15.09.10, Atkin, The Drama of Reform

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John Sebastian

The Medieval Review 15.09.10

Atkin, Tamara. The Drama of Reform: Theology and Theatricality, 1461-1553. Late Medieval and Early Modern Studies (LMEMS 23). Turnhout: Brepols, 2013. pp. x, 198. ISBN: 978-2-503-54651-3 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
John Sebastian
Loyola University New Orleans
jtsebast@zmail.loyno.edu

Tamara Atkin's first book, The Drama of Reform: Theology and Theatricality, 1461-1553, a revised version of her Oxford doctoral thesis, offers a much wanted contribution to the study of a too-often overlooked period of English theatrical history, the first half of the sixteenth century. The elegant simplicity of Atkin's general argument, that playwrights with reformist sympathies sought "to distinguish their drama from the rituals of the Catholic Church result[ing] in new modes of playing" (8), belies its importance in redirecting our understanding of the trajectory of theater history during the Tudor period. Atkin reminds her readers that before Puritan radicalism contributed to the demise of the great northern cycles of biblical drama during Elizabeth's reign and abetted the closure of the public theaters in the seventeenth century, the first generations of reformers recognized drama's potential for aiding in the promulgation of new theologies and religious sensibilities.

Atkin's pursuit of these emergent modes of reformed playing is neither systematic nor comprehensive; rather, she limits herself to consideration of four plays by reform-minded dramatists which serve, to borrow Atkin's own memorable image, as "'bore holes' through which the cultural interactions between theology and theatricality might be observed" (11). These plays--John Bale's King Johan and Three Laws; Lewis Wager's Life and Repentaunce of Mary Magdalene; and Jacke Jugeler, attributed to Nicholas Udall--reveal the uneasy tension between the playwrights' awareness of drama's capacity for persuasion on the one hand and its associations with Catholic clericalism, Eucharistic theology, and iconodulia on the other. The challenge for Atkin is that her argument is more easily stated than made, for, by her own admission, these plays ultimately fall short of effecting a clean break from their Catholic forbears.

The Drama of Reform opens with a short introduction that adumbrates theater's history as a cause for suspicion in the West beginning with the Church Fathers and continuing to the publication of the Puritan William Prynne's Histriomastix in the 1630s, a suspicion borne of religious drama's potential for blurring the boundary between theatrical signs and the realities toward which they gestured. Following this brief sketch, the first chapter establishes the contours of the late-medieval Catholic theatricality against which the efforts of the reformed playwrights discussed by Atkin are subsequently measured. Surprisingly Atkin takes as representative of this dramaturgy the most unusual and spectacular of all medieval English plays, the Croxton Play of the Sacrament. Atkin's curious choice is nevertheless defensible on the grounds that the Play of the Sacrament appears to have participated in debates over the contested doctrine of transubstantiation that divided the followers of John Wyclif from orthodoxy's champions in the fifteenth century and in that regard anticipated the polemical uses to which the plays of Bale, Wager, and Udall were later put, albeit for different doctrinal ends. In making the claim that the Play of the Sacrament functioned as anti-heretical propaganda Atkin claims nothing new, as she herself acknowledges; she instead breathes new life into an argument first made in the 1940s by Celia Cutts to emphasize that drama had been used as a vehicle for religious argument prior to the sixteenth century, hence its appeal as a viable form for a new generation of polemicists during the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI. Indeed much of the method that Atkin subsequently employs in succeeding chapters is on display in this opening gambit, especially her knack for productively situating each play at the nexus of an impressive range of texts that inform her readings of the dramatic material, as here she places the Play of the Sacrament in engaging dialogue with, among other intertexts, an orthodox defense of the Sacrament by the Carthusian Nicholas Love and the Wycliffite Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge. All three texts highlight the tendency of affective devotional practices to obscure the relationship between religious signs as objects and the truths they signify, a theme to which Atkin returns throughout her study.

The remaining three chapters develop the primary argument of The Drama of Reform. In each chapter, Atkin examines a play (or two) from the mid-Tudor period in order to demonstrate the playwright's efforts to inaugurate a new dramaturgy that distances itself from the fundamental deceptiveness of Catholic spectacle. Chapter 2 broaches the subject of reformed dramaturgy in earnest through a reading of two plays by the Carmelite-turned-reformer John Bale. These plays, King Johan and Three Laws, both composed in the early years of the Henrician reformation and subsequently revised, appear in Atkin's own words "less concerned with the instruction of religious truth than they are with the exposure of erroneous belief and custom" (67). Atkin argues that Bale, under the influence of Tyndale, exposes Catholicism's deceptiveness by means of vice characters with evident Catholic sympathies who revel in their duplicity and openly acknowledge that they merely affect virtue. Atkin proceeds to show how in his non-dramatic writings as well as in his plays Bale takes pains to distinguish his own morally edifying dramaturgy from the deceptions that define Catholic stagecraft.

