1. Beginning towards the end of the sixteenth century and continuing into the next, there is a considerable body of literature written in defense of the drama from Puritan attack (with the exception of Thomas Heywood, each of these writers makes it more or less clear that the kind of drama he defending is amateur performances given within schools and universities, some of its contributors are quite willing to write off members of the acting profession as a crew of lewd mountebanks, and this literature has a distinctly academic tone). Among the high points in this defense of dramatics, one can mention passages in two Aristotle commentaries by the Oxford philosopher John Case, his 1585 Speculum Moralium Quaestionum (I.xxx.7) and 1588 Sphaera Civitatis (V.viii.12), the paired 1592 afterpieces Momus amd Responsive Epilogue written by the poet-playwright William Gager followed by Gager’s famous open letter of the same year, written in response to the anti-theater case made by Dr. John Rainolds, NOTE 1 In 1599 the great legalist Alberico Gentili (who had already supported Gager in private letters to Rainolds) NOTE 2 became publicly involved in the fray when he issued a treatise De Actoribus in a work entitled Disputationes Duae printed at Hanover. This debate finds a distinct echo in the original dedicatory epistle prefacing Matthew Gwinne’s 1603 history play Nero. So far, the debate was conducted entirely by Oxford men and maintained on the elevated and often abstruse level of an academic debate, but a London playwright with a Cambridge education, Thomas Heywood, set forth the pro-theater case in terms considerably more comprehensible to the layman, in his 1612 An Apology for Actors. The serious debate found an echo in the unfriendly handling of Puritans in university comedies, most notably Robert Ward’s 1623 Fucus sive Histriomastix. In the next century, any further debate on the subject was precluded by Parliamentarian victory on the battlefield, but it was taken up in continental Europe, perhaps most notably by the Geneva theologian Johann Ludovicus Fabricius in his 1663 De ludis scenicis (second, enlarged edition 1682).
2. In this literature of defense, two theories keep recurring as a kind of two-pronged counterattack. The first is a pedagogical one that acting was educationally beneficial for students: it encouraged self-confidence, improved students’ Latin, and helped them develop abilities in public speaking and physical deportment that would stand them in good stead when it came to their rhetorical activities. The Society of Jesus obviously subscribed to this theory, for in the Ratio Studiorum, a document first promulgated in 1586 which prescribed rules for all Jesuit educational establishments, the requirement is laid down that all Jesuit schools and seminaries must offer dramatic performances, a decree that led to the production of a huge amount of Jesuit dramatic literature. NOTE 3
3. The second theory one frequently encounters is one which (to use a term gaining increasing popularity in contemporary critical literature) invokes the idea of “exemplary drama”: plays are justifiable because they are morally instructive, presenting the spectators with examples of virtuous characters and actions for their imitation and also examples of bad characters and actions for their avoidance. Plays therefore have the capacity to be morally instructive and have a place both legitimate and useful within the context of a Christian community. This theory was first invoked by Gager, who deliberately set it forth in terms appropriated from Sidney’s Defence of Poesie, in an obvious attempt to invoke Sidney’s enormous cultural prestige in support of his argument.
4. It therefore looks as if Gager took Sidney’s theory of poetry in a more general sense (embracing drama and at least poetry with a distinctly narrative content, such as epic) and narrowed it down in order to apply it to drama. NOTE 4 The purpose of the present contribution is to show that such an understanding would be an oversimplification: Sidney took a theory originally framed to prescribe the nature of drama within a Christian society, set forth in a work with which he was very likely to have been familiar. Whether or not Gager was aware of it, he was in fact restating the theory in its original form.
