Performance and Religion in Early Modern England
Stage, Cathedral, Wagon, Street
402 Pages, 6.00 x 9.00 in, 21 halftones
- Published: December 2018
- ISBN: 9780268104665
- Published: December 2018
- ISBN: 9780268104658
- Published: December 2018
- ISBN: 9780268104689
In Performance and Religion in Early Modern England, Matthew J. Smith seeks to expand our view of “the theatrical.” By revealing the creative and phenomenal ways that performances reshaped religious material in early modern England, he offers a more inclusive and integrative view of performance culture.
Smith argues that early modern theatrical and religious practices are better understood through a comparative study of multiple performance types: not only commercial plays but also ballads, jigs, sermons, pageants, ceremonies, and festivals. Our definition of performance culture is augmented by the ways these events looked, sounded, felt, and even tasted to their audiences. This expanded view illustrates how the post-Reformation period utilized new capabilities brought about by religious change and continuity alike. Smith posits that theatrical practice at this time was acutely aware of its power not just to imitate but to work performatively, and to create spaces where audiences could both imaginatively comprehend and immediately enact their social, festive, ethical, and religious overtures.
Each chapter in the book builds on the previous ones to form a cumulative overview of early modern performance culture. This book is unique in bringing this variety of performance types, their archives, venues, and audiences together at the crossroads of religion and theater in early modern England. Scholars, graduate and undergraduate students, and those generally interested in the Renaissance will enjoy this book.
List of Illustrations
1. Early Modern Theatricality across the Reformation
2. The Real Presence/Absence of God in the Chester Cycle Plays
3. Henry V and the Ceremonies of Theater
4. God’s Idioms: Sermon Belief in Donne’s London
5. Performing Religion in Early Modern Ballads
6. The Devils Among Us: Intertheatricality in Doctor Faustus and its Afterlives
Postlude: Ending with a Jig
"In its exploration of the religious basis of early modern theatrical experience, Matthew Smith’s study recalibrates our understanding of the period’s theater and plays. This is Mankind and Marlowe both, and an argument worth our careful attention." —Douglas Bruster, University of Texas at Austin
"This is the only book I know that pays such careful attention to the specific performance conditions of so many modes and the intertheatrical relationships among them. Matthew Smith has gathered a diverse set of performance materials into a project of real magnitude, coherence, and consequence. Every chapter of Smith's book delivers new insights, judicious reframings, and dazzlingly original connections that bring together familiar and unfamiliar texts. This is the kind of book that could well win acclaim for its originality, learning, ambition, and argumentative contribution."—Julia Reinhard Lupton, University of California, Irvine
"Matthew Smith's Performance and Religion in Early Modern England ranges widely and imaginatively over the landscape of late medieval and early modern performance, urgently blurring the boundaries between festival and secular theater, and between theater and sermons, ballads, and jigs. What emerges is a crucial imagining of the critical interplay of presence and representation, and of the critical porousness of early modern performance as well." —W. B. Worthen, Alice Brady Pels Professor in the Arts, Barnard College, Columbia University
"The central argument is one that many scholars will need to absorb and contemplate, as it reorients how we think of theatricality. This is a book that should be widely read and digested." —Religion and Literature
"Performance and Religion in Early Modern England strongly reinforces the interconnectedness of the religion and the theatrical in the Shakespearean era."—Anglican & Episcopal History
Judging by contemporary complaints accusing jigs of inciting social disorder and distracting audiences from the dramatically advanced content of the play, early modern jigs might be considered as the farthest removed in performance culture from the expressly religious events of Christmastide and sermon performances. Yet while jigs were part of the new commercial drama, their theatrical ancestry reaches back to modes of integrating drama and religion that predate the Reformation. And thus, I want to suggest that their function in this new commercial setting was to reinforce the greater, trans-Reformational religious context of the playhouse and of performance culture as a whole.
