2017 Stevens Award for Best New Essay

Martin Stevens Award
Award Year: 

Winner: Symes, Carol. “Ancient Drama in the Medieval World.” In A Handbook to the Reception of Greek Drama, edited by Betinevan Zyl Smit, 97–130. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2016.

Symes’s “Ancient Drama in the Medieval World” is a bold, ground-breaking rewrite of European drama’s early history. Ambitious in scope, the essay covers considerable ground (historically, geographically, linguistically, intellectually), balancing the discussion of highly-specialized primary materials with an accessible, engaging prose style, absorbing the reader thoroughly in what is, for many, unfamiliar territory. Beginning before Christianity’s cultural ascendance, Symes deftly tracks the medieval afterlives of ancient Greek drama through the Byzantine and Holy Roman empires, via Hrotsvit and into the high Middle Ages, debunking many long-held scholarly myths along the way. For example, the survival of classical drama, we are shown, owes much to early-medieval theologians, those men previously blamed for the perceived suppression and destruction of drama in Europe after the fall of Rome. Moreover, Symes suggests, we are still missing such continuities not only because of the “tenacious” historiographical fiction of “the Dark Ages,” but because we have been looking for the wrong things in the wrong places (100). If we look for “the longevity of ancient comic gags and situations,” then we will find them, she writes, “deeply embedded in school curricula and the hundreds of surviving medieval comedies. But if we hope to discover civic spaces, political institutions, educational values, and social structures exactly like the ones that produced comedy and tragedy in Athens during the fifth century BC – well, there we will be disappointed” (121).

Submissions to the Martin Stevens prize were especially strong this year, indicating the diversity, richness, and quality of research currently undertaken in the field. Of particular note was Christina Fitzgerald’s ‘Performance Anxiety and the Passion in the Croxton Play of the Sacrament,’ a careful, nuanced, highly- valuable reading that fundamentally shifts the way we understand the Play of the Sacrament, the Treatise of Miraclis Pleyinge, and the late anti-theatrical discourse in which they participated. Symes’s essay stood out in this competitive group, however, because of its potential to change the way pre-modern Western drama is researched, studied and historicized; because it speaks to scholars working on both Latin and vernacular dramas across Europe, and encourages us to think across geographic, linguistic and period boundaries; because of its potential to influence other fields (theatre history, classics, early modern studies); and because it illuminates a period in Western theatre history that is still largely understudied and overlooked. The circumstances of its publication require Symes to focus on the intellectual, elite transmission of Greek drama; the essay, therefore, has little time to account for or consider how this strand of theatre history might interact with vernacular and popular traditions that are not derived from the classics -- a point that, considering the likely game-changing impact of this essay, must be handled with cautious attention to nuance. Readers who accept Symes’s narrative wholesale, as representative of all Western drama, run the risk of reinstating ancient Greece as a singular source from which drama itself stems. We also look forward to the work of future scholars, therefore, those who will undoubtedly be influenced by Symes’s extraordinary work, to develop, add nuance to, perhaps even contest, this exciting new account of drama in medieval Europe.

Award Committee: Lofton Durham, Matt Sergi, and Clare Wright (chair). Awards announcement and presentation took place during the MRDS business meeting in May at the annual International Congress on Medieval Studies, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan.