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Frame Structure in The Conversion of St. Paul Victor I. Scherb While considerable scholarly attention has been given to The Conversion of St. Paul,l the insistent critical focus on the mechanics of its staging has obscured the author's manipulation of dramatic focus.2 As a result, its critical reputation has suffered even more than most East Anglian plays. Arnold Williams thought that "the play as a dramatic piece, needs some apology "^ Hardin Craig and Alan H. Nelson echo this opinion.4 At least one relatively recent production, however, has revealed The Conversion of St. Paul to be a play of some dramatic power.5 In part, attacks on the play are a natural consequence of scholars' attempts to apply modern critical categories to medieval drama. Instead, we need to examine the play as a product of simple place-and-scaffold staging methods which naturally lend themselves to the production of certain aesthetic effects such as "framing." The much commented upon processional movement of the audience, when employed, is merely one of the many framing devices that the author uses in order to illustrate the full significance of St. Paul's conversion.6 "Framing"—to employ a term usually applied to non-dramatic art—places the central action in perspective in order to guide the audience's affective or doctrinal responses even as the frame itself distances the action. Framing elements can be regarded as separate structural units of a dramatic whole, generally consisting of a scene or episode which could be removed without making the remaining narrative unintelligible.7 While framing devices have occasionally been noted in relation to other medieval plays,8 the Digby Conversion dramatist employs them in VICTOR I. SCHERB, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Texas at Tyler, is the author of several articles on East Anglian drama as well as others on social spectacle in the late Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period. 124 Victor I. Scherb125 an unusually rigorous manner. Framing the action at a series of successive stations (which were perhaps much like the scaffold stages used in other East Anglian dramatic productions), the dramatist exploits spatial contrasts between high and low as actors either pridefully distance themselves from the audience or place themselves in close association with its members. Such techniques are characteristic of late medieval works of art and of other dramas from the region.9 The dramatist of The Conversion of St. Paul exploits the dramatic potential inherent in a frame structure in order to create, in Gail McMurray Gibson's phrase, a "concrete image of devotion."10 He carefully balances his action around the symmetrical center of Paul's conversion by means of the speeches of the Poeta, audience movement, and recapitulatory scenes. These devices in effect mediate between the moment of St. Paul's mystic experience and the audience in order to explicate the conversion's full meaning. The "framing" of devotional scenes has a long history in medieval art, most notably in Books of Hours but also in other examples of religious art. Patterned frames involving naturalistic foliage could function to create a transition between the viewer and the space of the picture.? Sometimes frames were more elaborate than this: Jean Fouquet's portrayal of Paul's conversion in the The Hours of Etienne Chevalier, for example, frames the lower third of the scene with wild men and women upholding the Chevalier arms; the artist thus juxtaposes Paul's infusion of divine grace with the merely physical strength of the wild men and perhaps implicitly suggests that the Chevalier line has been divinely singled out for a special destiny.12 Frames sometimes provided models for the viewer's response, as we see in the Massacre of the Innocents window at St. Peter Mancroft, Norwich , where two onlookers in fifteenth-century dress respond to the scene of the slaughter.13 The man does this devotionally, possibly going into a kneeling posture with one hand raised (the other is missing) as if to pray while the woman averts her eyes from a scene that is at once holy and horrific. Framing can also be symmetrical, balancing elements on either side of a center;l4...


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pp. 124-139
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