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MLN 118.4 (2003) 1096-1097

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Jody Enders. Death by Drama and Other Medieval Urban Legends. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002. 324 pages.

In Jody Enders' second book, The Medieval Theater of Cruelty (Cornell UP, 1999), the professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara adroitly placed the frequent occurrences of violence in early performances within the cultural and linguistic contexts of medieval law. Enders begins her newest book, Death by Drama and other Medieval Urban Legends, by presenting an account of the onstage decapitation of a convicted criminal during the performance of a biblical drama in Tournai in 1549. This tale became a commonplace of late medieval lore, disseminated for centuries, but whose veracity was rarely, if ever, questioned. Given the levels of pain and violence in medieval Europe effectively established in Enders' previous book, no one had any reason to doubt the tale's accuracy.

This story is one of fourteen that Enders presents, all of which share the quality of having long been accepted by everyone (not excluding literary scholars) as being genuine. Among the stories is that of Lyotard, the effeminate young man playing the role of Saint Barbara, who attracted propositions of "financial assistance" from both a priest and a wealthy widow; the tale of two actors who nearly died on stage, one portraying the hanging of Judas, the other the crucifixion of Christ; the story of one spectator who, having fallen passionately in love with the dramatic character of Saint Catherine of Sienna, married the young woman who portrayed her. Enders devotes a chapter to the presentation and discussion of each tale, and it is undoubtedly this anecdotal presentation that makes Enders' book such a pleasure to read.

Yet the importance of this book to medievalists and theater historians lies not in its readability, but in Enders' own process of examining each of the stories in question. The inspiration to investigate the truth of these fourteen stories came to Enders, it would seem, upon the realization that their sources were not necessarily well known, and had nonetheless been, for centuries sometimes, taken for granted. Enders arrives at the root of the stories through meticulous archival investigation and her diligent method is an admirable example of how research in theater history should and, hopefully, will be conducted in the future. It is this careful process that provides access to the truth of the matter and furnishes Enders with the material required to re-spin the yarns she studies.

Jody Enders is one of several recent writers who seek to place medieval and early modern drama within larger socio-cultural contexts. In Death by Drama, Enders very capably shows that while these stories appear to be true and believable, and have perhaps been considered so since their beginnings, they are in fact nothing more than legends. Enders asserts that, much like the "urban legends" she recalls from her own childhood spent in New York City, these medieval legends disclose the unconscious fears and popular [End Page 1096] superstitions of the society in which they are created. Modern urban legends, such as the stories of alligators inhabiting New York City sewers, or those exposing dead mice found in soda bottles, reveal, Enders suggests, some unexpressed societal fear, such as, "Our public works are not properly maintained" or "Factory mass-production of food is unsafe." In the same way, she asserts, medieval urban legends might reveal similar societal concerns.

While some of the examples that Enders presents demonstrate fairly obvious underlying superstitions or fears (anti-Semitism, mistrust of foreigners, mistrust of the theater), others are far less evident and require the author's intervention before truly demonstrating any hidden societal fears. In some examples, Enders succeeds in exposing what might be the "lesson" to be learned from the given story, yet this "lesson" appears more appropriate to a restricted public than to society in general. An example of this occurs in Enders' examination of an anecdote related by Lucian of Samosata (Ch. 3, "Of Madness and Method Acting"). The story recounts how a well-known actor portraying the...


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