- Ritual Imports: Performing Medieval Drama in America
Claire Sponsler's title, Ritual Imports, has a double meaning that captures the importance of her cultural study of traces and remnants of European medieval theatricalities in America. First, she argues that medieval rituals and performance practices were not forgotten in the process of constructing the New World, but were consciously imported to America beginning with the first settlers' arrival from Europe in the sixteenth century. Such rituals fulfilled communities' need to establish and re-establish their identities and cultural agendas, and were no less important to the people than were material goods. In many cases these rituals have lived for centuries, transforming their meanings and functions along with the changing contexts of American society and culture. The diversity and span of the performances are remarkable: Jémez matachines dances, Albany's Pinkster Festival, Mummers in Philadelphia, a saint play in Brooklyn, American Passion plays, and even academic reconstructions of medieval theatre.
Ritual Imports, however, also emphasizes the agency and performativity of ritual itself, which has the power to change and to escape change simultaneously, to move from one context to another, to import and reinvent itself, and to reinscribe itself in new social contexts. In this sense the title of the book refers not only to the historical continuation of medieval performances, but also to social, political, and cultural negotiations that influence the rituals and the new meanings they acquire. From this perspective Ritual Imports is a study in cultural appropriation that successfully escapes a positivist discussion of cultural transference as a linear process with "origins" and "originals" by employing a postcolonial methodology that helps to "theorize appropriation without asserting an unassailable hierarchy of one culture being imposed wholesale on another" (11).
In the introduction, "Performative Historiographies," Sponsler establishes the fact that medieval performances and rituals indeed found their way into different communities in America and gives a number of persuasive explanations for why theatre research has tended to overlook this important thread. One of the main reasons is the academic marginalization of "unprofessional" performance practices. Another significant explanation arises from the belief that medieval performances "had already died out by the time of colonization" (5), an idea that has been replaced in current scholarship by the one that medieval theatricalities continued in different forms in Europe and, as Sponsler demonstrates, in America for many centuries. A third contributing factor is the historiographic inclination to "emphasize processes of nation-building, while downplaying the pull of allegiance to a European homeland" (5). This idea is central to Sponsler's analysis; the imported rituals she discusses resist assimilation by combining a quest for a past through medieval culture with a view of that same medieval past "as the deliberately chosen 'other'" (11) through which communities can define and defend themselves.
The first two imported rituals, taken from very different contexts, share a fascinating pattern of how appropriated rituals change their meaning, to the degree that ownership of the same ritual is claimed by opposing communities. Chapter one, "Performing Conquest," investigates a ritual dance-drama, a matachines dance performed at Jémez Pueblo, which begins with the Spanish conquest of the Pueblo Indians in 1540 and is still performed today. This performance exists in two versions: one "Spanish," believed to be a piece of cultural heritage "that stages the expulsion of the Moors and represents the conversion of the Indians to Christianity" (29); and the other "Indian," dating from the early twentieth century, believed by the Puebloans to have been brought to them by Montezuma and oppositely representing to them "resistance to conquest and conversion" (29). Similarly, chapter two, "Selective Histories," which explores Albany's Pinkster [End Page 361] Festival, examines a version of African American coronation festivals in colonial New England that blended European and African traditions in a new context. Based on Dutch Pentecost and "mock-king" festivities, which at first served as a communal remembrance of the homeland, these annual performances in Albany lasted well into the nineteenth century and became a performative site of cultural...