Chaucerian Theatricality

Chaucerian Theatricality

by John M. Ganim

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Whereas modern criticism has emphasized the unity and sense of permanence in The Canterbury Tales, John Ganim alerts us to a dialectically opposing dimension that Chaucer's poetics shares with the popular culture of the late Middle Ages: his celebration of the ephemeral and his sense of performance. Ganim uses the concept of theatricality to illuminate Chaucer's


Whereas modern criticism has emphasized the unity and sense of permanence in The Canterbury Tales, John Ganim alerts us to a dialectically opposing dimension that Chaucer's poetics shares with the popular culture of the late Middle Ages: his celebration of the ephemeral and his sense of performance. Ganim uses the concept of theatricality to illuminate Chaucer's manipulations of the forms of popular culture and high literary discourse. He calls upon recent work in semiotics and social history to question Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of the "carnivalesque" and the "dialogic," at the same time suggesting Bakhtin's usefulness in understanding Chaucer.This book includes chapters on how Chaucer adopts the voice of such popular literary forms as chronicles and pious collections, on his equivalence between his own image making and dramatic performance, and on Chaucer's and Boccaccio's handling of the related issues of popular understanding and the creation of illusions. The book concludes by describing how Chaucer conflates "noise" and popular expression, simultaneously appropriating and distancing himself from his richest cultural context.

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Princeton University Press
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Princeton Legacy Library Series
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Chaucerian Theatricality

By John M. Ganim


Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06779-7



This book is an essay on some related problems both of Chaucer criticism and of Chaucerian poetics. The terms defining twentieth-century Chaucer criticism could not have been set forth more clearly than in Kittredge: "Structurally regarded, the Canterbury Tales is a kind of Human Comedy. From this point of view, the Pilgrims are the dramatis personae, and their stories are only speeches that are somewhat longer than common" (1911–12, 435). Kittredge was writing in the decades following the innovations of Ibsen's drama and James's novels. To claim psychologically subde characterization and thematic unity based on social questions was, for Kittredge, to claim poetic relevance for Chaucer. Victorian medievalism and the great editorial efforts of the later nineteenth century had recovered many of the lost contexts of Chaucer's work, but at the risk of subsuming him to a very Victorian picture of his age or dispersing his intentions among discrete scholarly questions. Kittredge's critical move, something of a tour de force, was to make the links and prologues, rather than the tales, the center of attention, and as a result to proclaim a new coherence for Chaucer's work and a new agenda for criticism. The success of this agenda is attested to by the fact that even as the present century moves towards its close, extended critical studies of the Canterbury Tales inescapably engage Kittredge's categories, either by proposing alternate groupings to his version of thematic and structural unity, or by attacking head-on his assumptions concerning character and literary meaning. Although it is difficult to find someone today willing to espouse a wholesale dramatic reading of the Canterbury Tales, these categories prove surprisingly resilient against the impressive artillery arrayed against them. D. W. Robertson's (1962) powerful promulgation of an "allegorical" aesthetic for medieval literature was directed squarely against the psychological and characterological interests of the dramatic thesis. Charles Muscatine (1957) questioned the realistic assumptions of the generally Kittredgian consensus by pointing to the conventional basis of Chaucer's style. Robert M. Jordan (1967) attempted to argue for a nondramatic and nonorganic aesthetic for medieval poetry in general and for Chaucer in particular. Jordan, Muscatine, and Robertson, all very different, are just a few examples. It would have seemed as if medieval literary study in the 1950s and 1960s, by having to grapple with Kittredge's proto-New Critical literary assumptions, might have predicted the postmodern, structuralist, and poststructuralist critique of the humanist and formalist enterprises. But the Kittredgian ghost continues to haunt the house of Chaucer criticism. Recent books such as C. David Benson's Chaucer's Drama of Style (1986) must insist once again that the coherence of the Canterbury Tales does not lie in the pilgrims and their dramatic interchange. Derek Pearsall (1985) warns us of the interpretative lacunae that have resulted from the Kittredgian valorization of the settings of the tales above their narratives.

