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21.03.21 Atkin/Estill (eds.), Early British Drama in Manuscript

The Medieval Review

21.03.21 Atkin/Estill (eds.), Early British Drama in Manuscript


With twenty chapters offering variations on the titular theme, the heft of Early British Drama in Manuscript is already testament to the possibilities of the topic, and taken together, the essays aggregate to create what is indeed "a new dramatic landscape" (3). Editors Tamara Atkin and Laura Estill have assembled a rich and varied set of material at the intersection of dramatic studies and manuscript studies, and, thanks to this underlying methodological innovation, the volume coheres intellectually to an impressive degree. As the first volume in A. S. G. Edwards' "British Manuscripts" series at Brepols, it is a sign of more good things to come.

The essays in the volume span medieval and early modern material, and the volume itself is divided into three sections of roughly equal length: "Production," "Performance," and "Reception." The plays under consideration date from approximately 1400 to approximately 1700, and the study of their reception takes us through to the present day (and into the future, with notice of exciting digital publications and projects in development). Doing justice to the whole of the volume and its many important essays would be impossible within the space of a single review: because readers of The Medieval Review are likely to be most interested in the chapters that focus on medieval material or draw on medieval analogues, my focus here is on those, with "material possibly originally composed prior to the sixteenth century" as our cut-off criterion. But I hasten to add that the interdisciplinary and cutting-edge essays on early modern material--which comprise the bulk of the volume--make for illuminating reading as well and, like their medieval counterparts, re-shape and flesh out the field in exciting ways.

Most of the chapters with an explicit focus on medieval drama are to be found in the "Production" section, which includes essays by Joe Stadolnik, Pamela M. King, Alexandra F. Johnston, and Matthew Sergi. The "Performance" section focuses on early modern material, though Sarah Carpenter's essay draws on medieval comparanda. In "Reception," Gail McMurray Gibson's essay represents the medieval period, though her topic is most immediately Georgian England. Other essays, such as Jakub Boguszak on actor parts and Daniel Starza Smith and Jana Dambrogio's fascinating introduction to "letterlocking" (both in "Performance"), note the relevance of their fields of inquiry to the medieval period without going into more detail. The material is arranged chronologically within each of the three sections, which has the effect of clustering of the majority of the medieval material right at the start of the entire volume. This initial density might give the misleading impression that the medieval material is somehow prefatory, though the "various continuities, exchanges, lendings, and borrowings between medieval and early modern scribal practices" (3) are fundamental to the collection's interests. Given the inevitable blurring of the categories of "Production," "Performance," and "Reception," a case could be made for re-categorizing some of the medieval material--for example, putting King's essay on the Coventry Playbooks into "Performance" or Stadolnik's essay on the Book of Brome into "Reception"--in order to put it more consistently into conversation with early modern manuscript culture. That being said, the links between all of the volume's essays are so multi-dimensional that virtually any two might be profitably read alongside each other, regardless of periodization.

Joe Stadolnik gets the volume off to a strong start with "The Brome Abraham and Isaac and Impersonal Compilation," about the manuscript culture(s) that gave rise to the Book of Brome, MS 365 at Yale's Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Written with verve, Stadolnik's essay makes the important point that the Book of Brome began life as the product of a professional scribe and then develops the implications of this observation. The scribe included in the manuscript a copy of an Abraham and Isaac play designed for reading; the scribe, hoping to sell his book, would have been expected to subscribe to the expectations of the marketplace. Thus, "the Book of Brome indexes, however imperfectly, a moment when a pageant play like Abraham and Isaac could be thought fitting and fashionable material for compilation along with its miscellaneous poetry and legal templates" (21). Stadolnik eloquently concludes that "the Brome Abraham and Isaac is medieval drama as manuscript: an invitation to see the pageant play as a textual genre circulating as an article for private reading, rather than an expressly performed genre of public culture" (30).

Pamela M. King's essay on "The Coventry Playbooks" offers a detailed codicological analysis of Coventry, City Record Office, Accessions 11/1 and 11/2 that is geared toward showcasing the manuscripts' "interaction with real performance" (34). An authority on these manuscripts, King is persuasive on their relevance to a performance context, and she offers a comprehensive overview of how these manuscripts were used and seen--as "commodities with functional value as adjuncts to a performance of some status rather than in their own right" (39), "cultural ephemera, like private letters, papers, and shopping lists, useful only according to their relevance to the performative activities" (53). At points, I wondered whether certain details King lays out--like the decorative rhyme brackets in 11/2, and the marked use of vellum in that manuscript--could slightly qualify certain of these conclusions without compromising them. King frames her essay with an illuminating discussion of playbooks, as understood generally and in the medieval period.

