2018 Bevington Award for Best New Book

David Bevington Award
Award Year: 

Winner: Brokaw, Katherine Steele. Staging Harmony: Music and Religious Change in Late Medieval and Early Modern English Drama. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016.

This gracefully-written study shows how music staged from the late fifteenth to the early seventeenth centuries mediated the religious conflicts of the period. Both in dramatic effect and theological discourse, Catholic Latin polyphony contrasted with the reformed church’s English plainsong. Yet their appearance in plays performed throughout the long period of religious change provided a sensory bridge, creating dialogue and even harmony between confessional positions, Professor Brokaw suggests.

She brings deep knowledge of music history, practice, and theory to her interdisciplinary task. As one reviewer notes, “the book is especially attentive to how music functions on both conscious and subconscious levels by creating complex webs of association.” Brokaw teases out the implications and effects of musical performance (both sacred and profane) and brings a broad understanding of the century’s multiple religious transformations into elegantly-argued interpretations of plays, which include the medieval moralities Wisdom and Mary Magdalene, John Bale and Nicholas Udall’s Tudor work, early Elizabethan plays, Marlowe’s Faustus and Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale and Tempest. Theatrical “polyvalence” and musical “hybridity” are key concepts in these interpretations. The insights that emerge from her illuminating analyses are excitingly new and, at the same time, feel inevitable.

Honorable Mention: Norton, Michael. Liturgical Drama and the Reimagining of Medieval Theater. Bristol, CT: ISD, 2017.

This study takes on the hazy concept of “liturgical drama” that has been accepted by theater historians as identifying a category of plays originating in church liturgy but separable from the liturgy itself. Some scholars – notably O.B. Hardison, Jr., Helmut de Boor, Clifford Flanigan and Nils Holger Petersen – have argued over the past forty years that identifying liturgical ceremonies like the Visitatio Sepulchri as “plays” rather than as “rituals” is mistaken and represents the imposition of our modern tastes; however, the majority of drama scholars have ignored their arguments.

Norton’s book offers a painstaking archeology of the term “liturgical drama” since Charles Magnin coined the phrase in 1834, accompanied by a deep knowledge of pan-European manuscripts in which the texts appear. With this groundwork in place, it should be impossible for future scholars to overlook what Norton calls “the illusion of liturgical drama.”

Award Committee: Kathleen Ashley, Jesse Hurlbut, and Robert Clark (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.