- Mummings, Dumbshows, Vices, and Crafts:New Work in Early English Drama
Many studies of early English drama, including Gail McMurray Gibson's The Theater of Devotion: East Anglian Drama and Society in the Late Middle Ages (1989), Sarah Beckwith's Signifying God: Social Relation and Symbolic Act in the York Corpus Christi Plays (2001), and Theresa Coletti's Mary Magdalene and the Drama of Saints: Theater, Gender, and Religion in Late Medieval England (2004), have established illuminating connections between drama and religion in late medieval [End Page 288] culture. Such connections have also been explored in a recent wave of early modern drama scholarship committed to rethinking categorical divisions like "medieval" and "early modern." John Parker's The Aesthetics of Antichrist (2007), Beckwith's Shakespeare and the Grammar of Forgiveness (2011), and Heather Hirschfeld's The End of Satisfaction: Drama and Repentance in the Age of Shakespeare (2014) all situate religious drama written and performed from the late Middle Ages through the sixteenth century in dialogue with the post-Reformation dramas of Marlowe, Shakespeare and their contemporaries. These revisionist approaches to periodization encourage a fresh exploration of historical, literary, religious, and political questions raised across the medieval/early modern divide.
This review essay examines three recent studies of early English drama that participate in these conversations and also take them in new directions: Claire Sponsler's The Queen's Dumbshows: John Lydgate and the Making of Early Theater (2014); Charlotte Steenbrugge's Staging Vice: A Study of Dramatic Traditions in Medieval and Sixteenth-Century England and the Low Countries (2014); and Kurt A. Schreyer's Shakespeare's Medieval Craft: Remnants of the Mysteries on the London Stage (2014). This body of work reveals renewed interest in working across generic and geographic boundaries, unsettling conventional definitions of dramatic performance, and exploring connections between different kinds of drama written in different historical periods. By thinking about painted verses, tapestries, and edible confections as dramatic entertainment, by suggesting points of comparison and contrast between English and Dutch Vice characters, and by examining how material artifacts from the mystery plays are transformed on the post-Reformation stage, these studies widen the canon of early drama at the same time that they open familiar texts to new scrutiny. Moreover, in refocusing historical, literary, and social perspectives on English drama, they rethink critical concepts that have been grounded in totalizing, often oversimplified grand narratives.
In The Queen's Dumbshows, Claire Sponsler calls into question a widely accepted history of medieval English literature—a history that "enshrines a written (in verse) canon fashioned in the fifteenth century around the works of a group of (male) London writers who followed in Chaucer's footsteps" (1)—by presenting a subtle and trenchantly researched account of the intersections between written script, live performance, and manuscript history in the works of John Lydgate. Sponsler's important book commands a wide readership that includes not only scholars of Lydgate and fifteenth-century [End Page 289] literature, but also those who work on English drama in all forms and periods. Sponsler considers how texts that do not look like dramatic performances indeed function as such, often with significant literary, political, and religious consequences. This book also invites us to rethink commonly held assumptions about drama, performance, and entertainment. "Drama" does not require actors on a stage, Sponsler suggests, but rather manifests "the interdependence of poetry and performance, of reading and spectating, of textuality and orality, and of permanence and ephemerality" (15). By reassessing the relation of script to performance, of archive to repertoire, and of manuscript history to theater history, Sponsler makes the case that "the generic definition of a play was in flux throughout the premodern period" (30).