In "The Towneley Plays: Huntington Library MS HM 1," Alexandra F. Johnston follows up on Malcolm Parkes' hypothesis that MS HM 1 was actually a legalmanuscript: an ipsissima verba, an authoritative copy of the Towneley plays' exact words (if not their order) intended as a point of reference for legal or government officials. Johnston bears out this identification in compelling detail, clarifying everything from missing leaves to a blank folio to damage to the manuscript to possible early provenance by this light. This legal context is, as Johnston notes, a further step away from the once-prevalent notion that MS HM 1 was straightforwardly a record of a "Wakefield cycle." The ongoing revision of our understanding of this manuscript is a salutary reminder that perhaps the most important duty of manuscript scholars is "to let the pages speak for themselves" (68), and Johnston's work to this end is exemplary.

In a tour de force, Matthew Sergi performs multiple kinds of analysis in "Un-dating the Chester Plays: A Reassessment of Lawrence Clopper's 'History and Development' and MS Peniarth 399" to demonstrate that "no material in the Chester plays, and certainly not the plays taken in toto as a univocal cycle, should be tethered...to any range of dates more narrow than c. 1421-1591" (73). Combining textual exegesis of Lawrence Clopper's actual argument as presented in his 1978 article, a reception history of Clopper's article, and a paleographical consideration of Cestrian letter-forms in Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, MS Peniarth 399, Sergi dismantles the idea of the Chester Plays as "datable" with every instrument available to him (and two very informative tables). One quibble: though Sergi makes clear that he is using inherited terminology that is primarily about academic genealogy, it is nevertheless somewhat confusing for the two schools of thought regarding the plays' dating to be labelled as "British" and "American" when, as Sergi notes, the Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre,edited by two non-Americans, also tends more toward the "American" line (and vice versa)--or at least as this line has been misinterpreted, per Sergi's argument. It seems to me that Sergi has the last word in this debate to such a degree that he could have revised its terms and opted for other labels. Regardless, after the publication of this essay, our knowledge of the Chester Plays is advanced to such an extent that there will be little need to keep these or any other terms current.

Lydgate's mummings are enlightening comparanda for Sarah Carpenter in her excellent "Sixteenth-Century Courtly Mumming and Masking: Alexander Montgomerie's The Navigatioun." But there was probably no direct influence: Carpenter also points out that Montgomerie, who wrote the text of the masking show The Navigatioun for the court of James VI of Scotland, almost certainly knew of the practice because of time spent in France. This route of dissemination raises interesting questions about the Europeanness (or not) of various modes of dramatic performance in this period more generally. This essay also (as Atkin and Estill's "Introduction" observes) pairs nicely with Stadolnik's, with its interest in the considered textualization (and thus the readability) of a piece that was at some earlier point meant for performance.

Finally, Gail McMurray Gibson's "The Macro Plays in Georgian England" establishes in detail the route by which Washington, DC, Folger Shakespeare Library, MS V.a.354, which contains Wisdom, Mankind, and The Castle of Perseverance, came to be owned by censured-Quaker banking heir (and Fellow, later Vice President, of the Society of Antiquaries) Hudson Gurney in 1821. The version Gibson offers not only rewrites the provenance information offered in the 1904 EETS edition of the Macro Plays (and often thereafter); it also sheds new light on the role that figures such as Mary Dawson and John Payne Collier played in defining early (and lasting) ideas of the medieval morality play. This essay, a longer version of which also appears in Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 113 (2019), fills a sizable gap in the scholarship on one of the core manuscripts of medieval drama, and will also be of great interest to scholars of Georgian England and of the nexus of antiquarianism, bibliophilia, and connoisseurship.

The theme of "drama in manuscript" is a helpful common denominator for study of the medieval and early modern periods. But even after recent work on early modern drama in manuscript by scholars such as Tiffany Stern, Paul Werstine, Laura Estill, and James Purkis, and even though Atkin and Estill point out in their introduction that "the bulk of our knowledge of early performance necessarily comes to us from manuscript sources" (2), it it probably fair to say that a medievalist will associate drama with a manuscript context more readily, or at least more unavoidably, than an early modernist would. Any frisson of provocation the title might carry, then, must be less provocative for a specialist of the earlier period. There is much of lasting value for medievalists in this volume, however. The essays that focus on medieval material radically revise our understanding of that material. They also stand to contribute to broader ongoing conversations in medieval literary studies. For instance, it is noteworthy that much medieval drama is preserved on paper, a topic that has been the subject of interesting recent work. And several of the medieval-oriented essays play up the status of the dramatic manuscript as a read object or as an object designed for sustained reading (by a ready buyer, by a court official), rather than--or in addition to--performance. In this, they increase our knowledge of reading practice as it is encoded and preserved in manuscripts. This volume may well spur us to develop a further vocabulary for a medieval dramatic culture that played out on the page as well as the stage.