Staging Reform, Reforming the Stage: Protestantism and Popular Theater in Early Modern England

Staging Reform, Reforming the Stage: Protestantism and Popular Theater in Early Modern England

Staging Reform, Reforming the Stage: Protestantism and Popular Theater in Early Modern England

Staging Reform, Reforming the Stage: Protestantism and Popular Theater in Early Modern England

Synopsis

Huston Diehl sees Elizabethan and Jacobean drama as both a product of the Protestant Reformation--a reformed drama--and a producer of Protestant habits of thought--a reforming drama. According to Diehl, the popular London theater, which flourished in the years after Elizabeth reestablished Protestantism in England, rehearsed the religious crises that disrupted, divided, energized, and in many respects revolutionized English society.

Drawing on the insights of symbolic anthropologists, Diehl explores the relationship between the suppression of late medieval religious cultures, with their rituals, symbols, plays, processions, and devotional practices, and the emergence of a popular theater under the Protestant monarchs Elizabeth and James. Questioning long-held assumptions that the reformed religion was inherently antitheatrical, she shows how the reformers invented new forms of theater, even as they condemned a Roman Catholic theatricality they associated with magic, sensuality, and duplicity.

Using as her central texts the tragedies of Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, Thomas Middleton, and John Webster, Diehl maintains that plays of the period reflexively explore their own power to dazzle, seduce, and deceive. Employing a reformed rhetoric that is both powerful and profoundly disturbing, they disrupt their own stunning spectacles. Out of this creative tension between theatricality and antitheatricality emerges a distinctly Protestant aesthetic.

Excerpt

On the third day, which was Ash Wednesday (as the pope's ceremonial church doth call it), . . . it was agreed that the said images should be burnt altogether; so that in nine great heaps all the stocks and idols there the same day were burnt to ashes before the great church door. And thus, by God's ordinance it came to pass, that the same day wherein the pope's priests are wont to show forth all their mourning, and do mark men's foreheads with ashes, in remembrance that they be but ashes, was to the whole city festival and joyful, for turning their images to ashes; and so is observed and celebrated every year still, unto this present day, with all mirth, plays, and pastimes, in remembrance of the same ashes; which day may there be called a right Ash Wednesday of God's own making.

-- John Foxe, Actes and Monuments

A Revolutionary Rhetoric

In the above description of an iconoclastic event that occurred in Basel in 1523, John Foxe substitutes the ashes of burned images for the ashes which the "the pope's priests" use on Ash Wednesday to "mark men's foreheads with ashes, in remembrance that they be but ashes." In doing so, he subverts a traditional image of the Roman Church. Rather than affirm the image of ashes as a sacred sign conferred by priests, a sign that symbolizes mortality and penitence, Foxe uses it to celebrate the deliberate destruction of "stocks and idols," an iconoclastic act that reduces all the beautiful images of the Roman Church to an insignificant, charred rubble. And yet, of course, Foxe does not obliterate the image of ashes in his iconoclastic narrative but instead employs it in a powerful, new way. His ash pileall that remains of the beloved images gathered from the magnificent churches of Basel -- serves as a memorable sign of the people's repudiation of the Roman Church, its images and ceremonies, its priests and pope. Foxe thus appropriates a sacred symbol of the traditional church, wresting it from its original context and reinterpreting it. Ashes . . .

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