- The Drama of Reform: Theology and Theatricality, 1461–1553 by Tamara Atkin
Tamara Atkin’s book opens with a quote from the Histrio-Mastix (1633) by the anti-theatrical writer William Prynne, who translates a passage from Honorius Augustodunensis (twelfth century) that affirms a connection between the priest celebrating Mass and acting in the theater; for example, “by the stretching out of his hands, he denotes the extension of Christ upon the Crosse.” Prynne, like Protestant polemicists of the first half of the sixteenth century, saw Roman Catholic ritual to be empty shows disconnected from substance and lacking in integrity. Actors in his view are hypocrites, who pretend to be what they are not. Atkin then sets out to provide an extended examination of how early Reformation dramatists, similarly distrustful of the liturgy and especially of the Eucharist, were happy to use drama “to undermine the rituals, symbols, plays, and processions of the Roman Church and promote reformed alternatives” (9).
Chapter 1, however, takes up the late medieval Croxton Play of the Sacrament, a Host desecration drama involving the skepticism of some Jews concerning the real presence in the Eucharist, and in so doing once again revives for discussion Cecilia Cutts’s view of it as anti-Wycliffite polemic. The drama, like other Host miracles such as the popular Mass of St. Gregory so often appearing in iconography, is a strong affirmation of transubstantiation, and at the conclusion the perpetrators (their blasphemous act is described as like a “new turmentry” or repetition of the Crucifixion), on account of the seriousness of their crime, will require baptism and absolution by the higher authority of a bishop. The miraculous appearances shown in the play are nevertheless not real but only signs, revealed in the rubrics when a cauldron is described as boiling over with what is “apperyng to be as blood,” that is, not actual blood (55). Atkin compares the staged events, seemingly miraculous, to the miracles claimed by the monks of Hayles Abbey at the display of their relic of the Holy Blood, which would be revealed by reformers to be false (“it is but duckes bloode,” 61). Having myself witnessed a showing of a relic of the Holy Blood at Bruges many years ago, I [End Page 95] cannot see a direct comparison here. The blood in the Croxton play is not an actual devotional image, but rather is like one, albeit designating a purported fact: the ability of the Eucharist to perform miracles.
The chapter ends with the suggestion that the mid-sixteenth-century manuscript of the Play of the Sacrament might have been copied from its fifteenth-century original for a Protestant who wished to show its theatrical “tricks” in order to reveal the deceptions practiced by the Catholic clergy upon the ignorant (63). While this supposition seems highly unlikely to me, it does provide a rationale for including Atkin’s discussion of this play in her book. The odd placement here of her comments on A Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge (55–59) does also serve to tie her discussion better to the subsequent chapters in which plays by Protestant playwrights and anti-theatricalism are discussed. More pertinent to the Play of the Sacrament is Margaret Aston’s convincing argument that “not all illusions were to be equated with delusion” and that spectators “could both revere the miraculous and respect the limitations of physical enactment” (quoted 58).
Bale’s polemic in his Three Laws and in King Johan is designed to link Roman Catholic ritual with deceptive and delusional play-acting, the perversion of biblical and theological truths, and the subversion of social order and religious values. His views are characterized by psychological splitting, dividing social and personal reality into good (represented by himself and the Protestant faith) and extreme evil (invoking the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope, the Devil, and Antichrist). Thus, as Atkin points out, “Bale’s extant plays are less concerned with the instruction of religious truth than they are with the exposure of erroneous belief and custom” (67), with the...