Dialectic And Spectacle In The Harrowing Of Hell

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 so; it abandons itself to the
primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives