The Harrowing of Hell – Dialectic and Spectacle 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 and all consequences: what matters is not what it thinks but what it sees.
Though Barthes’s explanation is particularized to explain our fascination with wrestling, his reading may become more useful if we explore exactly the points of knowing and not knowing which are significant for the audience of the Harrowing. The virtual awareness that the Harrowing is “rigged” becomes impertinent in comparison to the consequence of knowing the narrative as sacred — as authorized and privileged text of doctrinal truth. By seeing what they know, the members of the audience affirm their own knowing — that is their own capacity to know — validating their own immersion in the light. As Barthes suggests, the activity then is not of thought, but instead, of repetitive affirmation. The yearly festival reincorporates the “known realities” of the church year into the memories of its congregation.
The Harrowing happens because it always happens; its events do not change because the narrative is merely spectacle, revealing the necessity of its outcome [it happens because it always happens or it happens because God (i.e. the church) says it happens]. Every sign of the players and the play is “endowed with an absolute clarity, since one must always understand everything on the spot.” The play is constructed in and as total intelligibility, which should empower the audience to affirm and control its relationship to the spectacle — to judge its authority and position. The play gains its position as spectacle through repetition and institutionalization. The pageant’s yearly performance, as an iteration of doctrinal litanies, hypostatisizes the narrative of redemption in the cultural milieu. Moreover, the authority by which the play is produced and written validates the history being told.
Indeed, it is not a history, but the history. Even beyond the force of the church-instituted process of validation, the play holds ceratin social values through convention, concretization, and repetition. W. A. Davenport has noted that though “these scenes convey no great moral force,” the morality theme, present in the cycle as it is in even lesser known morality plays such as Mary Magdalene, gains “liveliness” by the conventionality of its presentation.
If Barthes is correct about the nature of the spectacle, then our reading of the Harrowing should allow for a positioning of the audience where it obtains to a judgement concerning the outcome. For Barthes, the audience must participate in a “pure and full signification”: Leaving nothing in the shade, each action discards all parasitic meanings and ceremonially offers to the public a pure and full signification, rounded like Nature. This grandiloquence is nothing but the popular and age-old image of the perfect intelligibility of reality. What is portrayed . .
. is therefore an ideal understanding of things; it is the euphoria of men raised for a while above the constitutive ambiguity of everyday situations and placed before the panoramic view of a univocal Nature, in which signs at last correspond to causes, without obstacle, without evasion, without contradiction. By the positioning and antecedent action of the Harrowing of Hell, the signification of plot articulates itself in totality — an ideal understanding of things. Since the center of dramatic action hinges on Christ’s confrontation with Satan, the dramatic action folds to that exact point, where Satan has “already been diminished as a force of opposition and the playwright had prepared for his demise.” In the Chester Plays, specifically, the audience has already been told that “Christ hasse overcommen the devil” (Chester 224, line 176). But what Barthes fails to negotiate or perhaps notice in ascribing a power to the full signification of the spectacle is the audience’s necessary involvement in the “perfect intelligibility of reality” when it is predicated not on the intelligible reception but on the nature of reality. When the stage is more than the wrestling mat, but the very ground of heaven and hell, the audience’s position becomes tantamount to eternal destruction or eternal bliss within this intelligible reality.
It is exactly at the point where the audience loses control in the appearance of control that the operations or mechanisms of the hegemonic orthodoxy become discernible. Just as the spectacle privileges the audience and not the production of the spectacle, so the play, at least the Cooke’s Play in the Chester cycle, suggests a privileged subjectivity for the members of the audience — a privileged subjectivity that will ultimately be rewritten in the master narrative of God’s (that is the church’s) history. As David comments on the spectacle for the audience, he describes his own privileged position, which, in turn, escalates the position of the audience to a heightened knowledge of self-delivery or self-redemption: I, kinge Davyd, nowe well may saye my prophecye fulfilled is, in faye, as nowe shewes in sight verey, and soothly ys seene. I taught men thus here in my lyefe-daye to worshippe God by all waye, that hell-yates he should afraye and wonn that his hath bynne. (Chester 332-3, lines 185-192) David’s speech couples the fulfilling of his prophecy — that Christ would overcome Satan and the gates of hell — and his didactic function as Israel’s king.
He has taught the act of worship, and, in the juxtaposition of prophetic fulfillment and Judaic history, Christ’s actions become utterly dependent on the activity of the people. Fulfillment is necessarily derived from the “worshippe” of “God by all waye.” The apparent privileging of human activity in enabling the freeing of the spirits in hell’s prison is problematized, however, by the synchronizing of history — by the completion of the act of redemption in a single speech (or series of plays within the pageant) and by the position of the play’s audience in relationship to human activity. The Corpus Christi pageant posits a temporal space that constructs human history as a priori — in other words, human history exists only insofar as it can be narrativized in the playing of the historical scene. For the audience, history is not a text, but is instead, to borrow form Spinoza, an absent cause that is only accessible in textual form. Or, as Fredric Jameson says in his contesting of the master narrative of history that people desire to possess, history “is inaccessible to us except in textual form, and that our approach to it and to the Real itself necessarily passes through its prior textualization, its narrativization in the political unconscious.” The entire history of humankind is consequently directed by an absent cause — or master narrative — that is only accessible for the Harrowing’s audience through the offices of the church proper. Human activity is subdued beneath the force of a performative narrative that gains its position from the sacramentalizing of its word. The word is not contestable; it derives its puissance from its history and from its already known and knowing completion as narrative.
The history of the Corpus Christi pageant in general and the Harrowing of Hell in particular provide a ground for the authority of the text and performance. Some scholars have debated, often with little effect, the doctrinal and historical connection between the Feast of Corpus Christi and the cyclic drama that literary historians have attached to it. Indeed, Harden Craig zealously argues that the necessary historical connection between the two “is possibly an ineradicable heresy.” Likewise, Glynn Wickham encourages us to “question how the plays ever became attached to a procession, a form of celebration so antipathetic to their performance.” Nonetheless, as Jerome Taylor has aptly noted, the feast did attract and “gather” the procession, and, historically, the plays as contained within the festival represent the cultural activity of re-historicizing the present in the master narrative of Catholic history. We may establish part of the Harrowing of Hell’s historical significance by relating the audience’s participation, which is an active-passivity similar to the effects of a lack of drama under Calvinist dogma, to the congregation’s delimited and litanized response to the office of readings for Holy Saturday: Quid istud rei est? Hdie silntium magnum in terra; silntium magnum, et solitdo denceps; silntium magnum, quniam Rex dormit; terra tmuit et quivit, quniam Deus in carne obdormvit, et a sculo dormientes excitivt. Deus in carne mrtuus est, et infrnum concitvit. Something strange is happening — there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silent because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised all who has slept ever since the world began.
God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear. The prevailing silence controls the responsiveness of the congregation. Sovereignty is determined only through the agency of Christ — a “real” privileged subjectivity whose sleeping or waking determines the trembling of the world. And just as the world trembles so does hell — the two becomes analogous spaces marking a simultaneous harrowing of hell and harrowing of here. The congregation’s response to the Matins reading confirms its position in the p …