Amid the flurry of attempts to drive a stake into the heart of the "dramatic" reading of the Canterbury Tales, I propose a relatively minimal revision. What would happen if we revised rather than replaced the metaphors of Chaucer criticism? Instead of the metaphor of "drama," I propose that of "theatricality." My intention is to orient contemporary critical positions, largely those that grow out of the dramatic metaphor, towards some long-neglected materials such as urban and court spectacle and certain forms of late medieval performance. I also seek to preserve the most powerful contributions of the arguments for the unity of the Canterbury Tales while accounting for some of the obvious contradictions in those arguments. Even if the obsession with unity has created certain critical dead ends, it has paradoxically generated remarkable local explanations that are not invalidated by the failure of the larger thesis.

The attempt to revise the central critical metaphor of Chaucer studies has in fact been one of the strategies of attacks on the dramatic thesis. The chief of these is the metaphor of Gothic art and architecture, but others, less metaphoric than metonymic, would have us read the Canterbury Tales as we would a scriptural text. These rejections of the dramatic paradigm, however, result in a poetry fixed in its values and highly directed in its statements. We are forced to assume a virtual identity between the poetic and philosophical conceptions of reality. The danger of such a tendency is that we are inventing a Chaucer who is always, as he is sometimes, an orthodox voice. In contrast, my argument here points towards a much less stable avenue to meaning, suggesting even that meaning is generated in the act of reading and is more akin to theme than to statement. The Chaucer that results is one more conditional, more provisional, appropriating the improvisational and performative qualities of medieval theatricality.

Chaucer places the stories of the Canterbury Tales within the structural setting of the pilgrimage and frequently introduces or comments on those stories by means of interactions among the pilgrims. The Canterbury Tales is therefore usually described as a framed fiction, along with other collections of tales, chiefly Boccaccio's Decameron, with its elaborate "cornice," Gower's Confessio Amantis, and also the Thousand and One Nights. Such a description is obviously important and helpful, and I do not suggest we discard the term entirely. Nevertheless, the interaction of Chaucer's stories and the pilgrimage setting is obviously much more dynamic than in these and other similar collections. The Canterbury Tales are not merely framed, they are reframed, reset, changed by the very process of their presentation. If, as I argue, our critical reference points can be helped by importing the notion of "theatricality," we must also rethink the notion of a stable, independent or dominant "frame."

I am suggesting that we consider the formal presentation of the Canterbury Tales as akin to a linguistic rather than an architectural gesture. Given the fiction of the Canterbury Tales as talk, as recorded speech, I would stress the illusion of multivocality in Chaucer, not only in the fluctuating relations between teller and tale, but between tale and tale, and between Chaucer and his sources. I seek to underline the presentation, and self-presentation, of the Canterbury Tales and its narrators, as social performances, subject to response and correction. But the notion of theatricality also accounts for the duality of the work, as artifact and as performance, as talk and as text. The concept acknowledges the destabilizing force of Chaucerian recourse to authorities and sources, including his own earlier works, as they are transformed by their new context. By focusing on the nature of Chaucerian theatricality, we can read as significant apparently troublesome moments in the frame or within the pilgrims' stories, which seem to transgress narrative or dramatic decorum.

* * *

By the term theatricality, I mean not to suggest so much a study of the drama of the Canterbury Tales narrowly conceived, or even an affiliation between Chaucer's poetry and the forms of medieval theater, though the latter is part of my project. Rather, I mean to locate a governing sense of performance, an interplay among the author's voice, his fictional characters, and his immediate audience. Theatricality, in the sense I use it here, is a paradigm for the Chaucerian poetic, and what I seek to define is Chaucer's own manipulations of the forms of popular culture and the varying discourses of inherited high literary forms.

