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TDR: The Drama Review 45.4 (2001) 165-167

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Book Review

Drama, Performance, and Polity in Pre-Cromwellian Ireland

Drama, Performance, and Polity in Pre-Cromwellian Ireland. By Alan J. Fletcher. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000; 520 pp.; illustrations. $110.00 cloth.

It is hard to get past the reviewer's cover sheet for Alan Fletcher's Drama, Performance, and Polity in Pre-Cromwellian Ireland. How--one must initially ask--can anyone justify charging more than $100 for a study of medieval drama, in Ireland or elsewhere? The answer lies in the realities of supply and demand, which for academic publishers work in inverse proportion to cost and price. Presses like the University of Toronto charge outrageous prices because their costs are high and potential buyers are few. Whatever its merits (and they are great), this book will be purchased mainly by university libraries or senior scholars able to afford the cost. Within a year or so, it may no longer be available.

This economic reality impacts the book itself. On the one hand, this study provides the first reliable, coherent documentary history of early Irish drama. Defining "performance" broadly, it traces Irish theatrical activity through the myriad realms of the profane and the sacred. It ranges, for example, from the activities of 7th-century "druiths" or jesters who occupied various social positions; through 16th-century "carrowes" or dice and card players who sometimes gambled away their clothes, allowing themselves to be "tethered by the genitals" (55); to the more conventional Corpus Christi and Visitatio Sepulchri plays of the 16th and 17th centuries. No other scholar has searched out the records of Irish theatrical activity buried among far-flung national, city, and ecclesiastical archives--in places like Dublin, Belfast, Cork, London, Uppsala, Oxford, Brussels, Durham, Kilkenny, Edinburgh, and Kent. Years of painstaking research have allowed Fletcher to fill in a picture of Irish performance history that will not soon be matched.

On the other hand, long quotations from the records overburden the text of a book that--given the costs--inescapably serves the functions of two volumes in one: simultaneously preserving previously unavailable records and interpreting them. That the interpreter sometimes trips over the archivist reflects, in part, Fletcher's association with the Records of Early English Drama (REED) project. Initiated in the late 1970s under the general editorship of Alexandra Johnston, REED uses the available scraps of historical evidence (often in the form of payments to players, receipts for specific masks, civic proclamations, etc.) to link late medieval drama to the evolution of urban and civic hierarchies in places like York, Cambridge, Chester, and now--by extension--Dublin (see Johnston and Rogerson 1979; Nelson 1989; Clopper 1979; and Louis 2000). The project has not only led to an increased interest in preserving and editing hitherto neglected plays (for guidelines see Johnston and Husken 1996; for an Irish example, see Mills 1996); it has also helped to stimulate performances of medieval play cycles and other forms of civic and social drama in Toronto, at Leeds University in England, and elsewhere.

Overall, the REED project reflects and has helped to further the 20th-century rediscovery of medieval drama. This has resulted not only in historically reconstructive performances of medieval plays, but also in modern adaptations like Tony Harrison's three-part production of The Mysteries staged by the Royal National Theatre of Britain, which played to sold-out London audiences in 1985; or Benjamin Britten's 1957 setting for Noye's Fludde (a one-act opera for children adapted from the Chester Mystery plays, first performed in Suffolk, England, in 1958, and frequently produced ever since, including a Portland, [End Page 165] Oregon, production in April 2001). Fletcher's contextualized introduction to medieval Irish performance history emerges from the intellectual, analytical, and performance matrix that has sustained interest in performances.

Editing and compiling the records has not only influenced productions of medieval plays; it has also transformed our understanding of medieval drama in England and--through its model--influenced the way we regard the civic and festive cultures...


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