Whereas the drama of the English Renaissance is celebrated, frequently performed and a staple of school and university curricula, the plays of the English Reformation (or rather the multiple, incremental and partial reformations of the four British nations) are neglected with almost equal enthusiasm. In part, this can be explained by their unfortunate chronological position, wedged awkwardly, in stylistic as well as temporal terms, between the medieval and early modern. In part, it comes down to our lack of knowledge about where and why many of these plays were performed, despite some diligent detective work. Ultimately, though, the lack of widespread zeal for the plays may be a result of their own passionate espousal of the religious arguments that transformed personal and national identities in the middle years of the 16th century.
The Drama of Reform follows the lead of recent scholarship in embracing the complexities of reformist drama, from the polemical plays of John Bale to the likes of Jacke Jugeler, which claims to be only a “merie” reworking of Plautus, but is centrally concerned with debates concerning the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Tamara Atkin’s book concentrates on four plays, dedicating a chapter to each and identifying telling, and often precise, links between their contents and the proponents of reform. What we get rather less of, however, is a sense of how representative these plays are and how they fit alongside more traditional, orthodox drama.
Given that these plays are not widely read, Atkin’s account is necessarily rather descriptive, although we are offered intriguing glimpses of how different authors took on and transformed theatrical tradition. In particular, the book showcases the rewards that come from paying attention to paratexts – the prologues, cast lists and dedications that frame these dramas in print. A rewarding example is Atkin’s discussion of the practice of doubling in Bale, where one actor might blur the boundaries between apparently opposed characters. There are, as well, some lovely examples of the ways in which English reformers thought and disputed in the terms of performance. These offer not only an intriguing index of the ways in which theatre was received during this period, but also a valuable reminder of the wit and verbal ingenuity that made religious disputation genuinely compelling to read and hear. The book does less, unfortunately, to capture the lively – and now often baffling – humour that made these plays “comedies”, or to assess quite how popular or influential they were. Atkin’s book is unlikely to inspire many readers to scour the bookshops for Lewis Wager’s Life and Repentance of Mary Magdalene, even if she does persuasively chart how the play’s own stylistic conversion runs parallel to the spiritual recovery of its heroine.
By the end, there is a slightly repetitive feel to the argument, as we discover in each instance that the physical and theatrical resources that drama makes available to lambast Catholic (or, in the first chapter, Lollard) corruptions threaten to undermine the reformist plays’ anxiously proclaimed distance from “Popish” theatricality. At points, as when Mary Magdalene’s clothes are linked to the practice of statue decoration rather than contemporary critiques of excessive fashion, the reader is likely to remain unconvinced. Even where it is most persuasive, this line of thought may leave readers hungry to know how contemporaries understood and responded to such confusions. With any luck, that hunger will be strong enough to lead to a copy of Bale’s Three Laws or – perhaps even better – to Thomas Cranmer’s engaging polemic, as readers seek to pursue further the avenues of enquiry opened up by The Drama of Reform.
The Drama of Reform: Theology and Theatricality, 1461-1553
By Tamara Atkin
Brepols, 198pp, £59.50
Published 31 July 2013