In Theater of the Word: Selfhood in the English Morality Play, Julie Paulson sheds new light on medieval constructions of the self as they emerge from within a deeply sacramental culture. The book examines the medieval morality play, a genre that explicitly addresses the question of what it means to be human and takes up the ritual traditions of confession and penance, long associated with medieval interiority, as its primary subjects.
The morality play is allegorical drama, a “theater of the word," that follows a penitential progression in which an everyman figure falls into sin and is eventually redeemed through penitential ritual. Written during an era of reform when the ritual life of the medieval Church was under scrutiny, the morality plays as a whole insist upon a self that is first and foremost performed—constructed, articulated, and known through ritual and other communal performances that were interwoven into the fabric of medieval life.
This fascinating look at the genre of the morality play will be of keen interest to scholars of medieval drama and to those interested in late medieval culture, sacramentalism, penance and confession, the history of the self, and theater and performance.
1. The Castle of Perseverance and Penitential Platea
2. A Theater of the Soul’s Interior: Contemplative Literature and Penitential Education in Wisdom
3. Speaking for Mankind Everyman and Community
4. A New Theater of the Word: The Morality Play and the English Reformation
Conclusion: Morality Drama Inside Out
Julie Paulson is professor of English at San Francisco State University.
“An insightful and elegant approach to late medieval and early modern morality plays, ritual practice, and selfhood, this book offers a much needed study of the morality play. It is beautifully written and full of thoughtful, and sometimes brilliant, readings. It should find a ready and enthusiastic audience.”—Shannon Gayk, associate professor of English and director of the Medieval Studies Institute, Indiana University
"According to Theater of the Word, English morality plays perform spectacles of penitence that fashion religious pedagogy out of a carefully crafted dramaturgy. Paulson innovatively approaches these dramas as both responses to late medieval religious debates and unlikely illustrations of Wittgenstein’s notion of the embodied, social nature of verbal meaning. Along the way, this book makes a coherent and compelling case for the construction of medieval penitential selves through the dynamic medium of theatrical performance." —Theresa Coletti, University of Maryland
“In her remarkable new study, Julie Paulson turns our assumptions about the medieval morality play—as well as medieval selfhood—inside out. Taking her cue from the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Stanley Cavell, Paulson argues that these plays depict an embodied, ritual performance of penance that produces a recognition of the self as a being created by God: a self constituted communally, rather than individually; a self whose body reveals rather than conceals the soul within. Theater of the Word crucially revises both the history of English drama and the history of the self: it will be essential reading for anyone studying medieval and Renaissance theater, literature, or history.” —Maura Nolan, University of California, Berkeley
"This is a careful study, rich in readings of theology, philosophy, and literature, illustrating how the medieval Christian subject emerges from the rites and relationships that structure penance rather than from the self-scrutiny of confession. Theatre of the Word is essential reading because of its compelling articulation of the centrality of performance to medieval understandings of the self but also because it is a trenchant articulation of the tenacity of Cartesian dualism, even in medieval studies, and a call to attend to the words and worlds of human interaction." —Patricia Badir, University of British Columbia
“Looking at this oft-forgotten genre of theatre, readers will learn more about medieval drama and how religious rule affected human actions and performances.” —Playbill
“Paulson views the English morality play and a selection of related Reformation dramas through the lens of Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language as verbally and publicly performed constitutions of selfhood. . . . The analysis that follows illustrates this new approach to morality plays and related drama.” —Choice