Famous stage jig performers like Richard Tarlton were known for bantering with the audience and improvising speeches. The Chamberlain’s Men’s Will Kemp was known for his dancing and dramatic clown roles and then after 1599, when he left the company, for the “Nine Days Wonder” during which he danced from London to Norwich. Jigging was physical, musical, improvisational, and sometimes even acrobatic. Roger Clegg notes that in this way the jig was atmospherically characteristic of the “rowdy proto-capitalist playhouse” where “music, singing, and dancing mingled with the variously evolving branches of slapstick, sword-play, bawdy, satire and farce, a dramatic heritage more physical than literary.” Later in the seventeenth century the term “jig/jigg” would contain a host of related meanings—from music and dance, to dialogue and sex—but in the Elizabethan and early Stuart periods, its home was on the stage. Some early modern writers opposed play companies’ uses of jigs at the end of the final act, as when Thomas Dekker memorably judges that the “Sceane after the Epilogue hath beene more blacke (about a nasty bawdy jigge) then the most horrid Sceane in the Play was.” Still, as the opening to Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great attests, others embraced the jig’s place as an idiom, as it were, of the greater play event: “From iygging vaines of riming mother-wits, / And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay / Weele lead you to the stately tent of War.”
Furthermore, according to Philip Massinger’s account, jigs were so central to audiences’ expectations of the playhouse routine that they even threatened the spirit of the play that preceded it: “If the gravity and height of the subject distaste such as are onely affected with Jigges, and ribaldrie (as I presume it will,) their condemnation of me, and my Poem, can no way offend me: my reason teaching me such malicious, and ignorant detractors deserve rather contempt, then [sic.] satisfaction.” In some ways, the dramatic jig is on the opposite end of the performance culture spectrum from liturgical and sermon events like boy bishop festivities and cycle plays, but in other ways, they elaborately cull from the performative nuances afforded by the theatrical milieu of trans-Reformational England. Thus, more than a possible distraction or base entertainment, the jig acts as a kind of theatrical intermediary between these explicitly religious performance types and the play that precedes it.
Descriptions of the jig variously as “ribaldrie” and as “nasty bawdy” notwithstanding, the majority of jigs that survive today are cohesive dramas. Such dramatic jigs are short yet complete stories with characters, plots, and tunes; and the recycling of staple character types and themes among them, as in ballads, suggests that jigs constitute an advanced genre. Dramatic jigs normally take the form of a dialogue between two or more characters. Typical themes include sexual seduction, pranks, and the mixing of social levels. At the end of a play performance, the company clown would reenter the stage, perhaps with one or two more players, and then perform his song. And indeed, the dramatic jig is more a dialogue song than it is a dance, tough dancing frequently accompanied it.
To watch a jig performed after a play may well have had a jarring effect, especially if it followed a tragic catastrophe, but it is worth pointing out that jigs share many of their thematic and theatrical elements with even the bleakest of early modern tragedies—music, dancing, sexuality, rampant wordplay, deception, conspicuous reliance on particular stage properties, thwarted ambition. And this partial list does not account for how the postlude jig reprises the musical and farcical activities that frequently occurred before plays and between acts.
To close the comparative study of Stage, Cathedral, Wagon, Street with a jig has a similar effect to ending a play with a jig: it does not terminate the event but expands it. The jig extends the play into the audience, other performance forms, and a common playhouse vocabulary. It extends forward into future plays and, in many cases, into future audiences, since in the Elizabethan period new audience members would enter the playhouse after the play ended in order to see the jig specifically. Postlude jigs even stretched into future performance events, taking form in broadside print and being sung by new performers in alehouses and market stalls—we might imagine, for example, at the entrance to the premier of a new play. Conversely, early modern jigs were nostalgic and also looked backwards in time. In a sense, jigs were “born old”: they made sure that a time past persisted into the time present through their folk characters, music, and wooing dramas, and by invoking May games, Morris dancing, wedding plays, interludes, pastorals, and the role of the medieval Vice.
(excerpted from postlude)