This definition has certain critical consequences. Instead of towards concern with how Chaucer's style or narrative movement is unified, the concept of theatricality points us towards ways in which the consistent surface of the work is almost programmatically violated. Instead of a concern with the dramatic consistency of the Chaucerian narrator, the "pilgrim" or the "poet," the concept of theatricality attunes us to the ease with which the Canterbury Tales (and other fourteenth-century works) move among different levels of fictional address.

My definition of theatricality is then primarily stylistic rather than sociological; but that style is immersed in social and political contexts ranging from popular theatrics to court ceremony. Taken as a form of integral cultural expression, as it is in Huizinga's Waning of the Middle Ages (1954), medieval theatricality shares with the theatricality of other periods the dramatization of both interior states and of shared social values. Whereas Huizinga read medieval theatricality's obsessive dramatization of both private experience and public events as a vaguely overripe efflorescence, studies in slightly later periods have alerted us to the socially adaptive and politically calculated quality of Renaissance or eighteenth-century theatricality. In The Illusion of Power (1975), for instance, Stephen Orgel describes the essentially political ritual of Renaissance court theater and masques. Though medieval courts may have had impressive spectacles with specific meanings, those meanings had by their nature to communicate something other than the monarchical ideology Orgel locates. In their very form, medieval spectacles and processions suggest a much less clearly centralized and symptomatically much less loosely structured and formalized aesthetics or politics. However careful their preparations, medieval court ceremonies and royal processions took place in settings that, however stage-like to modem eyes, were by no means the planned theater-like spaces of Renaissance courts. For that matter, permanent public theaters are themselves a product of the Renaissance. In contrast, medieval popular and court theatrics shared a temporary, provisional, and occasional quality. Robert Weimann in Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition (1978), for instance, implies that the Renaissance public theater owes its participatory and improvisatory quality to medieval popular traditions.

The more general use of theatricality to locate a certain conception of social existence, even self-creation, also grows out of Renaissance rather than medieval studies. In his Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980), Stephen Greenblatt describes the means by which Renaissance literary and historical figures theatrically create their "selves." Here again Chaucerian characters both resemble and do not resemble the Renaissance dynamic. Chaucer's most apparently self-fashioning characters emerge in his longer prologues, such as those of the Wife of Bath and the Pardoner. Here, long, only briefly interrupted monologues create in their own words the most fully realized characters in literature before Shakespeare. But this apparent self-creation owes much to highly conventionalized and even ritualized forms such as the equally long self-descriptions of allegorical characters and the self-examination of the confessional mode that developed in the wake of the institutionalization of regular confession in the high Middle Ages. The theatricalization of character in Chaucer exists as much to admit as to evade social constrictions upon the invention of the self. Moreover, the most elusive Chaucerian character, the figure of Chaucer himself, is theatrically represented, both in the early poems and in the Canterbury Tales, so much so that it has become one of the tropes of modern Chaucer criticism to address his degree of fictionality, precisely that which theatricality simultaneously invites and frustrates.

From an empirical point of view, it is Chaucer's early poetry that is most obviously theatrical. Court poetry often has a ceremonial, presentational, and official dimension quite apart from its manifest content or meaning. It is part of court life, part of a system of signs and gestures, decorations, clothing, manners, all of which proclaim the unique character of the court's world. Indeed, it has become commonplace to speak of the social significance of continental court and courtly literature (Salter 1973, Hauser 1951). The initiatory experience of the protagonists of the Romance of the Rose or Chretien's romances may have reflected the social refashioning of a military caste into a chivalric elite. But it is just as likely that constant self-definition is a marked quality of courtly literature. Stevens's Music and Poetry in the Early Tudor Court (1961) shows how the courtly-love tradition had a "sociological" function in establishing the role of the courtier; Caspari's Humanism and the Social Order in Tudor England (1954) shows how many aspects of humanist education and early Tudor court culture involved retooling the feudal aristocracy for increasingly complex administrative and diplomatic tasks. Although I agree with Mathew (1968) that the courts of Richard and Edward introduced a new phase of royal court culture in England, there is very little evidence that their courts promulgated the relatively coherent adaptive and educative programs of the Tudor courts. We need to look elsewhere for the kind of experience codified in courtesy books, court ceremony, and early humanist education. One place to look is poetry. The ritual and almost experimental quality of Chaucer's early poems, despite their traditional trappings, must have filled some need in the life of the court.

