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The Birth of the History Play: Saint, Sacrifice, and Reformation
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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 39.2 (1999) 217-237

If the origins of Greek tragedy are presided over by "the grotesque shadow of a goat," the traditions of modern European drama are historically under the shadow of the Christian sacrifice. In what follows I will be exploring the impact of Reformation theology and politics upon two ritual dramas: the Mass and the saint plays. The displaying and resacrifice of Christ, on the one hand, and the representation of the martyred saints, on the other, were both "dramas" based upon the re-creation of past events. The saint plays, it is now known, particularly emphasized native "British" or English history; through my reconstruction of the plays on St. Thomas Becket, I will suggest a new genealogy for the English history play. The alteration and suppression of medieval cultural forms drove their energies into new channels, creating a new form of historical drama, in which a sense of commemoration takes precedence over the sense of presence.

The Protestant Reformation brought to the Mass, and specifically to the doctrine of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, a revolutionary change which was historicizing in conception. In the Catholic Mass, the sacrifice or oblation of Christ is understood to happen again in the consecration. This sacrifice is "present" in two senses of the word: the sacrifice happens in the present moment, and Christ's body is present physically in the Eucharist. The Mass represents a past event, the sacrifice of Christ; yet that event is understood somehow not to be past, but rather to be perennially repeated through the efficacy of the ritual. Witnessing the resacrifice of Christ brings the spectator -- I use the term because most attendants at a medieval Mass were not communicants -- to a "timeless" cultural site, there to contact the presence of the dead. But in Reformation England, the service for the Lord's Supper, created mainly by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer under the influence of the Continental reformers, radically altered this conception -- giving official sanction to an anti-transubstantiationist current of feeling which had existed since the Lollards at least. The liturgy for the Lord's Supper in the Book of Common Prayer, first published in 1549, was subsequently pushed in the direction of still further reformation in the edition of 1552, the understanding of the Eucharistic service being one of the most contentious areas affected. The Elizabethan Prayer Book (1559) is based closely upon the Second Edwardine Book. In the 1549 Prayer Book, the sacrifice was understood to have happened "once for all," and at a great distance in time. By comparison to the mystically renewed sacrifice of the Roman rite, the new English service foregrounded the historical contingency of Christ's death. The Order for the Lord's Supper in the 1549 Book reads: "O God heauenly father, which of thy tender mercie diddest geue thine only sonne Jesu Christ to suffre death upon the crosse for our redempcion, who made there (by his one oblacion once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifyce, oblacion, and satysfaccyon, for the sinnes of the whole worlde." The parenthetical phrase stresses the discrete singularity of the historical event. Both Edwardine Books insist on the memorial character of the Eucharist: Christ "did institute, and in his holy Gospell commaund us, to celebrate a perpetuall memory of that his precious death." The sacrifice was to be commemorated, not re-created. Cranmer's service was not Zwinglian -- the Sacrament was not "merely memorial"--the memory was able to work an effectual change. This change happens, not in the Eucharist, but in the faithful believer, who involves himself in a process of thought rather than, as the Roman rite had it, in a physical association with the substance of God.

Julia Houston has recently suggested that Cranmer's reformed communion service represents an important event for English drama. According to Houston, the Catholic Mass had not been a semiotically constructed experience: Christ's presence was not "signified," because Christ was really present; the bread and wine were not "signifiers," because they were the body of Christ. In Cranmer's reformed Lord's Supper, the scheme is metaphorical rather than sacramental: the Eucharist signifies...


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