Huston Diehl. Staging Reform, Reforming the Stage: Protestantism and Popular Theater in Early Modern England. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1997. 238pp. ISBN 0-8014-3033-7 Cloth.
Ken Jackson
University of Connecticut

Jackson, Ken. "Review of Staging Reform, Reforming the Stage: Protestantism and Popular Theater in Early Modern England." Early Modern Literary Studies 4.2 (September, 1998): 27.1-6 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/04-2/rev_jack.html>.

  1. Religion is a problem; that is, for historians, anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers, and literary scholars (and others), schematizing the role of religious belief in a given culture remains problematic. For instance, historians of the widespread changes in early modern poor relief continue to argue over the extent to which religious orientation shaped attitudes towards the poor. Did Protestants, as R.H. Tawney suggested long ago in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, become more skeptical of the poor and thus institute Poor Laws so that charity could be more discriminating, or did Catholics and Protestants share the same view of the poor and develop similar programs of relief because of similar economic challenges? Clifford Geertz, in The Interpretation of Cultures, points out that the anthropological study of religion has been in "in a state of general stagnation" since World War II. Certainly, determining the extent to which religion shaped literary works remains an especially vexing activity. Some English professors still flinch at the very mention of D.W. Robertson.

  2. In early modern England, however, the matter of religion seemed clear on at least one literary issue. Protestants despised the stage and their religious beliefs prompted the closing of the theater. In the last few decades, however, even that firm understanding has been questioned, perhaps most prominently in Margot Heinemann’s Puritanism & Theatre: Thomas Middleton and Opposition Drama under the Early Stuarts, which argued that Middleton’s drama displayed strong Puritan sympathies. To some extent, Huston Diehl, in Staging Reform, Reforming the Stage: Protestantism and Popular Theater in Early Modern England, builds on Heinemann, but Diehl makes a much broader claim. Not only did Protestantism shape Middleton’s plays, it shaped much of Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy, including two plays, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Marlowe’s Faustus, that confound historical criticism generally, let alone historical criticism involving the specific assignment of religious affiliation. In short, the culture-wide iconoclastic activities and sentiments of early Protestant England informed Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy. One could say, more precisely perhaps, that Diehl broadens the scope of Heinemann’s analysis while narrowing the scope of Jonas Barish’s The Anti-Theatrical Prejudice.


  3. To consider Diehl’s argument about the stage, one must first accept the argument she works hardest and most effectively to prove in the first two chapters: reformed religion is not "inherently antitheatrical" in the sense that it absolutely excludes theatrical activity (5). In fact, reformers relied "heavily on the dramatic genres and theatrical modes of presentation" -- the reformed ritual of the Lord’s Supper, public acts of iconoclasm, polemical narratives of Protestant martyrdom -- to critique and ultimately to replace the "‘idolatrous’ spectacle" of the Catholic Church. "New kinds of rituals, spectacles, and dramas" are developed in the course of critiquing Catholic spectacles and these new forms contribute "to the formation of a uniquely Protestant theater." These two chapters are particularly informative in that Diehl carefully handles her two main and often unwieldy primary sources, Foxe’s Actes and Monuments and Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, explaining how those works simultaneously attacked images and spectacles by constructing images and spectacles themselves (with significant differences of course), or attacked images and spectacles, but not absolutely. For Calvin, for example, the Catholic Mass is not bad because it is theatrical, but because it is theatre divorced from the Word (105). Foxe condemns the theatricality of the Roman Church by "substituting the theatrics of martyrdom for traditional pomp and pageantry." The "protagonists" of Foxe’s narrative look upon miraculous images with skepticism, demystifying mysterious rites with empirical reasoning with appeal to faith and the word of God, and "desacralize images by calling attention to their artifice" (39). These are the types of protagonists, Diehl argues in later chapters, that turn up in so much drama. For example, Hamlet, in his play within a play, proposes an "alternative kind of theater, one that locates its power not in its capacity to dazzle but in its ability to mirror nature" (72). Hamlet creates a theatre that is juxtaposed to the false performances of those around him. He "articulates an aesthetics of the stage" that "takes account" of the distinction Calvin and Luther and others made between "art that glorifies the fancy or artifice" of the human artist and art that "accurately shows forth the glory and heavenly design of the divine Creator" (85). Hamlet advocates the latter, calling for his players to "reform" their acting "altogether." All this is not to suggest that Diehl totally abandons the old understanding that Protestant distrust of theatricality caused the closing of theaters; on the contrary, this new, paradoxically termed, "iconoclastic theater" participated in its own demise by successfully demystifying and containing "their own dazzling spectacles," thereby purging "the theater of its most alluring elements" (215).

