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Stage Devils in English Reformation Plays John D. Cox ? The More Things Change. . . . Prevailing conceptions of stage devils in early English drama derive from patterns of critical interpretation that were established early in the twentieth century. Most influential in forming these patterns was E. K. Chambers, but Chambers was assisted to varying degrees by W. W. Greg, A. W. Pollard, and W. W. Skeat. Pollard's English Miracle Plays, Moralities, and Interludes went through eight editions in a little under forty years (1890 to 1927), becoming the standard anthology for students, who used it until well past the middle of the century. Pollard judged the late morality plays severely; he rejected their penchant for personification because it tended "to didacticism and unreality," and was therefore "wholly undramatic," with the result that "the popularity of the later Morality significantly coincided with the dullest and most barren period in the history of English literature."1 Pollard's view was not seriously challenged until seventy years after his first edition, in the work of Bernard Spivack and David Bevington, who both in various ways vindicated dramatic personification and the Vice in particular. Yet even in their important revision of the critical tradition, they supported an evolutionary teleology that had been established by Chambers. Spivack's interest in distinguishing personifications from fleshand -blood characters was dictated by his thesis about the influence of the Vice on late Elizabethan dramatic characterization, and he therefore exaggerated the place of devils in the mystery plays while understating it in moralities: "The Devil, who in the Christian mythos is the father of evil, has only a negligible place in the morality drama. In the cyclical mysteries and in the miracles he is a familiar personage." Only two plays among those that Spivack designated as "miracles" (usually now called saint plays) 85 86Stage Devils in English Reformation Plays are in fact extant in English, and devils are a late addition to one of them, the Digby Conversion of St. Paul, so Spivack's generalization concerning the miracle plays is based on an extremely small, and likely unrepresentative, sample. According to Spivack, devils appear in "only nine of the almost sixty surviving" morality plays,2 but he does not note that this proportion is about the same as the proportion of pageants that include devils in each of the extant mystery cycles.3 If the devils in Protestant morality plays are approached without evolutionary assumptions, continuity with earlier devils is apparent and more important than Chambers's account would suggest. The principal difference is not a gradually evolving secularism but the sudden impact of the Protestant Reformation .4 Devils that appear in Protestant plays are no less morally and spiritually serious than devils in pre-Reformation drama, but the assumptions that motivate them are radically new. The earliest Protestant dramatists, John Bale and John Foxe, were themselves formed by traditional religion—that is, by pre-Reformation Christian faith and practice.5 Bale in fact spent more than twenty-five years as a Carmelite friar until his conversion to the reformed view in 1533. Bale and Fox therefore understood the Devil's traditional role in cosmic history, in the life of the community, and in the individual Christian's life, and they also understood how that role was embodied in drama.6 Early Reformation dramatists' deliberate attempt to redefine the Devil's role was no mean task, but ultimately it succeeded, even if it did so by compromise, in the manner of the English Reformation as a whole. Demolishing prevailing views through satire and iconoclasm was only the first step. Putting something new in place required the ability to assign new meaning and impose a new shape on ecclesiastical, liturgical, and dramatic tradition , to master assiduous historical scholarship according to the new humanist model, to put scholarship to work in winning hearts and minds, to reinvent dramatic convention, and to persevere in all this against overwhelming resistance, both official and popular. The task succeeded when political events eventually took a decisive turn in the reformers' favor, so that their innovations became an established tradition in their own right. The reformers ' opponents' effort to preserve and renew the old faith, including its...


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pp. 85-116
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