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23.12.08 Ingram, Festive Enterprise

23.12.08 Ingram, Festive Enterprise


Literary debate about the relationship between medieval and early modern drama tends to take one of two approaches. One, that early modern theater appropriated medieval festive theater by incorporating scenes of rural festivals, misrule, and morris dancing in an effort to make up for the loss of traditional celebrations that were a consequence of the Reformation. The second approach understands early modern drama as something new because it was profit driven, while medieval plays were not. Thus, early modern playwrights repurposed elements of medieval drama to address these new commercial interests. In her new book, Festive Enterprise: The Business of Drama in Medieval and Renaissance England, Jill Ingram rejects these two models arguing for “a commercial continuum between medieval festive events and later sixteenth- and seventeenth-century dramatic productions” (2). In taking this position, she is interested in not just the continuities of form between medieval and early modern drama, but in how these continuities negotiated dramatic social and religious change. She starts by understanding festive drama as a form of drama that appeals to audiences’ good will, whether to solicit donations or to promote dramatic engagement, which helped assure future financial success. Whether rebuilding a bell tower or paying actors working in a theater, the marketplace put financial pressure on performances, putting the actors and entertainers at a disadvantage with respect to their relationship to the audience. To change those dynamics, performers needed to develop strategies to collaborate with audiences. These strategies, Ingram argues, influenced both the aesthetics and form of festive drama. These strategies further developed expectations for support from patrons and audiences.

Ingram makes her argument in six thematically arranged chapters. Chapter One “The Festive Gatherer and Empathetic Thief: The Genealogy of a Character” looks particularly at the figure of the gatherer. Medieval parishes, especially rural ones, used drama and other mimetic activities to raise money for building projects, liturgical splendor, and even basic operating expenses. Gathering figures like Robin Hood, hobby horses, or morris dancers collected money from participants during village celebrations. Robin Hood proved to be especially enduring, and along with gathering rituals continued to be a feature of festive drama once plays moved to theaters and began charging admission. Gathering figures, Ingram argues, gave rise to the character of the empathetic thief, such as Titivillus in Mankind, Autolycus in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, or the London Prodigal in the play of the same name. Once plays charged admission, these characters’ interaction with the audience no longer helped assure a play’s financial success.

In Chapter Two, “Forms of Investment: Mummings, Prologues, and Epilogues,” Ingram looks at what gathering figures said, arguing that these moments borrowed rhetorical strategies from medieval preaching, to convince audiences already enjoying the spectacle to hand over money in support of their parish. In the early modern theater, however, audiences had already paid to enter the drama space, so the financial component was already accomplished before the entertainment started. Nonetheless, mummings, prologues, and epilogues remained important features in plays, because they engaged audiences, making them part of the performance. They helped invest the audience not in the parish’s project, but in the performance they had already paid to see. These speeches turned the theater, like the churchyard, into a communal space where spectators’ emotional investment had an important role to play.

Chapter Three, “Reconciliation in The Winter’s Tale: Devotion and Commerce from Guilds to Church Ales,” considers how devotional transactions overlap with commercial ones at festive entertainments, such as when with the donor to a church ale reaps spiritual rewards with their economic support of the parish. This relationship, however, is not always apparent, because sometimes support was compelled, as in civic Corpus Christi celebrations. While done for the betterment of the city, participation was not optional for the city’s guilds, thus challenging the overlap between spiritual and commercial. Ingram sees this contradiction being resolved by figures like Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale. In the sheepshearing festival scene, this “thieving festive gatherer’s” begging provides commentary on the relationship between charity and compelled donation and ultimately becoming a figure of redemption and mercy.

In Chapter Four, “The Mobile Entertainer: John Taylor’s Penniless Pilgrimage,” Ingram moves from the communal nature of parish, city, and theater drama, to the individual performer in a traveling troop. Ingram explores how individual entertainers engaged the audience so that they would forgive having to pay admission. Ingram looks particularly at the relationship between John Taylor’s entertainments and his printed accounts of his entertainments. Taylor was one of King James I’s Watermen. In 1618, he traveled from London to Scotland and back, pledging not to beg for food or lodging. Instead, he had sponsors pay to read about his adventures, which he wrote up as The Penniless Pilgrimage. Authorities could have imprisoned him on charges of vagabondage, but instead, Taylor legitimized his pilgrimage and procession by writing about the patronage he received at various great households along the way. Moreover, The Penniless Pilgrimage colluded with its literate audiences by offering entertainment in exchange for donations, a familiar and accepted means of gaining a place in the community and forging social connection.

Chapter Five, “Coding Complaint in Gesta Grayorum and The Christmas Prince,” looks at how holiday revels at London’s Inns of Court and at England’s universities adapted the familiar festival traditions of mockery, inversion, and supplication to their own ends. Royal revels had royal patronage, public theaters had the market place, but universities and Inns had neither. To finance their productions, the players made up subscription lists and solicited funds at the beginning of performances and sometimes during, if the money box was still in need. The two plays Gesta Grayorum, which was performed at Christmastime 1594 by Gray’s Inn, and The Christmas Prince, a Shrovetide entertainment put on by St. John’s College, Oxford in 1607/7, matched fundraising strategies with dramatic solicitations that combined Christmas festive traditions of misrule and mockery with communal obligations and commitment. In asking for money, Ingram argues these plays simultaneously mocked and mimicked the language of Governmental taxation, while creating a credit community based on trust and shared purpose.

In Chapter Six, “‘A Jest’s Prosperity’: The Market, Marprelate, and Love’s Labour’s Lost,” Ingram takes up the relationship between Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost (1594) and Martin Marprelate’s anti-episcopal tracts via by its commentary on the uses of festive satire. The Marprelate tracts were seven anonymous and illegal Presbyterian tracts published between the years 1588-89. The Marprelate tracts was innovative in how they used festive modes to engage their audience. They relied on satire, sensational gossip about bishops’ alleged sexual misbehavior, and denunciation of episcopal greed and self-interest. The use of the pamphlet made it affordable to a wide audience. While other literary scholars have connected Shakespeare to the Marprelate tracts, Ingram argues for a greater connection than has hitherto been acknowledged. Through plot structure, character development, and patterns of phrasing, Love’s Labour’s Lost echoes Marprelate styles. But while drama sought to unite those it sought to attract, the Marprelate tracts sought to destroy, but turning festive references into vulgar vitriol. This tactic divided the intended audience, while festive tradition was to assure the success of the performance.

This is ultimately a book for those interested in early modern drama. Ingram’s scholarship, however, not only puts into play the wealth of scholarship on the medieval parish that has been published in the last quarter century, but nicely helps reconcile competing ideas about the relationship between medieval and early modern drama. This is a heartening position for those arguing for the importance of medieval literature classes as departments remake English majors.