Collinson and Drama

This post in our After Iconophobia Online Symposium comes from Adrian Streete, Senior Lecturer in English Literature 1500-1780 in the School of Critical Studies at the University of Glasgow.  Adrian’s books include the monograph Protestantism and Drama in Early Modern England and the edited volume Early Modern Drama and the Bible: Contexts and Readings, 1570-1625. Here he reflects upon the ways in which drama in Protestant England continued to represent God’s Word on the stage. 

Part of the post is taken from the essay ‘Literary Genres for the Espression of Faith: Drama’, in Andrew Hiscock and Helen Wilcox (eds), The Oxord Handbook of Early Modern Literature and Religion (Forthcoming, 2017).  Some of these topics are developed further in Adrian’s forthcoming book Anti-Catholicism and Apocalypse in Seventeenth-Century English Drama (CUP, 2017).

I want to raise two related questions stimulated by Professor Collinson’s lecture. What is ‘biblical drama’? And what does ‘representing the word’ on stage entail? Over the past thirty years, literary scholarship has offered a number of replies to these questions. I will outline what I think are the most important of these responses. But before I do this, I want to remark briefly on the striking interdisciplinarity of Collinson’s lecture. Think of the willingness today of historians like Peter Lake and Quentin Skinner to engage in literary analysis, or conversely of the fine historical work of literary scholars like Brian Cummings and David Norbrook. In 1985, these disciplinary boundaries were much less fluid. Historians were not always as keen to take literature seriously as historical evidence. Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning was only five years old. Dollimore’s Radical Tragedy had just been published in 1984. As we might expect, Collinson refers to a number of historically-minded literary scholars. But he also makes reference to the Marxist-inspired work of Margo Heinmann, and in his notes he thanks Michael O’Connell of the University of California, whose book The Idolatrous Eye would be published in 2000. With characteristic prescience, Collinson’s methodology assimilates key aspects of New Historicism and Cultural Materialism.

Collinson’s account of religion and drama moves in two stages. The first wave of Protestant drama is propagandist. It affirms the reformed state and church, attacks Roman Catholicism, and offers a didactic explanation of reformed religion. It is iconoclastic in that it rejects false art and worship. It is reformed in that it aims at a ‘true and acceptable art, applied to a laudable purpose.’ (p. 8) The second wave of Protestant drama retreats from this aim. Under assault from the anti-theatricalists and city authorities, ‘the old religious drama’ (p. 13) recedes from sight. This shift is motivated by ‘the commercial institutionalisation of the metropolitan theatre in the late 1570s’ (p. 12). It also involves a change in dramatic repertoire from moral improvement to romance and spectacle for a ‘demotic’ audience (p. 12). It is iconophobic in its suspicion of the mimetic claims of the image. To put it crudely: as the Reformation becomes less an oppositional movement and more a ‘middle-aged’ (p. 4) defence of a not particularly popular status quo, so drama becomes less religious, more demotic and regulated, and more sceptical of its own theatricality.

Collinson’s influential argument is a version of the secularisation thesis. The subject matter of theatre is gradually disenchanted as commercial, regulatory, and aesthetic demands change. Yet the assumption that ‘religious’ drama equals biblical drama has been challenged in subsequent years. Although Collinson is correct that the commercial theatre sees fewer plays on biblical subjects, plays on biblical subjects continue intermittently to be written and performed into the seventeenth century.[1] This is also a very metropolitan account of drama. The work of Paul Whitfield White and Beatrice Groves has shown that biblical drama, including mystery cycles and parish drama, continued to be performed outside the metropolitan centres into the seventeenth century. Lastly, while biblical plays are less prevalent on the commercial stage, biblical language and idioms are everywhere in early modern drama. The subject of drama may have become less biblical; the language of drama did not. Biblical stories, idioms, and quotations are central to theatrical writing throughout the period. Images are not only conjured by mimetic signs; they are evoked by words.

tyndaletitleToday we are less inclined to think of biblical language in drama as mere allusion. Scholars have started to examine its exegetical and rhetorical implications. As early modern biblical interpreters often note, to encounter Scripture is to open oneself up to the possibility of being altered, physically and spiritually, by its words. Religious language can alter affect. As William Tyndale says of the New Testament: ‘Evangelion (or what we call the gospel) is a Greek word, and signifies good, glad, and joyful tidings, that make a man’s heart glad, and make him sing, dance, and leap for joy.’[2] Tyndale means this literally. The encounter with Scripture is transformative. It changes the heart, the seat of human passions, and produces a spiritual change in the reader. Part of drama’s communal and affective appeal lies in its use of biblical language. Dramatists understand this possibility and it informs the theatrical use of religious rhetoric. Indeed, the dramatic use of biblical verse can be connected to the ars rhetorica. It may evoke the energia of a particular speaker when addressing state, community, or individual – for example the use of the book of Revelation by Tribulation Wholesome and Ananias in Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist. It can appeal to pathos, to the emotions of an audience, in order to persuade them to a particular point of view – for example Faustus’ selective reading of the Gospels in Christopher Marlowe’s tragedy. It might also enable a female to oppose male dominance – for instance the Duchess of Malfi’s use of prophetic language drawn from Ezekiel in John Webster’s play. The word is represented for a wide variety of ends.

