies. Rochester, NY: D.S. Brewer, 2009. Pp. x, 257. ISBN: 9781843841890.

Reviewed by:
John T. Sebastian
Loyola University, New Orleans

Among the four cycles of late-medieval English biblical drama that survive more or less complete, the N-Town Play can seem like the shy and misunderstood intellectual sibling to three boisterous brothers. High-minded and understated, the N-Town Play displays none of the urban character of York or Chester and little of the urbanity typical of the plays attributed to the Wakefield Master. Instead the dramatic texts compiled in British Library MS Cotton Vespasian D VIII have earned a reputation for didacticism, difficulty, and dullness. The endearing scurrility of Towneley's Mak and Gyll and the comic cluelessness of the tortores of the York Crucifixio are exchanged for all the heart-pounding action of a precocious three- year-old Virgin expertly reciting the fifteen gradual psalms in N- Town's Mary Play. In her recent study of the N-Town plays, Penny Granger does not dispute this view but rather embraces and reclaims N-Town's didacticism as worthy of study in its own right. Key to her understanding N-Town's didactic program is the play's liturgical content, both spoken and sung, Latin and vernacular. The N-Town Play: Drama and Liturgy in Medieval East Anglia is thus an exercise in what Granger styles "applied liturgy," that is, in "looking at what happens to liturgical texts that have strayed not only beyond the chancel steps but outside the church altogether" (2). As such it offers both an invitation and a challenge to students of vernacular (Latin/vernacular, sung/spoken, inside the church/outside the church) that fail adequately to describe medieval scripts.

Granger's opening chapter serves as the theoretical foundation for the study that follows. In these pages she explores the boundaries of ritual, liturgy, and drama in the Middle Ages, three performative phenomena that occupy different positions on a spectrum that runs, in Granger's formulation of Richard Schechner's theory, from "entertainment" on the one end to "efficacy" on the other. Granger locates the N-Town Play somewhere near the middle of the spectrum, although, as she explains, the uses to which the text was put, whether performed or read, can tip the scale one way or the other. This chapter sets up Granger's primary claim throughout the book, namely, that "its [N-Town's] liturgical material, transplanted to and transformed within a dramatic setting, is what makes the N-Town Play unique" (30) and that the interaction of drama and liturgy has the effect of enriching the spectator or reader's experience of both kinds of performance.

Chapter 2 moves from theory to context. Granger begins by briefly relating the story--or as much of it as can be plausibly reconstructed--behind the assembling of N-Town's various parts into the current whole. The surviving compilation combines fragments of a Creation-to-Doom cycle with a play on the life of the Virgin, a two- part Passion sequence, and an Assumption play. Despite N-Town's composite nature Granger, following Martin Stevens, puts forward a "'whole play' view" (46) of N-Town, in which she considers the play primarily, although not exclusively, as a unified cycle rather than an anthology of disparate parts. This approach has its drawbacks, however; in what follows in chapter 2, Granger argues that typological relationships between Old and New Testament scenes govern not only the choice of episodes to be staged but also the selection of liturgical material used throughout the plays. Yet given that the Mary and Assumption plays, the two most liturgically rich sequences in the composite cycle, originally existed independently from the Old Testament pageants, the notion that specific liturgical choices were made in order to achieve typological unity across plays is untenable. (Granger does acknowledge in the following chapter that some of the typological links she identifies could not have been intentional; instead she attributes such fortuitous connections to the tendency of liturgy itself to reuse textual and musical materials for multiple occasions throughout the church year.) The remainder of this chapter attempts to sketch the devotional habitus of fifteenth-century East Anglians in order to establish how the N-Town Play might have been received by its earliest audiences. Granger reminds her reader that pre-Reformation religion, including the liturgy of the Church, "was a ritual method of living, not a set of dogmas" (71), and concludes this part of the book by noting that much of the liturgical material found in N-Town would already have been familiar to the play's earliest audiences. Despite its reputation among contemporary scholars, then, liturgy actually served to illuminate rather than obscure dramatic texts in the Middle Ages.

The third chapter is the centerpiece of Granger's study. Here she examines specific instances of liturgical citation throughout N-Town's episodes. Her survey proceeds by type: e.g., sung Latin set pieces, spoken Latin, vernacular translations and paraphrases of Latin liturgical material, and so on. She places particular emphasis on vernacular paraphrases of the Nunc dimittis in the Purification play and of the Magnificat during the scene of the Visitation. The latter she provocatively describes as a "protest song performed by two women" (116), arguing that the antiphonal performance of the Magnificat by Mary and Elizabeth in alternating Latin and vernacular verses represents a reclaiming of the liturgy from the control of male clergy. Such a gesture, she continues, would have had special resonance for learned English women who engaged in private devotion modeled on the liturgy, as in books of hours, a point to which she returns in greater detail in chapter 5. The overall effect of this liturgical inventory is to cement her reading of N-Town as a "double anthology" of liturgical texts wrapped up in a cycle of biblical plays in which liturgy is not merely an add-on but an integral feature of the drama. She concludes the chapter with two especially useful observations about the effect of liturgy in N-Town. First, liturgy heightens the play's realism by drawing on the daily, ritualistic experience of medieval East Anglians in its staging of salvation history. Second, by re-inscribing a hymn like the Magnificat within the biblical narrative from which it derived in the first place, the play re-contextualizes liturgical quotations and thus enriches the audience's understanding of the liturgy itself.

