Medieval English Drama

August 27, 2009

Katie Normington's careful study of drama considers the period between the first recognisable performance text (the Winchester Regularis Concordia from around 965) and the establishment of the first permanent theatre by James Burbage in 1576. She successfully challenges, immediately, our sense of historical periodisation and this allows her to make useful and innovative comparisons between works that are often divided by scholars. So John Heywood's quite formal courtly drama is analysed alongside the morality play Mankind; pre-Reformation practice is set alongside that of the post-Reformation period.

What emerges most strikingly from this overview is the teeming complexity of performance. Normington's study ranges from civic celebrations and processions to Candlemas and Hocktide rituals, from small-scale liturgical drama and gesture to the increasingly sophisticated cycle plays at Chester and York. Drama takes place in familiar locales - at court, in urban spaces - but also in situations that are relatively underexplored, such as convents, parish churches and the gallows.

As she points out, the idea of a formalised set of theatrical tropes and practices for drama is anachronistic. Medieval society's conception of what we would call drama was diverse, complex and infused with an aesthetic we struggle to comprehend. Topics ranged from biblical morality to the significance of guilds, and our modern apparatus for interpretation will often fail us. Instead, it is more useful to approach the period through a set of theorised lenses, most notably by using the idea of "performance" and by considering the material elements of production and consumption.

As such, Normington's work reflects the current mode of theatrical scholarship and she makes a compelling case for understanding the momentary nature of drama within a set of material considerations. Her analysis of the York and Chester cycle plays, therefore, which represent a large proportion of the extant text that we have from the period, reads them thematically and formally, but also considers the ways in which they were staged by looking at the archival records describing the pageant wagons that were moved from place to place within the cities. Her analysis of the range of dramatic possibilities over this long period is continually alive to issues of spectatorship, the significance of material location and the importance of gesture.

Throughout, she is keen to contextualise the "texts", such as they are, with information relating to the material presentation of the drama. She is attendant to questions of audience and spectatorship, of gender and of the spatial dynamics of performance. The last is particularly important in establishing hierarchies of viewing, be it within a convent or a mercantile city. However, the formalities of space can be easily undermined by the potentialities of drama, and Normington successfully argues that the experience of performance during the period was largely hybrid. Audiences, even in the most strictly controlled situations, may effect a range of responses and interpretations.

Although it is rather stiffly written at times, Medieval English Drama is a cogent and thoughtful introduction to a diverse and complex topic. Normington writes with great authority and digests difficult concepts, theories and historical peculiarities neatly and to useful effect.

Medieval English Drama

By Katie Normington. Polity, 256pp, £55.00 and £15.99. ISBN 9780745636030 and 6047. Published 2 April 2009

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