In the third chapter, Atkin reads Wager's Life and Repentaunce of Mary Magdalene as a response to a royal set of injunctions promulgated in 1547 that resulted in a full assault on so-called "abused" images, those that were objects of adoration in the form of pilgrimages, offerings, and other suspiciously Catholic activities. For Atkin, Wager's Magdalene is "an abused image, but one that is converted and renovated and is thus a defense of imagery" (103) and as such also can be understood as defending dramatic practice itself. Atkin presents Wager's script as representative of the kind of "honest playing" endorsed by the reformer Martin Bucer in his De regno Christi and Wager himself as an advocate for the reform of abused images rather than their destruction.

In the final chapter, Atkin locates Jacke Jugeler, a play about identity switching most often ascribed to Nicholas Udall, within current debates about the words of institution, that is, Jesus' pronouncement at the Last Supper that "this is my body." The play, an adaptation of Plautus's Amphitruo, traces the antics of Jacke Jugeler, who usurps the identity of one Jenkin Careaway, servant to Master Boungrace. Atkin views the play through the notion of "iconic identity" developed by Keir Elam, which collapses the distinction between iconicity, in which a sign gestures toward a reality, and identity, in which the sign is the same as what it represents. Iconic identity can only be achieved among the various artistic media in theater, where "the sign vehicle, although very similar to the referent, still mediates its identity and meaning" (128), so that a prop such as a glove represents something that it is not (some particular glove within the fictive world of the drama) but in a such a way that it cannot really be distinguished from the everyday world of gloves which both sign and referent inhabit. Yet Jacke, despite appropriating Jenkin's name, social status, and speech patterns, succeeds only in drawing attention to the actor impersonating the character, who is an actor impersonating another character, thereby failing to bridge the gap between iconicity and identity, for after all Jacke is not Jenkin, nor is the actor really Jacke! For Atkin, the comedic potential of a mistaken-identity plot resounds with echoes of Edwardian Eucharistic controversies. She smartly observes that Boungrace's refusal to credit Careaway's complaints about Jacke's attempts to wrest his own identity from him turn on Boungrace's insistence that one man cannot have two bodies, a bit of logic that neatly parallels Thomas Cranmer's objections to Catholic claims about the possibility of Christ's body being present at one and the same time both in Heaven and on earth in the Eucharist. Further, she notes that the lexicon of "juggling," understood as a range of feats of sleight of hand in the early modern period, was deployed to critique the trickery on which the traditional theology of transubstantiation was thought by reformers to depend. The play thus serves as an assault on the failures both of playing and of Catholic teaching while emphasizing iconicity over identity: the actor is never the character he presents just as the bread only symbolizes, but is not in reality, the body of Christ.

Throughout The Drama of Reform Atkin succeeds in identifying local efforts within each play to establish new dramaturgical modes. The individual case studies are knit together not only by the common argumentative thread running through the monograph but also by Atkin's skillfulness in reading her chosen plays amid the various and often opposed currents of religious thought that defined the middle decades of the sixteenth century. But the book is also regrettably characterized by Atkin's surprising tendency to undercut her own argument in the closing pages of each chapter, often without warning. She concludes her discussion of Bale's plays, for example, by wondering if he actually succeeds in evolving a reformed dramaturgy that avoids exploiting the fundamental deceptiveness that anchors all dramatic activity. She remarks that "while it may have been Bale's intention to make explicit the reformed condemnation of the ritualistic aspects of Catholicism...the practical requirements of contemporary performance results in a dramaturgy that resembles rather too closely the Catholicism his plays seek to condemn," for ultimately "the phenomenological pressures of drama undermine Bale's innovative attempts to distinguish between Catholic playing and reformed stagecraft" (98). Likewise she concludes her analysis of Jacke Jugeler's intervention in the Eucharistic controversies of its day by proclaiming that "if Jacke Jugeler was intended as an allegorical attack on transubstantiation it must be admitted that on some level it fails" (149). For Atkin, the play's assertion that Jacke can never truly assume the identity of Careaway only draws attention to Thomas Cranmer's problematic reading of Communion itself as a kind of vacuous drama, in which devout communicants are relegated to a world of mere signs where spiritual reality is absent. And the book's brief conclusion does little to untangle the argumentative fix in which Atkin finds herself at these moments. The previously promised "new modes of playing" are dismissed before they ever really take shape in Atkin's study, and one is left wondering why Atkin felt the need to be so dogmatic about the emergence of a legitimately reformed dramaturgy in the first place. The thesis of this book could easily have been that despite serious efforts to offer an alternative to Catholic theatricality, playwrights in the early sixteenth century were never quite able to distance themselves fully from Catholic spectacle, an argument that would then have enabled her readers to appreciate better that Puritan anti-theatrical rhetoric in the seventeenth century was a consequence of the failed experiments in reformed dramaturgy by Bale, Wager, and Udall. This is, in any case, the upshot of The Drama of Reform, although Atkin herself never quite qualifies her central claim in this way. Her opening stance ultimately cannot sustain the weight of the evidence, but the parts of this study, which are greater than their sum, are themselves worth the attention of scholars of medieval and early-modern drama alike, who will find in The Drama of Reform much that enriches their understanding of sixteenth-century theatricality as a response to theology.

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