The court of Edward III represented a highly self-conscious attempt to appropriate knightly chivalry to royal protocol, in ways that were publicly accessible rather than hermetic. This cultural move is reflected in the early poems, which include within themselves, sometimes with a touch of parody or irony, the quality of court theater. A poem like the Parliament of Foules at times predicts the elements of a masque. However skeptical one may be about such explanations, the description of Fame in her temple in the House of Fame more than slightly resembles the apocalyptic image of Alice Perrers disguised as the Lady of the Sun as she rides to and is seated at the jousts at Smithfield in 1374 (Wickham 1959, 20). Even the wicker construction of the House of Rumor suggests a material that might well have been widely used in the elaborate sets of indoor court entertainments.

But the theatrical quality, the bizarre mechanics, and the strange contrivances of poems such as the House of Fame and even the Squire's Tale have more than a single parallel. In 1377, for instance, the year in which Richard was crowned, for one entry an imitation castle was equipped with a mechanical angel that somehow bowed down and offered Richard a crown (Wickham 1959, 55). In 1392, in a pageant meant to soothe rumpled feathers between Richard and the citizenry, two children disguised as angels appeared to float down and offer the King a crown (Wickham 1959, 71). Even more elaborate pageants and mimes are recorded in the French royal court during the century, one of which may be alluded to in the description of magic in the Franklin's Tale (L. Loomis 1958, Braswell 1985). I do not mean to suggest either direct references to these events in Chaucer's text, nor am I suggesting Manly-like identifications. Instead, I want only to point to the ways such theatricality is included in Chaucer's poetry and suggests the uneasy but crucial relation, celebratory and subversive at once, of his poetry to court life. One can read the Book of the Duchess and the Parliament of Foules as part of court theatricality, even if wittily ironic about it while the House of Fame seems in many ways explicitly satiric and critical. In the Canterbury Tales, the references to ceremonial theatricality are part of complex thematic statements about power and control, usually, but not always, political.

It may not have been so much that Chaucer combined aristocratic and bourgeois perspectives as that in certain social sectors, and particularly in a relatively centralized political situation like that of London, these perspectives may have been broadly shared. Even the evidence of Edwardian, if not of Ricardian, court ritual is striking. The most elaborate processions and entries of Edward's reigns were not exclusively "courtly" in an elitist sense. More often than not, they were meant to celebrate the sometimes shaky political unity of the city, the nation, and the court. The distinction between civic and aristocratic theatricality was sometimes blurry. Chaucer might not have remembered, for instance, a tournament in which Edward and his nobles appeared in the lists disguised as the Mayor and aldermen of London, a disguise probably meant to be complimentary, but he no doubt took part in similar events in which citizens, not always as closely connected to the court as he himself, also participated.

Richard II was indeed obsessed with images of royal power, but his court art tended to express such an obsession not in monumental and permanent aggrandizement, but in that delicate, miniature, portable, "late Gothic" style. The court itself seemed portable, perhaps out of necessity. Among his most memorable artistic projects were interiors, walls, and glazings. The descriptions of the court in transit suggest the air of a travelling fair, not entirely unlike the bon voyage of the Canterbury pilgrims. When Anne died, in a characteristically public expression of profound private grief, Richard ordered her favorite manor destroyed, as if the court itself were conceived as a stage set, meant to impress both ruler and ruled with the illusion of majesty. Nevertheless, a similar theatricality and portability marked Edward Ill's court. Whereas a totalizing theatrical conception was part of the propaganda of the later Tudor and Stuart courts, Richard's court was marked by a sense of improvisation, and a case could be made that Richard's handling of power itself was improvisational.


Excerpted from Chaucerian Theatricality by John M. Ganim. Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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