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  • The N-Town Play: Drama and Liturgy in Medieval East Anglia
  • Douglas Sugano
Penny Granger . The N-Town Play: Drama and Liturgy in Medieval East Anglia. Cambridge: Brewer, 2009. Pp. x+257+1. $95.00.

D. S. Brewer and Granger have taken on a daunting task: publishing a scholarly, book-length commentary on the N-Town Plays. Such an ambitious work and approach is certainly welcome to late medieval drama. In the past decade there has not been one article devoted to the relationship between the N-Town Plays and liturgy. Granger bravely attempts to negotiate the various anomalies of N-Town (no existing dramatic records, no geographical home base, not being a civic cycle play, etc.) through a reading of the manuscript's use of liturgy, and, as she later argues, possible liturgical uses. This book is at its best when it clings closely to its stated goals but becomes problematic when it excludes current theory and what we know about theatrical and scribal practices.

The book is divided into five chapters: "Setting the Scene," "Text in Context," "Liturgy in Play," "Other Connections," and "The Evolution of the N-Town Play and Its Audience." In the first chapter, Granger draws from Catherine Bell's Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions and notes that because of N-Town's extensive use of liturgy that N-Town appears to be a drama closer to "ritual performance." Granger's use of Bell and her insights about "ritual activity" are promising and could yield new insights about late medieval religious practices. On the other hand such an "all is ritual" approach can create confusion. In chapter 3, Granger oversimplifies N-Town's relationship to the church calendar by assuming that it is a Corpus Christi play because it is so laden with liturgy (121). N-Town scholars, for a while, have assumed that the Banns would more likely announce a Trinity Sunday event rather than Corpus Christi.

There are other theoretical problems in the book that limit the readings for N-Town. From the beginning of the book, the author posits that N-Town may have been a closet drama, a liturgical, or devotional aid for reading, but ignores the fact that the manuscript has unmistakable prompt notes for production in the margins. When she does discuss staging, her readings are both limited and limiting. At one point in the first chapter (11), Granger notes that N-Town's place-and-scaffold staging provides "little opportunity for … simultaneous action" (3), an odd observation considering that simultaneous action is clearly indicated in several stage directions in Passion Play 2. At the end of the first chapter, she suggests an old notion which also reveals her theoretical approach to N-Town:

The Quem Queritis trope, for example—became drama within liturgy and thence part of the liturgy itself.… Could it also be argued, then that N-Town, with its liturgy-within-drama, might be read as an evolutionary link between liturgy and secular drama?


Seeking an evolutionary link between liturgy and secular drama seems somewhat anachronistic: most early English drama scholars have moved beyond evolutionary [End Page 92] theories. In many regards, Granger's approach to N-Town operates in the vein of E. K. Chambers and O. B. Hardison.

The similarities to other formalist and old historicist approaches continue in chapter 2 in which she observes that "Liturgy … cannot be viewed through the lens of cultural studies" (38). The chapter continues to read N-Town typologically and liturgically, sometimes arriving at unusual readings. The author typifies N-Town as a highly orthodox text, one that avoids references to heresy. This is a bizarre notion, considering that Jesus (in Passion Play 2) is called both a heretic and a "lollar." At other points Granger argues for the liturgical intent and textual unity of N-Town, confusing form with function when she states: "One has to assume here that the original intention was for the play to go round local communities and various liturgical pieces to be performed" (69). Even though Granger freely admits the piecemeal, anthological status of N-Town as a manuscript, she still maintains that the manuscript is a single play (or...