From Page to Performance: Essays in Early English Drama

From Page to Performance: Essays in Early English Drama

by John Alford

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ISBN-13: 9780870138843
Publisher: Michigan State University Press
Publication date: 01/01/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
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From Page to Performance

Essays in Early English Drama

By John A. Alford

Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 1995 John A. Alford
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-87013-884-3


The Mass as Performance Text

T. P. Dolan

Some ministers of religion who have seized on the dramatic possibilities of conducting services in order to win over the hearts and minds of their parishioners have attracted criticism. For instance, in a poem entitled "In Church" Thomas Hardy writes about a preacher who is seen by one of his parishioners after he has gone into the vestry after a service:

The door swings softly ajar meanwhile,
And a pupil of his in the Bible class,
Who adores him as one without gloss or guile,
Sees her idol stand with a satisfied smile
And re-enact at the vestry-glass
Each pulpit gesture in deft dumb-show
That had moved the congregation so.

It is obvious that the poet disapproves of the histrionics of this preacher who seemed so natural and unartificial to the congregation when he was in the pulpit. Even so, the preacher himself saw nothing wrong with using dramatic gestures in order to move his congregation. This preacher had a script, and he made it interesting by acting it out because the message of his sermon was apparently not lively enough to maintain his congregation's attention. The church's teachings were repeated so often that they had ceased to be effective without some attempt at dramatic representation. Hardy's clergyman was a contemporary Protestant, but the basis of this kind of criticism has a very long history in the Liturgy of the Christian church. Centuries earlier, as we shall see, commentators had voiced their disapproval of priests who performed the Liturgy as if they were actors who had rehearsed their scripts like Hardy's preacher. The danger lay in the possibility that the pleasure experienced by the laity in witnessing such theatricality would lessen or remove the spiritual benefit of attending a prescribed service of the church.

In this essay I wish to examine the implications of a remark made long ago by E. K. Chambers: "At least from the fourth century, the central and most solemn rite of [Christian] worship was the Mass, an essentially dramatic commemoration of one of the most critical moments in the life of the Founder." Much discussion has centered on Chambers's phrase "essentially dramatic." Karl Young, for example, insisted that the Mass could not be considered "dramatic" unless it involved impersonation by the priest. O. B. Hardison's use of the word was less rigid. "That the service ... is dramatic cannot be doubted," he said. "The nature and, as it might be called, the tonality of the drama is another matter." On "the nature ... of the drama" critics still do not agree. As David Bevington observes, "The dividing line between the liturgy itself and liturgical drama is exasperatingly hard to locate." My purpose here is not to reopen, much less to settle, the question of whether the Mass is rightly described as "essentially dramatic." I am more interested in early views of the Mass as a performance text and in the changing nature of the roles played by the celebrant and by the congregation itself. If the medieval Mass was not drama, the way in which it was performed was sufficiently like drama to elicit concern and even condemnation in some quarters.

"The Sacrifice of the Mass," as it is properly called, is a "representation and renewal of the offering made on Calvary." It is an unbloody acting out of Christ's sacrifice of himself at the Crucifixion, as defined at the Council of Trent: "Et quoniam in divino hoc sacrificio, quod in Missa peragitur, idem ille Christus continetur et incruente immolatur." The Mass was celebrated as a public act by a priest with a congregation as audience, most of whom would not have understood the words since they were originally in Greek, and even when the Mass was translated into Latin some time during the third century, the congregation's apprehension of the actual words may not have been very great. What they experienced was a spectacle in which the actions of the celebrant symbolically demonstrated the story of the Last Supper. Even so, it appears that members of the congregation were able to understand the words spoken by the priest to a certain extent up to about the eighth and ninth centuries. During that period it became the practice for priests to say many of the prayers in silence, which left the congregations to their own devices except when they heard the priest declaiming the words of the canon of the Mass aloud. After then it appears that the laity no longer understood most of the Latin of the prayers.

The reduced active participation of the laity led to some attempts to excite their interest by dramatizing the proceedings. The most famous of these was devised by Amalarius of Metz (780?-850). In book 3 of his De Officiis Libri TVAmalarius relates the various parts of the Mass to incidents in Christ's life and by so doing presents the celebrant's role as an allegorical reenactment of events in the life of the Savior. For instance, in dealing with the greeting Pax vobiscum or Dominus vobiscum, Amalarius gives a series of citations from the Bible to explain its significance, among them a reference to the salutation which Christ gave to his disciples before the Resurrection: "Sic et Christus antequam ascenderet in coelum benedicit eos, sicut scriptum est in Evangelio Lucae: Eduxit autem eos foras in Bethaniam; et elevatis manibus suis, benedixit eis (Luc. xxiv)" (PL 105: 1116). Later he uses this same quotation from Luke to explain the dramatic circumstances of the last blessing in the Mass, after the rites have been concluded : "Etenim Dominus ant ascensionem in coelos duxit discipulis in Bethaniam, ibique benedixit eos, et ascendit in coelum (Luc. ult.). Hunc morem tenet sacerdos, ut post omnia sacramenta consummata, benedicat populo, atque salutet" (PL 105: 1155).

