- Mixed Faith and Shared Feeling: Theater in Post-Reformation London by Musa Gurnis
In Mixed Faith and Shared Feeling: Theater in Post-Reformation London, Musa Gurnis offers a fascinating reevaluation of how dramatists writing for the commercial English theatre responded to the divisions within and plurality of post-Reformation Christianity. This subject has attracted considerable scholarly attention in recent years, but Gurnis’s monograph represents a unique and valuable contribution to the field. Whereas existing studies often draw binary distinctions between “Catholic” and “Protestant” authors or works, Gurnis argues for a more nuanced appreciation of the early modern theatre’s confessional range. Noting the polyvalency of contemporary English Christian identity, at a time when “subcultures of puritans, church papists, Laudians, recusants, ardent conformists, and converts” battled for the “soul” of the authorised Church (2), Gurnis explores the implications for a theatre whose playwrights, players, and paying customers came from across this confessional spectrum. On the one hand, Gurnis suggests, the fact that many early modern plays are the product of collaboration between two or more dramatists, as well as the “public” nature of the commercial playhouses, complicates the extent to which any one play might express a singular religious position. Thus these works were produced by and intended for consumption by “mixed-faith groups” of theatre professionals and playgoers (2). On the other hand, plays that featured characters of various faiths might in turn disrupt the “everyday religious orientations” of individuals by prompting them to engage imaginatively with unfamiliar confessional positions (3). Gurnis’s study evaluates the implications for post-Reformation drama’s depiction of spiritual themes and experiences, offering an informative, thought-provoking, and persuasive new perspective on this important topic.
This book’s refreshing alertness to the collaborative practices of the commercial theatre and the diverse socio-religious composition of its audiences is mediated through a strong cultural materialist emphasis on theatre’s “active” relationship to and influence on the wider world (5). Specifically, Gurnis emphasizes the post-Reformation theatre’s capacity to reflect and refract existing confessional affiliations and understandings. The first two chapters contain some of the book’s richest material, as Gurnis uses archival sources to explore contemporary audience composition and the ways in which actual playgoers responded to religious elements in early modern drama. In a compelling refutation of the common assumption that most or all post-Reformation playgoers were conforming Church of England Protestants (7), chapter 1 examines the faiths of those who are known to have attended performances at the commercial playhouses. Through their range and diversity, the case studies in this section persuasively demonstrate the “de facto pluralism of the post-Reformation religious scene” (10), while Gurnis further concludes that, regardless of their own faith, these playgoers might temporarily engage with the confessional positions expressed by dramatic characters in ways that allowed for a fluid interplay between the staged play’s fictional religious culture and that of the post-Reformation [End Page 254] England in which the dramatic work was produced and experienced.
Chapter 2 expands thoughtfully on this distinction between actual belief and the imaginative play that, Gurnis suggests, theatre enables. This argument is informed by recent work by Allison Hobgood, Steven Mullaney, and others on the affective dimensions of early modern playgoing, which contemporaries credited with a potentially transformative effect on the emotions of those involved. Gurnis illuminates this model’s prospective religious significance by examining recorded audience reactions to plays such as Thomas Heywood and Richard Brome’s The Late Lancashire Witches, and by considering the relevance of Anglo-Spanish politics to Thomas Dekker’s Noble Spanish Soldier and the collaborative drama The Spanish Gypsy, usually attributed to Thomas Middleton, William Rowley, John Ford, and Dekker. Despite the challenges associated with assessing early audience reactions, the wealth of supporting material assembled by Gurnis enables her to compare the responses of individual play-goers to any surviving evidence about their faith, demonstrating that audience members’ reactions to performances “were not always aligned with— or the outcome of—their individual beliefs” (38).