The dramatists mentioned here have very different attitudes towards religion. Marlowe was accused of freethinking and his plays are sceptical of all the Abrahamic religions. Jonson was both a Protestant and a Catholic, and he dislikes extremism of any kind. Although we cannot be sure about Webster, his plays are certainly interested in the more radical versions of Protestantism. Such religious fluidity is important. Dramatists cover the gamut of possible religious identities and they explore many aspects of religious belief onstage. They also continue to use religious signs: Faustus has his Vulgate, Wholesome and Ananias wear Puritan garb, and Webster’s Cardinal uses a poisoned book which may well be a Bible or Psalter. As the last example shows, many playwrights sympathetic to Protestantism use mimetic signs as a way of implicitly criticising false Roman Catholic practices. Others, like Shakespeare in the Histories, make much of the tension between the religious values that his medieval monarchs would have held, and the post-Reformation world that they now speak to. So the claim that post-1580 drama is invariably iconophobic is too blunt an assessment. It assumes that dramatists share a communality of response and a similarity of religious identity. In fact, their plays reflect and address a multiple and divided religious culture.

the-old-globeMy final point concerns the regulation of and opposition to the theatre. As David Womersley has argued: ‘What disturbed Elizabethan magistrates when they reflected on the stage was the power of drama to fuse heresy and sedition (that is to say, religious and political error, respectively), and to embody that complicated error in vivid, memorable images unfit, so they thought, to be placed before a general audience.’[3] The emergence of various mechanisms for the regulation and censorship of drama is an important feature of the second half of the sixteenth century. As Collinson notes, the theatres were regularly identified as sites of civic disorder, incubators of disease, and religious error by the city authorities and moralists alike. Yet dramatic interest in matters of divinity and state was viewed with suspicion from the start of Elizabeth’s reign. Legislation was passed in 1559 prohibiting such matters being discussed on stage, and in 1606 James’ government banned the name of God from being spoken on stage. Censorship of politically and religiously sensitive matters did occur and dramatists had to approach divine matters with a degree of care.  Nevertheless, these regulatory mechanisms were only intermittently effective. As the commercial theatres burgeoned from the 1570s, official proclamations alternate between the need to regulate and reform, and the need to facilitate, drama. At times of political tension, such as the Spanish Match, these mechanisms come close to breaking down completely. There is no straightforward narrative of how the authorities tried to control theatrical discussions of divinity. Most of the surviving evidence arises in response to contingent political events, to localised moral purges, or to recurrent social and economic concerns. If there is a larger narrative at work then it is related to the ongoing tussle between the court, the Church, and the city about who had ultimate jurisdiction for what was staged in the commercial theatres. The growing authority of the Master of the Revels from the early 1580s had to be balanced against the desire of the city fathers to maintain orderly economic activity. Though this was often an uneasy relationship, reform rather than repression of the theatres was usually the aim of both parties. Established in 1583 possibly as a counter to the anti-theatrical attacks, the Queen’s Men put on plays with a moderate Reformist agenda. And houses like the Red Bull, founded in 1604, were well-known for staging plays with a Protestant edge. The fact that religious language and imagery continues to be used on stage throughout the early modern period is crucial. We may not have much drama on biblical topics. Religion may be approached more diffusely and analogously. But the religious word continues to be represented and interrogated in the seventeenth century theatre.

[1] We might think here of Elizabeth Cary’s closet play The Tragedy of Mariam (1604) or Gervase Markham and George Sampson’s 1622 play Herod and Antipater.

[2] William Tyndale, A Pathway into the Holy Scripture, in Writings of the Rev. William Tindal (London: The Religious Tract Society, ND), p. 110.

[3] David Womersley, Divinity and State (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 3-4.


11 thoughts on “Collinson and Drama

  1. This is very interesting, Adrian. Your comments about the stage fusing heresy and sedition made me think about Collinson’s later work on the Bishop’s Ban on satire and how attentive he (and, by extension, we) have become to the role of literary sources in early modern politics and the ways in which they were often feared. It has also made me realise that there is an awful lot of scholarship on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage that I need to read!

    • Thanks, Adam. Yes, there’s a lot of great work in this area. I’m interested in your comment on the Bishop’s Ban and satire – there’s definitely more to be done on drama as a satirical/ polemical genre, especially in its use of humour.

  2. Heinemann was wrong about Middleton, no? What about A Game at Chesse: Catholic dissimulation, although within the spirit (gambit) of the game. Gammer Gurton’s Nedle: interesting date for first publication: coincides with Puritan divines attempt to reform the lower clergy (cf ‘Dr’ Rat – ‘learned’ but indolent).

    • Yes, her work has been criticised on a number of fronts: her problematic use of the term ‘opposition’ and her account of Middleton’s Calvinism, for instance. But I still find it a very compelling book. She takes drama seriously as a political genre and the book revitalised Middleton scholarship. It’s hard to imagine the OUP Middleton without her inspiration, despite the flaws in the book.

      • Oh, I think Gary Taylor was/is on a mission. Chaste Maid in Cheapside had already been introduced into the main anthologies. We probably have to go back to Tom Eliot for the revival of interest. Also, Chakravorty’s book stimulated the interest further and along lines more credible than Heinemann’s.

  3. Finally, I deactivated my Twitter acct. I’m using TOR all the time now and Twitter cannot handle it. Principle of privacy more important now IP Act and Trump’s allowing ‘monetization’ of personal data. See you sometime.

  4. Pingback: After Iconophobia? | the many-headed monster

  5. Pingback: Merkwaardig (week 14) |

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