Howard B. Norland. Drama in Early Tudor Britain 1485-1558. Lincoln, Nebraska: U of Nebraska P. xxix+394pp. ISBN 0-8132-3337-X.
James C. Cummings
University of Leeds

Cummings, James C. "Review of Drama in Early Tudor Britain 1485-1558." Early Modern Literary Studies 2.2 (1996): 14.1-7 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/02-2/rev_cum1.html>.

  1. In focusing on the major dramatic traditions prevailing between the reigns of Richard III and Elizabeth I, Howard B. Norland faces the difficult task of attempting to encompass a large variety of material from a highly transitional period. He does so by dividing the book into five parts comprising sections on "Popular Dramatic Traditions," "Contemporary Views of Drama," "The Secularization of the Morality," "The Development of Comedy," and "The Emergence of Tragedy." A total of twenty-three chapters survey drama ranging from saints' plays to Grimald's Archipropheta. Each chapter gives a brief and concise introduction to the individual works as well as attempting to understand them as distinct artistic expressions that "represent variations in the principal dramatic traditions in early Tudor Britain" (x). The fact that many of the chapters resemble short self-contained articles is not a coincidence since the chapters on folk drama, Erasmus, Vives, More, Redford's Wit and Science, Johan Johan, Udall's Roister Doister, and Grimald's Archipropheta have appeared in earlier forms in a variety of journals.

  2. In dealing with "Popular Dramatic Traditions" in the first section, Norland starts by studying the only three extant British saints' plays. While some interesting ideas are presented concerning the Mary Magdalene and especially Beaunans Meriasek, unfortunately the highly idiosyncratic The Conversion of St. Paul is hardly discussed at all. The civic drama is explored through a typological and structural introduction to the cycles that allows some discussion of the anti-theatrical movement and, as in the following chapter on the pre-Reformation moralities, relies primarily on the Wycliffite Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge. The final chapter of this section deals with the difficult topic of folk drama and, although a brief mention is made of the Records of Early English Drama project's earlier discoveries, the discussion does not capitalise on the contributions of their more recent volumes. The analysis of the structure of the folk plays must therefore rely almost entirely on the "extant texts of folk drama collected in the last two centuries" (59).

  3. The second section on "Contemporary Views of Drama" begins by examining the reception of Donatus' commentaries on Terence and the manner in which their evolving republication inspired a variety of humanist views. The next three chapters detail the differing views of Erasmus, Vives, and More towards drama. Although the occurrence of repeated text in his descriptions of Erasmus' De ratione studii (cf. pp. 67 and 89) and a number of overlapping quotations (cf. pp. 67 and 84) are disturbing, these are undoubtedly an unintentional result of the previous publication of these chapters as separate entities. The final chapter of this section details the growth of the religious and political schism between the attitudes of the moralistic reformers and humanists through a well-summarised examination of anti-theatrical Reformation publications.

  4. Norland's third and largest section presents "The Secularization of the Morality" by showing how moral self-reflection became a vehicle for religious and political propaganda. The first chapter of this section examines the changing role of the prodigal and notes that in educational interludes "the special appeal to children's interests faded and the adapted form catered to their parents' concerns and tastes" (160). This exploration of the educational aspect of the form of morality continues in Norland's discussion of Redford's Wit and Science, but begins truly to concentrate on the political nature of the moralities with the consideration of Skelton's Magnificence, Bale's King John, and the anonymous Respublica. The examination of the morality as a tool of political reformers is concluded by an investigation of Lindsay's Satire of the Three Estates.

  5. In the fourth section on "The Development of Comedy," Norland studies Fulgens and Lucres and sees Medwall as creating "a new and distinctive dramatic form" (242) through his combination of several dramatic traditions that make up "an elaborate comic context that mitigates his potentially radical position"(235). The section proceeds through a brief study of Calisto and Melebea to Johan Johan, both of which Norland sees as more developed and sophisticated than their respective sources. Following this is a discussion of Udall's Roister Doister that concentrates on his didactic use of the form and structure of Latin comedy. Gammer Gurton's Needle is also briefly surveyed and is read as an example of "a model of the integration of classical form with contemporary popular motifs" (291).

  6. In his fifth and final section Norland traces the "Emergence of Tragedy" by beginning with Watson's Absalom. The structure and content of "this Christian tragedy modeled on Senecan form"(306) are concisely set forth before proceeding to Christopherson's Jephthah, which adopts "the language as well as the form of his Greek model [Euripides]" (307). While the first two authors of this section were Catholics, the final chapter concerns the Protestant Grimald's Archipropheta. This is of interest since Norland feels it is one of the first plays that "becomes a human tragedy, not a political statement or a religious lesson" (326).

  7. Norland concludes the work by sketching a brief summary of the political and religious developments of drama that he has drawn throughout the book. The book is solidly grounded in primary source research, which is certainly admirable, but does not fully consider many of the more recent developments in the study of early drama. Out of the approximately 364 works cited, only about a dozen come from the decade prior to publication. Thus, the reader is left without a sense of the influence of current theoretical perspectives such as Gender Studies, New Historicism, and other critical approaches to dramatic texts. The book might have benefited had it incorporated a greater amount of social and urban history to contextualize the study of literary texts. Nevertheless, the book remains a valuable resource for those seeking introductory studies of the plays in question.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the editor at emls@arts.ubc.ca.

© 1996, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(August 21, 1996)