5. In 1549 the Strassburg Reformers Martin Bucer [1491 - 1551] and Paul Fagius [1504 - 1549] were banished the town after the military defeat of the Schmalkaldric League led to the Protestants’ loss of power there. Archbishop Cranmer invited them both to come to England, where they were installed as Regius Professors at Cambridge, Bucer for Divinity and Fagius for Hebrew (subsequently, under Mary, their bodies were exhumed and burned in Market Square, which only served to enhance their prestige among English Protestants, and their reputations were soon rehabilitated after the accession of Elizabeth). While at Cambridge, Bucer occupied himself by helping with a revision of the Book of Common Prayer and writing his De regno Christi servatoris nostri (printed at Basel in 1557), dedicated to Edward VI and setting forth a remarkably detailed blueprint for the ideal Christian society over which he hoped Edward would eventually preside. At one point in this lengthy work (the larger part of II.liv, in which the role of athletics is also considered, since both dramatics and sports are covered by the word ludi), Bucer sets forth his thinking on how drama should function within the context of such a society (the idea that it might arguably had no place at all did not occur to him, since at the time he wrote dramatics had not yet come under Puritan attack and so no apologetics were needed). In this rather lengthy passage he sets forth a veritable manifesto in favor of exemplary drama, particularly when placed in the service of Christian teaching. I am not widely enough read to assure the reader that the idea was Bucer’s own invention, but surely nobody had ever expressed it more conspicuously and at greater length, using specific examples to illustrate how Bible stories can be dramatized as Christian plays.
6. Although Bucer mostly seems neglected nowadays, it is not difficult to imagine that De Regno Christi exerted considerable influence after its publication and was eagerly read and discussed by the next generation of English Protestants. Of these, the one of immediate concern to us is Sidney, for it is anything but implausible to suggest that he, bookish, intellectually curious and devout, would have read a treatise by a major Reformer outlining a scheme for creating an ideal Christian society in his own England. There was also, for that matter, a kind of personal connection between Sidney and Bucer insofar as Sidney began his studies at The Shrewsbury School under the hand of the Calvinistic Thomas Ashton, who had been a Bucer disciple at Cambridge. It seems highly likely that when he felt called upon to defend literature against Puritannical attack he remembered what he had read in De Regno Christi, and, in essence, summarized what Bucer had already written, and that his originality consisted of introducing two important modifications of his own, recasting Bucer’s statement about exemplary drama into the form of an apology and expanding it to embrace narrative poetry.
7. Bucer surely deserves a place in the history of English religious and political thought, but (unfortunately resembling John Case and William Camden in this respect), he is drastically understudied and occasionally dismally misunderstood by modern scholarship. A critical Latin text of De regno Christi has been issued as volume XV of François Wendel’s Martini Buceri Opera Latina (Paris, 1955), and an English translation by William Pauck with the help of Paul Larkin was published in 1969 with a very useful introduction. NOTE 5 Despite the availability of this translation, the one presented here is in essence my own (the Latin text translated here occupies pp. 206 - 212 of the original Basel edition).
NOTE 1 Rainolds’ open letter to Gager, with the formidable title Th’ Overthrow of Stage-Players, By the way of controversie betwixt D. Gager and D. Rainoldes, wherein all the reasons that can be made for them are notably refuted, th’ objections aunswered, and the case so cleared and resolved, as that the iudgement of any man, that is not froward and perverse, may easilie be satisfied, was eventually issued by the Protestant printing house of Richard Schilders at Middelburg, Holland, in 1699, reprinted there in 1600, and in Oxford, 1629. This treatise has been edited with an Introduction by Arthur Freeman (New York, 1974). For the rather considerable modern scholarship devoted to this pair of letters, see the Introduction to my edition of Gager’s one.
NOTE 2 See J. W. Binns, “Alberico Gentili in Defense of Poetry and Acting,” Studies in the Renaissance 19 (1972) 224 - 72 and Leon Markowicz, Latin Correspondence by Alberico Gentili and John Rainolds on Academic Drama (Salzburg Studies in English Literature, Elizabethan and Renaissance Studies 68, Salzburg, 1977).
NOTE 3 See William H. McCabe S. J., An Introduction to the Jesuit Theater (St. Louis, 1983) index s. v. “ratio studiorum.”
NOTE 4 In 1623 Digory Whear, the first occupant of Oxford’s Camden Chair of History, adopted a similar Sidney-echoing tactic in his inaugural address (no doubt his way of invoking Sidney’s immense cultural prestige) in which his task was to win over those within the university who did not think secular history was a suitable subject for the university curriculum.
NOTE 5 William Pauck, Melanchthon and Bucer (Library of Christian Classics, Philadelphia - London, 1969) pp. 155 - 394. A digitized photographic reproduction of the Bucer part of this book can be downloaded and read here.