The attempts that Amalarius made to inform the laity of the significance of the Liturgy of the Mass were regarded as unorthodox, and the work was hereticated by the Council of Quiercy in 838. Even so, despite reservations about this and other attempts to render the Mass more appealing to the laity, who otherwise would not have known what was going on at the altar, there seems to have been a fashion for priests of a histrionic bent to dramatize the Liturgy. Aelred of Rievaulx (1109-67) was so incensed by the theatrical antics of some priests that in a lively chapter in his Speculum Charitatis he describes them almost as if they were modern opera singers and complains that they sang the services with strangulated voices (sometimes resembling the neighing of horses or women's voices), accompanied by twisting and turning their bodies:

Nunc vox stringitur, nunc frangitur, nunc impingitur, nunc diffusion sonitu dilatatur. Aliquando, quod pudet dicere, in equinos hinnitus cogitur; aliquando virili vigore deposito, in feminieae vocis gracilitates acuitur, nonnumquam artificia quadam circumvolutione torquetur et retorquetur. (PL 195: 571)

Such was the histrionic way they moved their bodies, even their lips and shoulders, he continues, that you would think you were at the theater, not at church: "ut eos non ad oratorium, sed at theatrum, nec ad orandum, sed ad spectandum aestimes convenisse." These priests, he claims, had no sense of the awe necessary for celebrating the mystery of the consecration of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. What is interesting is that he identifies the fact that the laity are being presented with a spectacle, similar to the experience of a theatrical performance—an obvious result of the tendency of the "orthodox" clergy to exclude them from actively participating in the Liturgy. Some concessions, however, seem to have been made in the twelfth century when, for the first time, the Host was elevated at the consecration in the Mass and both celebrant and people knelt down. At least then, at the most dramatic part of the Mass, the laity were able to know and join in what was happening.

The reason that this appears to be such a dramatic event in the Mass is that the elevation of the Host is the central act of the canon, although all of the canon was said silently. It is unlikely that the laity in England ever knew enough Latin in the early stages of their Christian history to join in with the prayers of the celebrant. This part of the service was always nonparticipatory. By contrast, in the Gallican rite, the members of the congregation were originally expected to join in, but later their understanding of the Latin was lost. It may be assumed, then, that the congregations in England had little part to play in the recitation of the prayers of the Mass by the priest. Even so, examination of a text of the Mass will furnish some indication of the way a Mass was performed and of what the congregation was able to witness of the narrative stages in its development, because it was designed as "a memorial of the Passion, Resurrection and Ascension of our Lord—that is, of the sacrifice whereby he redeemed us." In other words, the Mass was a dramatization of the biblical narrative of the most important events of Christ's final period on this earth.

The text of the Mass on which the following discussion is based comes from the York Rite and was designed to be said on Trinity Sunday. It is a good representative of the type of Mass attended by parishioners of the diocese of York, and also of other types of Masses, because the basic format of the liturgical sacrifice (excluding the prayers) was fixed from about the beginning of the thirteenth century. Indeed, apart from major changes, such as the genuflection at the elevation of the Host, the medieval plan of the Mass did not differ substantially from that constructed during the reign of Pope Gregory the Great (590-604). This form lasted long after the medieval period, as comparison with the Mass text used up to the modern era shows. There was some variation in the placing of some prayers before the canon of the Mass (e.g., the Gloria and the Kyrie Eleison), but the basic action was established.

In the York Rite, the congregation sees the priest wash his hands and hears him intone a series of prayers before going to the altar, preceded by his ministers in order. He then says the Confiteor, in which he confesses that he has sinned. The ministers and congregation then make their confession as participants in the sacrifice of the Mass, and the priest asks God to grant them absolution and remission of all their sins. The congregation acknowledges his prayer with "Amen."

After the confessions, the York Rite rubric instructs the priest to walk up the steps to the altar and say a prayer comprising quotations from the Psalms, after which he says "Dominus Vobiscum" (The Lord be with you), to which the congregation replies, "Et cum spiritu tuo" (And with thy spirit). The priest then alters the stance of his body and bows to the altar, asks God to take our iniquities away from us, and ends with the traditional concluding formula "Per Dominum nostrum ..." (Through Our Lord), a formula that is used throughout the service to signal the end of a set piece of praying and which keeps the congregation informed of the evolution of the action.

The priest then stands upright again, makes the sign of the cross on himself, and moves to the right side of the altar to say the office of that feast day. There is more action then because he is instructed to incense the altar as a mark of honor to God.

The actions performed during the celebration of the Mass were invested, as we have seen, with the allegorical meanings of Amalarius of Metz and other commentators. Indeed, Amalarius started a trend, one that became so important that the list of possible allegorical interpretations was always being extended. For instance, the raising of the Host at the consecration was said to suggest the raising of Christ on the cross, just as the taking down of his body was represented by the lowering of the Host after the words of consecration. As far as we can tell, priests saying Mass were to a varying extent familiar with the relationship between their actions on the altar and the narrative of Christ's sufferings, death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. Presumably the lay members of the congregations were also at least superficially aware of the significance of what was happening on the altar, but this is to regard the laity's experience of going to Mass in intellectual terms. It would be more enlightening to try to envisage how the members of the congregation would experience the controlled dramatic energy inherent in the celebration of a blood sacrifice involving the miracle of transubstantiation.

