Dramatis Personae by Philip Freund

Despite its bawdy reputation, medieval and renaissance drama was firmly rooted in religion. Even with bold thinkers like Shakespeare and Marlowe, Murrough O'Brien argues, the mystical can't help breaking through
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The Independent Culture

This is not a book in which to search for omissions. Dramatis Personae: the Rise of Medieval and Renaissance Theatre is the third in Stage by Stage, a series of books on the history of the theatre. This single volume is vast in scope, embracing the famous and the obscure. And it is 930 pages long.

Though in a tome of this size slips are unavoidable, only the most bewhiskered scholar or pimpled nerd would find quarrel with its sheer breadth. And only the most curmudgeonly spirit would cough in the sharp breeze of its intelligence and sincerity.

In the early modern period, the theatre was mainly mistletoe around the oak of the church. Early in the book, Freund tells us of the fourth-century churchman Arius, who urged the creation of a drama that could contend with the lewd offerings of the pagans. Arius was far-sighted, bold and unquestionably religious. He was also, and crucially for the purposes of this book, a heretic: neither orthodox nor unbeliever.

It has long been a commonplace that the church took an austere line on plays and players; but this was not always so: the tropes were written as dramatisations of the mass; the church gave the early players their first buildings, their first sets, even their first official sanction. Hrosvitha, a ninth-century Saxon nun, adapted some plays of Terence, purging them, unfortunately, of all quiddity or humour, and where male heretics like Arius or Tertullian failed, an orthodox woman succeeded. The church had found a way of co-existing with the ultimate expression of pagan culture. Freund brilliantly shows how the estrangement between church and theatre developed.

There had always been anxieties about the theatre's propensity to encourage drunkenness or worse, but the real trouble began when the church, which regarded the theatre as a vehicle for showing forth divine mysteries to those who could not understand the mass, started to notice how the plays performed outside the church were becoming increasingly profane in their subject matter. Bawdiness was a concern, naturally, but more to the point, the theatre was becoming a distraction from divine things, rather than a pointer to them. Freund conjures up marvellously the world of the Mystery and Miracle Plays, where whole villages became theatres as the crowd progressed around the various "stations". He also makes the shrewd point that the Moralities, now so derided for their blunt didacticism and crudeness, died in the Elizabethan era only to be reborn in Brechtian political theatre.

Given that this is a book about European theatre, with all that implies, you would expect it to give some attention to national characteristics: it does not disappoint. The charming, savage, wild and folksy Commedia Dell'Arte suffered many sea-changes after it left Italy. In France, it was tamed to the Gallic sensibility of Molière, who stripped it of its aristocratic characters and made it a vehicle for bourgeois city comedy. In England, long after Shakespeare sneaked many of its stock characters into his comedies, Joseph Grimaldi, an Anglo-Italian clown, blended the characters of Pierrot and Harlequin to create "a sociopathic anarchist" whose ferociously funny antics once reputedly cured a deaf-mute of his dumbness.

The English dramatic genius was identified with darkness at a very early stage. In Germany, the vernacular was long in coming, largely because of Martin Luther's perverse belief that German playwrights should write in Latin. In no nation was the theatre more vilified and exalted than in Spain, where actors could not receive the sacrament, yet where the theatre was a centre of charity. Italy and Spain often found their great playwrights among the aristocracy; Britain, true to form, sought dramatic genius among the sons of brickies. The Italians recovered the ancient texts, established the canons, built the sets, and left to others the task of creating truly great plays. Machiavelli, it turns out, was an accomplished playwright, though no more the slave of sentiment in his drama than he was in his politics.

The cult of the Virgin furnished European theatre with, to the modern mind, rather surprising motifs. The Virgin Mary comes across as strangely, and sweetly, protective of straying nuns. A bishop "banished to the desert for his over-zealous faith in the Virgin" gets relief from his thirst in the form of milk from Mary's own breasts. On the same page we learn of Princess Isabella, a cross-dresser, who is "saved from her embarrassment by being temporarily changed into a man". For me the most delightful aspect of this intriguing book is its author's rich evocations of a vivid, human faith, too often chased from our collective memory by its more familiar cousins, bigotry and superstition.

Freund's neologisms, archaisms and clichés are by turns charming and frustrating. "Evanishment" (for "vanishing", I assume) is enjoyable. Others are not. Sometimes it reads like a translation. Prudentius, we learn, was "dedicated to the fervent praise of Christianity". Does that mean he was a Christian? Stradella was "facile at this". Does that mean good or glib? And when does dialogue invite "an appreciative laughter"? How do you pay homage "of" something? We didn't need "Olympian heights" or many other clichés. And there are lots more where those came from. But the prose in general has a kind of conversational dignity and a modest intimacy.

There are, perhaps, a few too many contemporary reviews quoted. They're not as interesting as the author imagines. Against this we must set the author's great gift for capturing the feel of the past, his extraordinary breadth of knowledge and depth of sympathy, the frequent bursts of high lyricism in his prose.

Shakespeare absorbs about a quarter of this book, and the space isn't always well used. The structure of Freund's analyses is of itself attractive: he gives us a précis, then a commentary, then a meditation. But the analyses are sturdily unprovocative; he plays it almost defiantly safe. Also he squeezes big texts into small theories, leaving uncomfortable hernias. Thus the Earl of Gloucester, in King Lear, is construed as "superficial, hedonistic". On what grounds? Gloucester had an illegitimate son, certainly, but that's all we know of his hedonism - and how is he superficial? More seriously, in his précis of The Tempest, he states that "[Antonio and Sebastian] have been prompted by Caliban [to kill Alonzo]". That happens neither in the play I've seen, nor in the one I've read, nor in the one I've acted in. This was the only moment when my faith in the book seriously faltered.

In his thorough, fair and superbly incisive section on the Jacobeans, Freund excludes no one of even the slightest consequence. He also dares more than in the Shakespeare section, giving John Webster credit for attaining a dramatic intensity unmatched even by Shakespeare or Marlowe. Jonson, swaggering, violent and rebarbative, becomes almost endearing in the glow of Freund's benevolence.

Freund constantly surprises. Just as you feel the onset of a sigh at what appears to be another piece of slavishly accepted convention, he subverts it. This book is not simply a work of reference, as I had initially feared. It is not a "biography" of the early Modern theatre. It is, appropriately, a pageant.

The author's master theme is that the theatre needs mysticism if only, paradoxically, to be sceptical. For us to become obsessively exercised over the question of whether Shakespeare or Marlowe "believed" in God or the supernatural is to miss the point: they believed enough to write as if they believed. Freund is also brave enough to recognise that the theatre did indeed lose something by its break with the church. If you were feeling mischievous, you could argue that that something was a mass audience. Once again though, Freund refuses to take sides.