The Harrowing of Hell - Dialectic and Spectacle

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The Harrowing of Hell - Dialectic and Spectacle

Roland Barthes's essay on "The World of Wrestling" draws analogically on the ancient theatre to contextualize wrestling as a cultural myth where the grandiloquence of the ancient is preserved and the spectacle of excess is displayed. Barthes's critique -- which is above all a rewriting of what was to understand what is -- is useful here insofar as it may be applied back to theatre as another open-air spectacle. But in this case, not the theatre of the ancients, but the Middle English pageant presents the locus for discussing the sport of presentation, or, if you prefer, the performance of the sport. More specifically, what we see by looking at the Harrowing of Hell -- the dramatic moment in the cycle plays that narratizes doctrinal redemption more graphically than any other play in the cycle -- as spectacle offers a matrix for the multiple relationships between performance and audience and the means of producing that performance which, in turn, necessarily produces the audience.

The implications of the spectacle could sensibly be applied to the complete texts of the cycle plays, and perhaps more appropriately to the full range of the pageant and its concomitant festivities. The direction of pseudo-historical criticism, especially of the Elizabethan stage, certainly provides a well-plowed ground for advancing the festive and carnivalesque inherently present in the establishment and event of theater. Nevertheless, my discussion here is both more limited and more expansive: its limits are constructed by the choice of an individual play recurrent through the four extant manuscripts of what has come to be called the Corpus Christi plays; its expansion is expressed through a delivery that aims to implicate the particular moment of this play in the operations of a dominant church-state apparatus, which is, ostensibly, a model of maintaining hegemony in Western culture. The Harrowing provides a singular instance in which the mechanisms of control of the apparatus appear to extend and exploit their relationship with the audience (i.e. congregation). The play is constructed beyond the canonized operations of the sacred, originating a narrative beyond (yet within) the authorized vulgate; it is constructed only through church authority yet maintains the divinely instituted force of the orthodox doctrine.

Two introductory instances, one from the Chester cycle and the other from the Towneley cycle, situate the narrative and event of the play as a spectacle which engages the possibility of being consumed by its historical and particular mass culture -- a culture which was primarily illiterate in both the official and the vernacular writings of the church -- and being understood within the hegemonic orthodoxy. The introductory speech in the Chester Plays (The Cooke's Play) describes a previous knowledge that Adam -- as representative for a fallen humanity -- apprehends exactly at the moment he articulates his speech:

Nowe, by this light that I nowe see,
joye ys come, lord, through thee,
and one thy people hast pittye
to put them out of payne.
Similarly, though now through Jesus's self-proclamation, the introduction in the Towneley cycle reveals the already known nature of its narrative:

A light will thay haue
To know I will com sone;
My body shall abyde in gaue
Till all this dede be done.
The doubled "nowe" of Adam's speech and the perfected futurity of Jesus's speech dictate a time before narrative. By expressing the nature of narrative to be known and that the outcome of the particular battle -- which is hardly a battle -- between Satan and Jesus is already determined, both Adam's and Jesus's speeches establish a code for participating in the festival. The audience is relegated within this code beyond the activity of interpretation; they are placed outside of the hermeneutic circle. Instead of calling for interpretation, the play calls for consumption, which means, in this case, to view the spectacle. The public then is subordinated to its own activity of visualization -- its own sense of perception -- to gain access to the operations of the festival. At this point of subordination to the visual, the audience's motives, according to Barthes's description of the effects of the spectacle, are extinguished:

The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly

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