If chapter 3 establishes N-Town as liturgical, then chapter 4 seeks to determine whether it is the most liturgical instance of drama in the surviving corpus. Here Granger examines the liturgical content of the northern cycles, other East Anglian plays, and contemporary religious drama from the Low Countries according to the same categories used in the previous chapter. Briefly, she concludes that N-Town does employ liturgy more meaningfully and with greater integration than do the other cycles, in which liturgy often appears incidental. N-Town is also consistent with a pattern of liturgical citation that appears to characterize East Anglian drama broadly, although why that should be the case is left largely unaddressed. The section on "Dutch connections" is, however, the most glaring instance of a tendency exhibited by Granger throughout the book to stop short of pursuing her instincts to their potentially very promising conclusions. What could have been the monograph's pièce de résistance stumbles haltingly toward the unheralded and frankly surprising conclusion that the York plays and the Dutch Bliscapen van Maria, a series of seven now mostly lost plays on the joys of the Virgin, speak more directly to one another than either does to N- Town. I found myself reading and re-reading Granger's assertion that "[t]empting though it is to try to find direct links between the Bliscapen and N-Town, the evidence of liturgy alone will not support such a hypothesis" (163) for fear that I had misunderstood her. After some thirteen pages of exposition, Granger reduces the section of the book that held the greatest promise of originality to an unsupportable hypothesis. This chapter then concludes somewhat peculiarly with a brief comparison of N-Town to John Lydgate's Life of Our Lady in an endeavor to refute conclusively and on liturgical grounds the already discredited theory advanced by Gail McMurray Gibson over 30 years ago that the monk from Bury St Edmunds may have authored the N-Town Play.

The final chapter returns to and develops the idea of Cotton Vespasian D VIII's "evolution" as a book in a textual environment in which educated women in increasing numbers were reading devotional materials within the home. Granger maintains that "the presence of liturgical material in a dramatic vernacular text has the effect of bringing 'church' into the street or the home, and allows the laity to reclaim it from the clergy" (173). She situates the manuscript alongside books of hours, devotional miscellanies, and other dramatic anthologies as a further example of a burgeoning reading culture centered on educated women engaged in private devotion.

A brief conclusion, two appendices, and a glossary complete Granger's study. The conclusion reasserts the N-Town Play's fundamental status as a double anthology "of liturgy within a play" (193) that is neither ritual nor entertainment but a hybrid text that increases access to liturgy. The first appendix takes the form of a table indicating common elements across N-Town, the Dutch Bliscapen and Lydgate's Life of Our Lady while the second is an index of liturgical items appearing in N-Town, their sources, and their appearances in other dramatic texts. The rather basic glossary of "liturgical and related terms" seems out of place--anyone who picks up this book is likely to know what baptism or the Trinity its--but it would be extremely helpful to undergraduates with little exposure to medieval (or modern) forms of Christianity.

By shifting critical focus onto the role liturgy plays in dramatic texts not normally thought of as liturgical, Granger's book makes an important and much needed contribution to the field of early drama studies. The general accessibility of her analysis is likewise a good reminder that achieving a basic level of liturgical literacy is not so very difficult after all and that medievalists have a responsibility for understanding this ubiquitous feature of daily life in pre-modern Europe. Yet the project also undersells its significance from the outset. In her very first sentence Granger asks "[w]hy write a book about the N-Town Play?" only to respond somewhat limply: "In short, because it is fascinating and undervalued" (1). Granger identifies her intention for the project in her introduction as the desire "to shed some light--while making no firm conclusions--on this multifaceted piece of late fifteenth-century theatre" (2). This insistence on skirting conclusions, moreover, is not merely rhetorical; Granger's method too often involves marshaling evidence in support of no particular claim, as with her discussion of the Dutch Bliscapen. She frequently favors description over analysis, a tendency evident even in her rather prosaic chapter titles--"Text in Context" or "Other Connections," for example--that give no real sense of the chapters' claims or even their content. Moreover, several lapses leave the reader with the unfortunate impression that Granger is sometimes uninformed about theater history or unaware of important scholarly developments concerning that history. On one occasion, for instance, she concedes that "Western theatre may have had its origins in church liturgy," a howler at which the likes of Sophocles or Plautus might justifiably take umbrage (22). Her prose is likewise littered with evolutionary jargon unconsciously deployed, which is to say that despite her diction I remain confident that Granger does not actually advocate a return to thoroughly debunked theories regarding European theater's progressive development from indoor liturgical ceremony to outdoor vernacular spectacle. But then again it is hard to know to do when Granger muses rhetorically: "Could it also be argued, then, that N-Town, with its liturgy-within-drama, might be read as an evolutionary link between liturgical and secular drama?" (29). It is not clear what she means by "secular" drama, and the use of "liturgical" here to identify a genre of drama undermines her compelling argument throughout the book for liturgicality as a defining feature of a broad range of dramatic forms in the Middle Ages. One final quibble: the dust jacket proclaims Granger's book the first devoted to understanding N-Town, a claim implicitly, if not explicitly, supported by Granger's glaring omission of Stephen Spector's The Genesis of the N-Town Cycle (Garland, 1988) from her bibliography and notes.

Despite such infelicities, The N-Town Play: Drama and Liturgy in Medieval East Anglia does accomplish its primary goal of rehabilitating the N-Town Play as a significant landmark of early English drama. It has the potential to drive new and much-needed inquiries into the dynamic relationship between liturgy and theater in the later Middle Ages. As such, it is deserving of careful consideration by all scholars working in the field.

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Author Biography

John T. Sebastian

Loyola University, New Orleans