The Idolatrous Eye: Iconoclasm and Theater in Early-Modern England

By Gilman, Ernest B. | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2000 | Go to article overview

The Idolatrous Eye: Iconoclasm and Theater in Early-Modern England


Gilman, Ernest B., The Catholic Historical Review


The Idolatrous Eye: Iconoclasm and Theater in Early-Modern England. By Michael O'Connell. (New York: Oxford University Press. 2000. Pp. ix, 198. $45.00.)

The value of this brief but closely argued study lies in its account of English drama under the shadow of iconoclasm, between the disappearance of the great biblical cycles after the mid-sixteenth century and the sudden flowering of the public theater in the 1590's. Even for students of the period, these years represent something of a black hole. The earlier tradition, we know, fell before a tide of Protestant antitheatricalism that condemned the staging of God's Word, and especially the representation of the Father and the Son as characters in a popular entertainment. The latter, secular, drama of the public playhouse, we know, arose in some suggestive but unspecified relation to what it had supplanted, skirting the censor but haunted by the ghosts of the biblical cycles. What bridges the gap?

O'Connell emphasizes that the suppression of a tradition of local drama going back to the fourteenth century was (so far as we can tell from records preserved at York and Chester) opposed by local authorities. Its disappearance reflects not simply the victory of an anti-iconic theology over an "incarnational" drama, but a contested centripetal movement of cultural and political authority toward London (pp. 91-92). Some attempts were made to "reform" the biblical cycles by producing a kind of hybrid: plays on biblical themes (notably, by the indefatigable John Bale) still showed Christ on stage but relied more on homiletic commentary and moralizing than on the affective impact of the actors' bodies. This "textualization" of God's body is the theme of O'Connell's central, and most interesting, chapter, which focuses on Lewis Wager's The Life and Repentaunce of Marie Magdalene, Thomas Lodge and Robert Greene's A Looking Glasse for London and England, and George Peele's David and Bathsabe. Far from an outright rejection of cycle tradition, these plays reflect a complex process of negotiation and experiment intended to graft a new sensibility onto the stock of a still vital older drama. …

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