Peter Happé. English Drama Before Shakespeare. London: Longman, 1999. xi+229pp. ISBN 0 582 49372 9.
Chester N. Scoville
University of Toronto
Scoville, Chester N. "Review of Peter Happé, English Drama Before Shakespeare." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.1 (May, 2000): 9.1-7 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/06-1/scovrev.htm>.
Peter Happé's new book is not the grand synthesis of early English drama that many of us in the field await. It is, however, a start in that direction, and a good though flawed handbook for graduate and undergraduate courses.
Happé's title makes one sit back in trepidation at first; much of the past three decades' effort in the field of early drama has been to escape the old "pre-Shakespearean" label. To be fair, however, it seems likely that Happé did not have full control over his title: the book is a volume in the Longman Literature in English Series (gen. eds. David Carroll and Michael Wheeler), and surely had to conform to a particular format.  Furthermore, Happé states in his opening paragraph that he wishes to view the early drama on its own merits, "as a countermeasure to many other works interrogating the early drama primarily to show how Shakespeare's work was foreshadowed" (Happé‚ 2). In doing so, he considers not only the texts that have survived but also the physical conditions that may have dictated their transmission and staging, as well as the social, religious, and political contexts that informed them.
Happé's book makes no earth-shattering claims; for the most part it is a sober report of the state of the art in the field. For instance, in Chapter 6, "Dramatic Values," Happé acknowledges that modern critics may have trouble "being sure exactly what Tudor audiences expected from their drama" (Happé‚ 63). He offers, as an answer to this implied question, the possibility that Tudor audiences may have expected the following: "a sense of (civic) duty" to some degree, religious or ritualistic elements, spectacle of some kind, good acting, and expert technical effects. His analysis does not draw those threads together into a further conclusion, however, but leaves them as they are. His other chapters are similar in laying out elements while stopping short of full synthesis.
Nonetheless, the book has a central point, however understated: namely, that there is no real break between medieval and Renaissance drama. Happé's focus on continuity is both a strength and a weakness. It is a strength when his argument is based on its most concrete evidence: those plays for which full texts and some records survive. For instance, his mini-history of the Wit and Science plays (Happé‚ 144-149) is a fine overview of changing emphases in humanist drama over a period of thirty to forty years. On a larger scale, his Chapter 11 on Burbage and Lyly shows admirably how staging practices of the Middle Ages, combined with the new political, intellectual, and economic realities of the late sixteenth century, created a theatre whose "originality lies in this very combination of pre-existing elements" (Happé‚ 183).
The weakness of Happé's analysis lies in areas in which the data are less certain. For instance, his pages on what used to be known as "folk drama" are underscored by the assumption that medieval village life -- even its artistic life -- was necessarily what modern people might think of as "vulgar." While admitting that the texts we have of "folk plays" cannot be traced back to the Middle Ages, he still postulates that such elements as "a crude fight," "coarse combat," "wrestling," "abuse," and "morris dances and perhaps the older sword dances" are evidence of "a rural, village-based culture which had been largely unchanged for more than a thousand years" (Happé‚ 171-173) until the First World War. It may be so, but the lack of direct evidence is a problem; in essence, it means that the critic must recreate that culture based upon pre-existing assumptions: precisely the sort of thing that Happé‚ for the most part, avoids.
There are other places where Happé's caution seems to break down. For instance, in his Chapter 4, "Texts of Mystery Plays and Moralities," Happé rather oddly leaves out any serious discussion of Bodleian MS Digby 133, the most eccentric manuscript in the corpus of Middle English drama. His one-paragraph discussion of the Digby plays concentrates not on their text but on some arguable ideas about their staging. In addition, Happé's bibliographic references are sometimes unclear, his index is somewhat scanty, and his timeline (Happé‚ 253-263) contains at least two errors: the dating of 1377 for the Chester cycle is puzzling,  and the misspelling of Coventry as "Conventry" could lead to difficulty for students.
- For the most part, however, Happé's book is a useful overview of the field, suitable for use in courses on early drama. While some of its specifics are a problem, the overall argument provides a coherent, long-sighted perspective on this most restive period in the history of the stage.
1. A list of other titles in the series includes English Literature before Chaucer by Michael Swanton and English Literature in the Age of Chaucer (forthcoming, no author listed) (Happé‚ vii).
2. The first undoubted mention of the Chester Corpus Christi plays is in the Coopers' Records of 20 April 1421; the earliest references to the Chester Whitsun plays (the extant version of the cycle) date from the sixteenth century. See Records of Early English Drama: Chester, ed. Lawrence M. Clopper (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1979) li-lviii, 6-7, 493-494; David Mills, "The Chester Cycle," The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre, ed. Richard Beadle (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994) 110-117.
- Mills, David. "The Chester Cycle." In The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre. Ed. Richard Beadle. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.
- Records of Early English Drama: Chester. Ed. Lawrence M. Clopper. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1979.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.
© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).