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182 Comparative Drama Jeffrey Helterman. Sym bolic Action in the Plays of the W akefield M aster. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1981. Pp. 202. $17.50. In Sym bolic A ction in the Plays of the W akefield Master, Jeffrey Hel­ terman has started from the perspective that the Master knew what he was doing as a dramatist. One finds no apologies here for these plays’ having the ill fortune to be born before Shakespeare or, worse, their having been bom to serve that imagined audience of loutish, illiterate peasants. Instead, Helterman presumes coherent thematic and aesthetic unity in the Master pageants and devotes his not inconsiderable percep­ tion to how the Master created such unity. Although he does not neglect religious and literary aspects, Helterman clearly realizes that to separate the realistic elements from the religious, as others before him have done, is to risk loss of half of the Master’s dramatic ability, summarized as an “insight into mankind’s attitudes which creates a dramatic, three-dimen­ sional realism that is used to present the same basic theme— the juxta­ position of contemporary folly and inhumanity with the biblical world of Christ.” The detailed analyses of the six Master plays explore this dramatic juxtaposition of the temporal and eternal, the human and figural, the realistic and religious. In illustrating how the dramatist moves between the mundane and the heavenly, particularly in the creation of character, Helterman encourages a holistic appreciation which the plays deserve. His critical stance on the Processus N oe is representative of this holistic approach: “the playwright allows figural and human values to play against each other so that the counterpoint—between the typology and humanity of Noah, between the dignity and worthlessness of man, be­ tween crude comic and graceful liturgical styles of composition— produces a complex statement about man’s place in the eyes of God.” Suggesting that the deliberate tension between type and antitype, between an ideal and a parodic representation of it, is responsible for “much of the action in the drama,” Helterman’s study of the M agnus H erodes is especially astute. His thesis, that the “Wakefield Master avoids overt didacticism and relies on the implications of the Antichrist legend and his characterization of Herod to provide his moral,” is amply sup­ ported by details of the Antichrist literature which invert the laws of Christ and imitate His power as the Messiah. Nuntius’ parody of John the Baptist’s voice crying out in the wilderness, his application to Herod of such Christlike epithets as “kyng of kyngys” and “lord of lordyngys,” Herod’s list of his dominions, and his parody of the mass and Christ’s second coming at the end of the play all contribute to this “continued contrast between the earthly and heavenly kings.” This attention to word patterns and image clusters is yet another of the study’s strengths. For the most part Helterman has avoided the perils of the Cloistered Study School of Drama Criticism: his identification of repeated diction, imagery, or structure consistently is yoked to charac­ terization or dramatic effect. Cain’s failure to use the first-person plural pronoun while Abel regularly uses “we,” for example, is a verbal pattern which is supported by the visual, namely Helterman’s observation that Cain’s stage entrance, the one man driving the two-man team, “initiates Reviews 183 the symbolic action.” Cain’s solitary mocking use of “brother,” compared to Abel’s eighteen, is drawn to the significant conclusion that by Cain’s treating Abel as his servant, he is ironically forced to accept his servant, Garcio, as his brother. Although his sense of the whole individual play is primary, Helterman does not ignore its relation to other pageants and characters in the cycle. In the M agnus Herodes, for example, he draws attention both to the almost ritualized murders, a stylized structural aspect of the individual play, and also to Herod’s debate with his counsellors, a scene which parallels Christ’s confrontation with the doctors two plays later. Like­ wise, verbal detail in the Coliphizacio—“nalys” and “crowne” used here as named parts of Christ’s body—is shown to foreshadow...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 182-184
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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