The Medieval Review 14.11.14


Sponsler, Claire. The Queen's Dumbshows: John Lydgate and the Making of Early Theater. The Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. Pp. vii, 308. $65.00 (hardback). ISBN: 9780812245950 (hardback).



Reviewed by:


Alex Mueller
University of Massachusetts, Boston
alex.mueller@umb.edu

John Lydgate's importance to literary history is now well established, but his position within theater history is still shaky at best. With the timely publication of Claire Sponsler's The Queen's Dumbshows: John Lydgate and the Making of Early Theater, we can be assured that his vital contributions to medieval drama will no longer suffer neglect. Sponsler consciously uses the term "theater history" to recognize the public and multimedia experience of performance, which is often at odds with literary history's emphasis on the private and individual experience of reading. When Lydgate's dramatic entertainments are examined as products of theater history, Sponsler suggests, we are compelled "to realign our understanding not just of his writings, but also of the interdependence of poetry and performance, of reading and spectating, of textualilty and orality, and of permanence and ephemerality" (15). In the process of demonstrating Lydgate's theatrical contributions, Sponsler identifies his astonishing role in the production of dumbshows for Henry VI's mother, Queen Catherine of Valois, as well as the myriad ways that women and non-elites were actively involved in dramatic performances, both as patrons and audience members.

A key strength of this study is its careful attention to material conditions, which play a central role in chapter 1, "Shirley's Hand." Examining the Lydgatean manuscripts produced by John Shirley, Sponsler suggests that his copies reflect the crossed purposes of representing details of performances and the producing readable texts. On the one hand, Shirley's rubrics provide the most definitive information we possess about the performance context of Lydgate's plays. On the other, Shirley erases many details of the live entertainments because his primary goal is to produce books for readers.

Chapter 2, "Vernacular Cosmopolitanism," places Shirley's scribal interventions in conversation with recent scholarship on the civic literature of London, documentary poetics, and vernacular humanism. Focusing on Lydgate's mummings and disguisings, Sponsler demonstrates the ways these texts are shaped for the diversified tastes of urban audiences. Shirley even describes Lydgate's ballade, the Mumming for the Mercers, as a letter, indicating its affinity with clerks trained in the ars dictaminis, a bureaucratic practice familiar to civic-minded poets like Thomas Hoccleve. Viewed from this angle, Lydgate is not just a dramatic artist. He is a documentary poet par excellence.

Even documents like letters had a public (and often interactive) life, a point that Sponsler builds upon in her examination of Lydgate's wall poems in chapter 3, "Performing Pictures." Interrogating the distinction between the ephemerality of live performance and the permanence of public displays of verse, Sponsler stresses the theatrical character of such visual poetry, particularly when juxtaposed with images, such as Lydgate's Daunce of Poulys and Testament. These works rely upon interactive experiences, in which viewers engage simultaneously with image and verse. Sponsler ends the chapter with the clever observation that this interwoven relationship of medieval text and image adds "to our sense of the poet the notion of writer as fabricator--or weaver and painter of words--whose writerly craft could be both inspired by the visual and embodied within it" (96).

This textual and visual interplay is also apparent in Lydgate's Procession of Corpus Christi, the subject of chapter 4, "Performance and Gloss." Sponsler argues that this "free-floating set of verses" (97) operates as "a kind of gloss or reader's guide" (98) that teaches readers how to interpret the devotional performance. In this light, Lydgate's text becomes a kind of exegetical commentary, encouraging readers to make connections between figures in the procession and the meaning of the Eucharist. Whether this performance was real or imagined, Lydgate, the "glossing poet" (114), creates an interpretive community that could continually recollect and rehearse the performance for devotional purposes.

Whereas Lydgate's Procession describes an event that may have never happened, his 1432 Royal Entry, the subject of chapter 5, "Inscription and Ceremony," describes a real series of pageants celebrating the return of Henry VI after his coronation in Paris. The London clerk John Carpenter was commissioned to record these spectacles in a Latin letter book, but Lydgate was later asked to compose a version of the pageants in English, a sequence of events that reflects "an understanding of vernacular writing as a desirable adjunct to performance" (114). In a comparative reading of the two versions, Sponsler contends that Lydgate eschews Carpenter's dictaminal attention to detail in favor of impressionistic portraits of the cast of characters. As Sponsler points out, Lydgate's version was well received, evidenced by its inclusion in later chronicle accounts of the events.

Chapter 6, "Edible Theater," takes the notion of reading as eating to a new level by addressing three ballades that Lydgate composed for Henry VI's 1429 coronation banquet. By providing poetic accompaniment to the lavish presentation of subtleties, Lydgate provides "a glimpse of a history of theater in relation to the senses, where food and spectacle--alimentary and visual consumption--come together" (150). Rather than stimulate the appetites of his readers, Lydgate accentuates the spectacular character of the subtleties, refining his use of the continental ballade form to represent a royal gustatory performance.

In the book's titular chapter 7, "The Queen's Dumbshows," Sponsler confronts the lack of evidence for women's participation in premodern drama by establishing the context for Catherine of Valois' patronage of Lydgate's Disguising at Hertford, Mumming at Eltham, and Mumming at Windsor. Sponsler sets the stakes of her book in this chapter, emphasizing that these dumbshows "revise our understanding of women's involvement in medieval performances" (168). In addition to combing through historical records that place Lydgate within the proximity of the court and establish the circumstances for royal patronage, Sponsler presses the language of the texts themselves for evidence of Catherine's influence. For example, Sponsler closely aligns the themes of displacement in the Mumming at Windsor with Catherine's real diminution of power when her son is crowned king. While Shirley's rubrics fail to retain the traces of women's involvement in the performances, Sponsler argues that women were undoubtedly owners and readers of these textualized dumbshows in the years to come.

Pursuing another controversial line of inquiry in chapter 8, "On Drama's Trail," Sponsler makes a case for Lydgate's authorship of A Mumming of the Seven Philosophers. Following clues from previous codicological and paleographical work, Sponsler situates this mumming within a circle of scribes and readers who were closely associated with Lydgatean writing. For readers wondering why Lydgate's authorship matters, Sponsler makes the intriguing point that "lack of a known author has often been a limit point for interpretation" (204), particularly for geographical and temporal identification. Moreover, she suggests, its connection to Lydgate might also rescue it from future neglect.

The afterword concludes with a methodological justification for the book's dedication to historicism. Sponsler acknowledges the importance of reception studies, but emphasizes the limits of focusing on future audiences and appropriations, especially when evidence about original staging and performance venues remains unexamined. Her most compelling point, perhaps, is that theater history must recognize the complicated theatrical character of the seemingly non-dramatic public performances that comprise this important portion of Lydgate's literary work.

This is a meticulously researched, beautifully written, and persuasively argued study that must not be missed by either theater historians and Lydgate scholars. Because Sponsler does not reproduce many lines from the texts themselves, however, readers unfamiliar with Lydgate's dramatic works might experience some frustration. Thankfully, Sponsler has edited these works for the TEAMS Middle English Texts Series (2010), a book that will prove more valuable than ever. Better yet, if these books are read side by side, readers can begin to imagine the medieval multimedia entertainment that Sponsler describes, an imaginative and interactive recreation of Lydgatean theater.



Copyright (c) 2015 Alex Mueller



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