My interest in medieval culture has encouraged me to explore the lasting popularity of plays, ballads, games and other dramatic activities from the Middle Ages well into the sixteenth century. The long life of these seemingly ephemeral pastimes reminds us that if we are to fully appreciate their cultural significance, we must study not only their origins, but also their continued flourishing throughout the Tudor period and beyond. Traditional beliefs and practices—including the performances of religious plays associated with celebrations of Corpus Christi, Whitsuntide, and other holy days—persisted throughout England long after protestantism had become a matter of state policy.
Mysteries Past, Mysteries Present: Medieval Drama for Modern Audiences
This multimedia project (to be published as both an interactive e-book and website) explores the ways that medieval English mystery plays are adapted for and presented to modern audiences in York and Chester. How is this centuries-old drama still inextricably tied up in civic identity? And what can it teach us about the ways that communities are defined by their literary and cultural achievements? The project includes performance photos and video; interviews with casts, crews, and community members; geotagged maps of the cities, and more. These interactive elements will serve as a resource for those studying and teaching medieval drama but who may not have the opportunity to see the plays in their “native habitat.”
Check out a sample of the project!
Playing the King: City, Commonwealth, and Crown in Chester’s Tudor Mystery Cycle
In this project, I argue that Chester’s Whitsun plays were a key aspect of the city’s efforts to maintain its traditional religious and cultural identity despite the centralizing agenda of the crown in the sixteenth century. This work builds upon a growing scholarly awareness of “the Tudor origins of medieval drama”: a recognition that what we know about the genre is due largely to manuscripts and performance records from the sixteenth century. Yet we are only beginning to realize the cultural implications of Biblical drama’s lively Tudor history. Chester’s Tudor cycle is preoccupied with issues of rule and governance, repeatedly questioning the acceptable boundaries of royal power.
For example, although Chester’s Herod recognizes that the slaughter of the innocents is “agaynst the right,” he declares that should he fail to defend his realm from the rival king born in Bethlehem, “everye man may well say … that I maynteane my realme amysse.” Unlike his earlier counterparts from York, Towneley, and N-Town, this Tudor Herod is a king who justifies and disguises his desires with gestures towards the common good. I contend that such moments offer a glimpse of how conceptions of sovereignty and community were changing in the sixteenth century—to meet the needs of England’s crown, rather than England’s citizens—and help us to understand how such changes were shared and evaluated among a local audience.
“Dost Thou Speak Like a King?” Enacting Tyranny on the Early English Stage
In my dissertation (defended November 2009), I argue that the long-term survival of this Catholic Biblical drama was due in part to its sophisticated political consciousness, which enabled authors, actors, and audiences to voice their own understandings of how the role of a king ought to be played, and to participate in a discourse of virtue and self-governance that was applicable to monarchs and commoners alike. While the roles of Christ and God the Father serve as the ultimate models for sovereignty in Biblical drama, audiences were treated to surprisingly few other examples of just and compassionate kings. Yet tyrants abound: Herod, Pharoah, Pilate, and the theatrical tradition of “the ranting tyrant” provide a political via negativa that helps us recognize what good kingship is through a vivid presentation of what it is not. My dissertation investigates the prevalence of tyrants on the early English stage, explores why they make for such rich and entertaining theatre, and examines what their continued popularity throughout the sixteenth century can teach us about the power of “medieval” Catholic resistance to the “modern” Tudor Reformation.