The text of the Mass was not fixed in its entirety until the publication of the Missale Romanum, authorized by Pope Pius V in July 1570 after the deliberations of the Council of Trent. The text contained in this missal became the standard version throughout the Western church. In many ways, however, its main effect was to remove local variations that had become attached to the standard text, the main ingredients of which had become well established by the sixteenth century, especially the canon of the Mass, which by the end of the sixth century already resembled the Tridentine Canon.

Using the version of The Lay Folks Mass-Book edited by Simmons from British Library Royal MS 17 B XVII (dated ca. 1375), the Ordo Missae In Festo Sanctae Trinitatis Secundum Usum Matris Ecclesiae Eboracensis, edited by Simmons from MS York Minster Library xVI.A.9 (dated ca. 1425), and the Ordo Missae from the Tridentine text of the Mass, we shall be able to come to some conclusions as to the degree of passivity or activity experienced by members of the congregation at Mass. Certainly the clergy seem to have been anxious to increase the laity's awareness of what was happening, but our concern is with what a parishioner would see and hear, whether or not he or she had been instructed in the allegorical meanings of the celebrant's movements. If members of the congregation had little or no idea of the meditations they should be saying as the Mass progressed, they would have no experience of having been at a church service except for the sounds and actions produced by the celebrant and his assistants at the altar. According to Eamon Duffy's reading of the evidence from the fourteenth century and onward, the individual members of the congregations were virtually left to their own devices to say well-known prayers such as the Our Father and the Glory Be to coincide with, but rarely to duplicate, the stages of the narrative being enacted by the celebrant on the altar. This growing sense of separation between the action on the altar and the experience of the parishioners is corroborated in a story relayed by Simmons of the young princess (later queen) Mary who questions her tutor about the correct way to attend Mass: should she go "nat to pray at masse, but rather onely to here and harken?" Her tutor tells her that she "shall thynk to the mystery of the masse and shall herken the wordes that they preest say." In other words, she was expected to look at what the priest was doing, listen to the Latin prayers, and passively participate in the ritual by meditating appropriate thoughts, stimulated by the gestures of the priest as he enacted the narrative of Christ's suffering, death, and resurrection.

Before we investigate the text of the Mass, we should consider how much of the Latin a typical parishioner would be expected to understand, because some of the most important prayers were said out loud by the priest in a clear voice such as the whole church would hear. The instructions in The Lay Folks Mass-Book make this clear:

when the preste saies he, or if he singe,
to him thou gyue gode herknynge;
when the preste praies in priuete,
tyhme of prayere is then to the.

It appears that some members of the congregation could understand at least the major prayers in Latin (e.g., the PaterNoster). According to M. T. Clanchy, writing of the period 1066-1307, which takes in the time when The Lay Folks Mass-Book was written, "The suggestion that some peasants were acquainted with Latin is not implausible when the role of the church in village life is considered.... As it was, most people probably did not find this minimal amount of Latin overwhelmingly difficult because they heard these texts recited whenever they went to church." When the laity were not participating in reciting the prayers out loud there should be no "ianglyng" (1879, 4/22), says the author of The Lay Folks Mass-Book, Dan Jeremy. The only noise was that made by the celebrant, other than the bell at the consecration (38/401).

At the beginning of the ceremony, the parishioners see the priest put on his vestments, except for the chasuble, and come to the altar with his attendant ministers. There he takes the chasuble, which had been placed in readiness on the altar, and puts it on. Now, fully vested, he faces the altar, with his back to the congregation, because all prayers had to be directed toward the east. This means that throughout the service—unless, as at Low Masses, the parishioners could move up close to the altar—their experience of the action was limited to viewing the movements, gestures, and genuflections of the celebrant from behind. All the parishioners kneel, but the celebrant remains standing, holding up both his hands to God. He makes his confession and the laity then make theirs with their hands joined. After this, they stand up, while the priest moves to pray from the missal at the epistle side of the altar (stage-left).


Excerpted from From Page to Performance by John A. Alford. Copyright © 1995 John A. Alford. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Page,
The Mass as Performance Text,
From Mappa Mundi to Theatrum Mundi: The World as Stage in Early English Drama,
Asleep Onstage,
Acting Mary: The Emotional Realism of the Mature Virgin in the N Tozun Plays,
The Performance of Some Wakefield Master Plays on the University of Illinois Campus,
The Problem with Mrs. Noah: The Search for Performance Credibility in the ...,
The Theaters of Everyman,
"My Name is Worship": Masquerading Vice in Medwall's Nature,
Plays, Players and Playzwrights in Renaissance Oxford,
English Chronicle Contexts for Shakespeare's Death of Richard II,
Family by Death: Stage Images in Titus Andronicus and The Winter's Tale,
Bearing "A Wary Eye": Ludic Vengeance and Doubtful Suicide in Hamlet,

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