Sunday, August 16, 2015

Laura Schechter: “The Queen’s Dumbshows”

Laura Schechter

Book Review

Claire Sponsler, The Queen’s Dumbshows: John Lydgate and the Making of Early Theatre. University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia, 2014), 305 pp. ISBN: 9780812245950

1> While the wonderful Records of Early English Drama (REED) project has shed light on the popularity of certain types of performance now often ignored—Robin Hood plays, for example—also revealing that morality plays were less common than critics have assumed, REED and the larger scholarly community have been unable to find many new plays produced during the medieval period. In The Queen’s Dumbshows Claire Sponsler suggests that the search to discover medieval drama has been hampered, quite simply, by parameters that are far too narrow. John Lydgate, for example, usually associated with the stylized sort of poetry enjoyed at the English court, also wrote several (now largely forgotten) dramatic works. The problem for modern critics, Sponsler explains, is that the works do not conform to our generic expectations for theatre.

2> Making use of Lydgate’s less known oeuvre to illustrate her larger arguments, Sponsler convincingly demonstrates that medieval performance should now be considered in more flexible, capacious ways. She maintains that, by focusing on a Chaucerian circle of male dramatists living in London, scholars of medieval performance have failed to consider many popular works that “look distinctly nonliterary” (1). The regularly studied, elite dramatists produced now canonical material, the style and form of their works demonstrably favoured by the Tudors and authors working under their rules; keeping critical attention focused solely on these texts ignores co-authored and collaborative pieces, works in visual or mixed media, and religious texts, however, not to mention works by less privileged authors and material produced outside of London. Sponsler’s examination of Lydgate’s more obscure pieces effectively shows the overlaps in various types of media, also redirecting critical attention to medieval performance as participatory and culturally mediated.

3> The ephemerality of these popular works is a key consideration in Sponsler’s study, and she deftly handles the challenges associated with researching largely forgotten productions. The author takes up investigations of forms such as holiday mummings for guildsmen and civic leaders, and disguisings produced for the enjoyment of court audiences; poems intended to be read aloud; tapestries in private and public spaces, and verses written on church walls; spectacles, processions, and pageants; and subtleties served at banquets. Many of these forms would have been accessible to and enjoyed by a broad audience, while others were often limited to the political elite, and Sponsler attends to the moments of intersection between the written and the oral, noting the number of texts that would have received circulation through both print and spoken performance. She focuses, then, on “situatedness,” on “a text’s positioning between poets and artisans who together create a drama, its location in an actual performance space such as a city street, its emplacement on a tableau or painted cloth” (15). Where no scripts are extant, Sponsler makes use of archival records of performances, including notations in ledgers and legal writing.

4> Importantly, however, Sponsler points out that extant scripts are not always reliable descriptions of performances, given how many pieces were written after the productions concluded. Sponsler moves beyond the critical focus on the codex as the only site of interest for written works, and she examines more ephemeral forms of text—poems to be read in public spaces, and text integrated into tapestries, for example—even as she acknowledges the contributions of John Shirley, the fifteenth-century scribe who copied all of Lydgate’s dramatic pieces and compiled them into three anthologies. Details included by Shirley were essential for Sponsler as she attempted to reconstruct (or at least hypothesize about) actual performances.  Shirley’s records give insight into some aspects of Lydgate’s work, but they leave other questions unanswered. The scribe does not include much in the way of information about the mise-en-scène, for example: costumes, stage directions, and music are rarely noted. Sponsler also examines verses that were not included in Shirley’s compilations, verses for which authorship is not entirely clear. While Sponsler seems at times apologetic for these uncertainties in her research, she effectively sets a framework for considering the material, in the process demonstrating the understandable and expected gaps when one’s inquiry centres on medieval culture. Sponsler’s work is an important contribution to her field, and she convinces readers that looking beyond traditional generic constraints is now necessary, as is a focus that moves beyond the urban borders of Chaucer’s London.

5> In broadening the field’s focus, Sponsler draws attention to the fluidity in medieval genres, noting that written and visual media can easily bleed into one another or be bound together, and she asks important questions about the relationship between reception and interpretation. Lydgate most certainly wrote pieces that were to be enjoyed alongside tapestries or other visual media; indeed, some poems even include cues to examine these now lost materials. Lydgate’s poetry was also written on various churchyard and chapel walls, and Sponsler suggests that these displays would have worked to strengthen the didactic content of the sermons given in these spaces. Similarly, Lydgate’s poetic Procession of Corpus Christi straddles “visual spectacle and written exegesis, … ephemeral performance (open to multiple meanings) and durable text (presenting a specific interpretation)” (97). Sponsler offers helpful details about Corpus Christi plays outside of London and the conditions that made them largely unheard of in the capitol city, but she also describes the London parishes’ celebratory productions and city pageants. Additionally, Sponsler productively engages the interplay of spectacle, text, and cultural and political interests, an interplay that is crucial to her examination of the pageants produced to celebrate Henry VI’s entry into London as well as to her discussion of mummings and disguisings produced in the 1420s to entertain the royal family. This later chapter is particularly good for considering further women’s involvement in medieval drama—as participatory audience members, certainly, but also as patrons and as backstage technical assistants. In short, The Queen’s Dumbshows is an exceptional piece of scholarship. It develops out of Sponsler’s earlier work on medieval literature, performance, and culture, providing a fascinating study of Lydgate’s contributions to a vibrant culture of performance and challenging readers to look beyond geographical borders, generic constraints, and other conceptual boundaries.

Laura Schechter completed her PhD at the University of Alberta, and she continues to teach in the Department of English and Film Studies. Her interests include early modern gender, poetry, court culture, and theater. She has been published in Renaissance and Reformation, ESC: English Studies in Canada, and the edited anthology Narratives of Citizenship.

Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature and Culture,
Volume Eight (2015): Dialogues & Exchanges

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