  4. Now this is a large and provocative claim that will trouble many in that it assigns religion such an influential role. But it allows for some powerful, if deceptively simple sounding, readings of Hamlet, Dr Faustus, and The Duchess of Malfi. Marlowe "exploits the theater’s potential to enthrall its spectators, even as it demystifies and disenchants its own lavish and pleasing spectacles" by assigning those spectacles to Faustus and Mephastophilis (80). Webster, in displaying such fantastic images as a dead husband’s severed hand, wax corpses of children, and a dance of madmen "arouses in his spectator an anxiety about art and theater;" the play is thus "both intensely visual and profoundly iconoclastic." And its heroine ends up acting more like a Protestant martyr than a Catholic aristocrat. What makes this reading especially convincing, I think, is the way it explains Middleton’s preface praising the wild play for "plainness." Diehl’s suggestion that play exposes false theatres for the sake of plain Calvinist truths makes that remark sensible (Middleton’s preface is discussed in The Epilogue). In addition, in the chapter "Iconophobia and Gynophobia," Diehl offers a convincing context for reading plays like Othello that centre on violence toward beautiful women. The "violence against beautiful and beloved women that is repeatedly enacted in these tragedies may in fact be informed by the iconoclastic violence against beautiful and beloved images that was such a significant, and disruptive dimension of the English Reformation" (158).

  5. These readings are valuable for their own insights, but their true value may lie in the desire for local readings they excite. For, as carefully as she handles Foxe and Calvin in the early chapters, Diehl tends to portray reforming iconoclasm as a giant, single, slow moving tidal wave that washes over each playwright with similar intensity. Certainly, different playwrights were influenced differently by Reform at different times and Diehl’s reading will probably provoke more specific readings that quickly eclipse her own. And while her work has something like the virtue of iconoclasm -- a willingness to shatter sacred ideas -- it also has one of iconoclasm’s vices -- the narrative tends to be repetitive and insistent. This may be, however, a function of the need to make the precise distinctions between Protestant views on spectacle and Catholic views on spectacle that reformers demanded. For instance, the Eucharist remained a powerful sign of Christ for Reformers, but they were strictly cautioned against seeing the bread and wine as the actual body and blood of Christ. Making such easily missed distinctions, for the reformers and Diehl alike, took time and repetition. (In this, Diehl admirably seems to follow Greeter’s dictum for anthropologists trying to understand religion: "an analysis of the system of meanings embodied in the symbols which make up religion proper" should precede "the relating of these systems to social-structural and psychological processes" [125]). More problematic is the absence of a serious sustained discussion about alternative explanations for the drama’s preoccupation with "images and acts of seeing" (4). In this book, every exposure of fraud, every deception, every wrong interpretation by a character because of poor sight, every metatheatrical reference which critiques theatricality, stems from Protestant efforts "to suppress a persistent [Catholic] iconophilia." One starts to wonder to if playwrights were capable of simply dealing with transhistorical, transcultural issues like fraud and deception. Diehl does carefully situate each dramatic instance she treats in a plausible religious context -- see her discussion of St. Paul’s handkerchiefs and Othello’s obsession with ocular proof on this point (125-55) -- but the nature of the subject matter warrants more discussion. I fear some will dismiss the arguments here on the grounds that one can so easily read a play like Hamlet and universalize its discussion of "reforming players."

  6. Nonetheless, the study is extremely valuable because it seriously and carefully considers a disturbing paradox many have ignored or too simply explained away. The English stage flourished at a time when there was widespread antitheatricalism in England. In other words, an estimated fifty million spectators went to the stage at a time when, logically, they should not have been going. Diehl offers an informed, careful consideration of this paradoxical situation by considering it as just that: a paradoxical situation contains apparently but not actually incompatible elements. In short, Diehl shows us that antitheatricalism and the theatre only seemed incompatible but might have been, for a brief time, boon companions.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

1998-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).

(LH, RGS, 14 September 1998)