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Dramatic Allegory, or, Exploring the Moral Play Joanne Spencer Kantrowitz Most current writing on the morality play can be classified as products of two approaches developed during the early twen­ tieth century. While the work of the last fifteen years or so does reflect the critical categories developed since 1945 and, more recently, the mythic emphasis of Northrop Frye, the basic con­ ceptions still derive from the work of E. N. S. Thompson and Willard Famham. Thompson presents his categories in terms of motif or subject, an approach which easily dovetails into the creation of archetypes; Famham’s perception of a rise-fall-rise pattern extends a view of drama which has dominated the twenti­ eth century until fairly recently.1 Although these approaches linger on, recent scholarship shows some signs of other descriptions of the morality play.2 My own preliminary attempt, here, centers on a view of that genre as dramatic allegory. I coin the term to emphasize simi­ larities between the narrative and the theatrical which are two manifestations of allegorical art. While this essay is hardly a final statement, I see the morality play as not basically mimetic at all. Rather, it is a didactic, allegorical drama whose character lies in the exposition of a thesis. This thesis determines the selec­ tion, the ordering, and the emphasis of plot and character. While “morality play” is itself a cloudy term, I use it roughly as a vague description of the didactic drama which occurs in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries until that surprising change of emphasis took place in the latter’s closing decades.3 As an at­ tempt to reconstruct an aesthetic from the sources of the period itself, my approach emphasizes literary history. My inductive description is structural analysis, based on narrative and dramatic allegory during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; however, the 68 Joanne Spencer Kantrowitz 69 final section sketches a way to test these conclusions against the evidence of contemporary rhetoric. But before new formulations are developed, we should dis­ entangle ourselves from the hypotheses of the past. Because the morality play is usually studied as background for Elizabethan drama, current scholarship still refers back to authorities who sought the origins of the characterization and mimetic plot de­ veloped by Elizabethan playwrights. (This evolutionary ap­ proach was the literary analogy to Darwin’s origin of the species.) The central idea to emerge from these studies is the “psychomachia principle,” an idea which is adopted by Lewis in The Allegory of Love and by the current authorities on the morality play, Bernard Spivack and David Bevington. Since the idea has reached the point of mere repetition, we should examine one of its earliest statements, that oft-cited monograph, E. N. S. Thompson’s “The English Moral Play,” published in 1910.4 According to Thompson, Prudentius is the “father of the morality play” because “he established [in the Psychomachia] . . . the idea upon which all those plays were based.” Despite the difference between drama and narrative poem, and despite the substitution of the “realism of everyday life for the romance of the outworn epic,” the plays were “in spirit and in general plan . . . only a retelling of the fourth-century allegorical epic” (p. 333). Thompson rests his generalization on an analysis of The Castle of Perseverance as a psychomachia, a battle of vir­ tues and vices for the soul of man. Thus we have “the full-scope morality play,” a definition based on four extant texts (the Castle of Perseverance, Mankind, Wisdom, and Everyman), a fragment (Pride of Life), and passing references to lost Pater Noster plays.5 Thompson’s argument depends on assumptions which may be overlooked once a view becomes authoritative. Obviously, the definition generalizes only over the Macro Moralities. He treats the early Tudor drama after 1500 as a series of departures from his basic model. Such classification derives from the medieval-renaissance division of English history, a view which rightly is less authoritative today.6 Aside from this, other as­ sumptions cling to Thompson’s essay and continue to clog re­ cent discussion. Approaching the Castle of Perseverance, Thomp­ son cautions the reader, one “should remember that its author 70 Comparative Drama...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 68-82
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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