restricted access The Middle English Mystery Play: A Study in Dramatic Speech and Form by Hans-Jürgen Diller (review)
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STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER can imagine him smiling wryly at the clutter of scholarship and the clatter of dropped names, but surely he would have taken great pleasure in the collection's array of engagements with literature and life. This world may be but a fair, but it has some damned good shows and rides; Chaucer knew that full well, as did the forceful and witty Chaucerian who is being hon­ ored in this book. Here is a lively wake for a much-missed man. A. J. MINNIS University of York HANS-JURGEN DILLER. The Middle English Mystery Play: A Study in Dra­ matic Speech and Form. Trans. Frances Wessels. European Studies in En­ glish Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992: Pp. xvi, 336. $69.95. With the publication of Hans-Jurgen Diller's The Middle English Mystery Play: A Study in Dramatic Speech and Form, Cambridge University Press adds one more title to its European Studies in English Literature series. The book is a somewhat updated translation of Diller's Redeformen des en­ glischen Misterienspiels, originally published in 1973. Although a fair num­ ber of recent bibliographic citations have been added, the book's thor­ oughly New Critical stance--along with its text-centered assumptions­ has not been changed, as Diller admits in his Introduction (p. 4). Unfor­ tunately, this makes for a book that, despite some real flashes of formal brilliance, acts mainly as a reminder of how far drama criticism has shifted during the last twenty years. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when this study was originally writ­ ten, early English play texts were routinely considered as stable units of poetical composition, offering mainly stylistic clues to their most impor­ tant features. The order ofthe day was to situate the texts historically so as to facilitate their critical assessment, usually along thematic lines. In the 1960s critics like Eleanor Prosser (Drama and Religion in the English Mys­ tery Plays: A Reevaluation, 1961) and V. A. Kolve (The Play Called Corpus Christi, 1966) puzzled over chronological linkages and notional frames and contemporary appeal-the same items, now in new bottles, that had inter­ ested E. K. Chambers (The Mediaeval Stage) at the beginning of the cen­ tury, and Hardin Craig (English Religious Drama in the Middle Ages) in 178 REVIEWS 1955. In the early 1970s, despite the seminal work of 0. B. Hardison (Christian Rite and Christian Drama in the Middle Ages, 1965), evolutionary claims about the medieval drama were still being made and disputed, often without reference to larger cultic, cultural, musical, theatrical, or other performative issues. Manuscripts were still largely seen as having captured plays fixed in time and space and theatrical presentation, rather like late­ medieval versions of Peter Shaffer's Equus, with its rigid and specific de­ mands that control any director attempting a production. The reception and performance histories of these essentially public scripts were largely ignored in the early 1970s, as were more basic questions about how play­ scripts achieve meaning within the spaces they inhabit. In short, when this book was originally written, medieval play texts were neither historicized nor theorized in ways that we might now expect. The Middle English Mys­ tery Play reflects all these old critical tendencies, though it adds a formalist insistence on the importance of dialogue to signal relationships between characters and audience, between event and meaning. The book is a diffi­ cult read, though, and abstruse in ways that show the limits of a formally trained and historically oriented new critic groping at concepts beyond the range of available terms. Diller's main thesis follows Lukacs's observation that the language of dramatic texts incorporates, exemplifies, and links two spheres, or worlds: the audience world (or "ordinary" or "First" world) and the play world (or "dramatic" or "Second" world). How these distinct worlds connect seems a promising topic indeed, particularly for the study ofmedieval theater, since the popular tradition mixed the two worlds more unabashedly than any other form ofdrama until the time ofBrecht. Curiously, however, while the title of the book promises an investigation of the great mystery cycles, Diller starts out in part 1 with four chapters devoted to...