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Theatricality and Narrative in Medieval and Early Modern Scotland

21 August 2012

Theatricality and Narrative in Medieval and Early Modern Scotland

Book review of Theatricality and Narrative in Medieval and Early Modern Scotland.

By John J. McGavin

Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2007

160 pages

Hardback; £50.00

ISBN: 978-0754607946


This work evolved out of a larger project – Records of Early Drama: Scotland – yet still has a stand-alone gravitas as many of the episodes encountered in it will not appear in the larger project. The book looks at events or episodes of a theatrical nature recorded in narrative sources including chronicles, autobiographical memoirs and travel journals. The focus ranges from assault and assassination to display through costume, and from preaching and clerical interrogation to public performance and the spectatorship of tourism; so the events may not immediately be recognised as ‘theatre’ or ‘theatricality’ and McGavin rarely discusses scripted drama. However, by setting these events against their local and cultural context, he evaluates why the witnessing and recording of them was important to the writer, what kind of witnesses they prove to be, and what can be learnt from them. While highlighting issues regarding the reliability of narrative sources, and the importance of utilising other sources, he emphasises the essential insight that narrative can give into human reaction, memory, ideology of culture and involvement in dramatical events.

The main body of the work is split into five chapters, the first of which considers a variety of ‘public actions’ with the commonality that each was produced to determine a certain response and shape public memory, and is wholly dependent upon the spectator. Within the episodes considered McGavin includes events showing loss of control over public show, the self-consciousness of individuals and their place in society, inversion of theatricality from celebratory to punitive, and a section on purely textual para-drama. He compares the level of engagement with theatricality in the public lives of the authors who record them and, in a comparison of four versions of a single event, proposes that history can be staged and re-staged but not recovered: even if individual participants of events had been interviewed there would still be versions.

In the second chapter, ‘Enacting Revenge’, the analysis takes two episodes recorded by Walter Bower emphasising Scottish reactionary behaviour to English provocation at a time of semi-occupation in the 14th century that showcase the ‘discourse of power’. The author peels back the layers of literary and ideological structure and, while noting those layers of rhetoric that may have been imposed by Bower or even himself, provides a well-argued interpretation of the narratives and the theatricality found in them.

The main body of chapter three on ‘Theatre of Departure’ recounts and analyses the ‘charivari’ or ‘rough music’ utilised to exact justice from Robert III following damage to crops during his coronation. The themes and meaning extracted from this episode are primarily drawn from the article mentioned above; however, by linking the event with others in this chapter McGavin broadens the scope and depth of discussion on the theatricality of departure.

Chapters four and five both consider spectators specifically through eyewitness accounts. The first takes a complex episode from the early reign of James VI involving three kinds of theatre recorded in the Diary of James Melville in which the reactions to the theatricality by the observer appear almost as important as the episode itself. The second considers Sir William Kerr’s Itinerario that tracks the young Scot’s travels to attend the Papal Jubilee in 1625, where he witnesses a variety of theatrical ‘shows’ including the ‘Barren Show’ from which the chapter takes its title. The essential purpose of the piece was to illustrate to his main audience – his father – that Kerr had understood the central themes and political discourse in the public theatre, meaning that his narrative reveals the key values and messages such events were intended to show and how well this was achieved.

The contrasting motivations of Melville and Kerr in these two chapters brings to the fore one of McGavin’s central arguments regarding the importance of the writer and the kind of witness they are, strengthening the author’s implications that all narrators have their value as long as these issues are brought into the equation.

This book manages to draw together a seemingly disparate range of episodes and events in its analysis of the theatricality recorded through a multiplicity of narrative sources. On rare occasions the discussions are tenuously linked to the central core of the work; however, on the whole the themes and arguments are predominantly consistent, focused and well-structured. There are occasional factual errors mainly related to misdating – such as when it is stated that James VI and Anna of Denmark enter Edinburgh together in 1579 when Anna did not arrive in Scotland until 1590 – but these are scarce.

Putting these minor criticisms aside, this work is a refreshing and thought-provoking piece that delves successfully into narrative sources in a manner that illuminates theatricality in a superb range of episodes, and should prove an enlightening read for those studying or interested in ritual, society, public performance, drama, literature, and the written history.

Lucy Dean, University of Stirling

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Last Updated: 10th May 2012