Published by Oxford Scholarship Online, June 2019
Author: Jan-Melissa Schramm, Deputy Director of CRASSH
In the early nineteenth century, the biblical sublime found expression in the visual arts, the novel, the oratorio, and poetry, but spoken drama remained secular by force of precedent and law. The maintenance of this ban on religious theatrical representation was underpinned by Protestant anxieties about impersonation, performance, and the power of the image that persisted long after the Reformation. But by mid-century, the turn towards medievalism in visual culture, antiquarianism in literary history, and the ‘popular’ in constitutional reform placed England’s pre-Reformation past at the centre of debates about the uses of the public stage and the functions of a truly national theatrical literature. In this changing climate, how was England’s rich heritage of vernacular sacred drama to be understood? This book probes the tensions inherent in the idea of ‘incarnational art’—whether, after the Reformation, ‘presence’ was only to be conjured up in the mind’s eye by the act of reading, or whether drama could rightfully reclaim all the implications of ‘incarnation’ understood in the Christian tradition as ‘the word made flesh’. Chapters 1, 2, and 3 describe the recovery of the medieval mystery plays and their subsequent impact on the national imagination. The second half of the book looks at the gradual relaxation of the ban on the performance of sacred drama and asks whether Christian theatre can ever be truly tragic, whether art perpetually reanimates or appropriates sacred ideas, and whether there is any place for sacramental thought in a post-Darwinian, industrial age.