Dialectic And Spectacle In The Harrowing Of

Hell Essay, Research Paper Roland Barthes’s essay on "The World of Wrestling" draws analogically on the ancient theatre to contextualize wrestling as a

Hell Essay, Research Paper

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


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


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


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


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? Hódie siléntium magnum in terra;

siléntium magnum, et solitúdo deínceps; siléntium magnum, quóniam Rex

dormit; terra tímuit et quiévit, quóniam Deus in carne obdormívit, et a

sæculo dormientes excitivát. Deus in carne mórtuus est, et inférnum


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 present only as it is textualized

and narratized in the past performance of Christ: "This is the day when

our Savior broke through the gates of death." The audience of the feast

of Corpus Christi, like the congregation of Holy Saturday, responds to

the power of the dramatic harrowing by realizing a position of

deprivation. The audience cannot act; it can only be acted upon.

The audience’s passivity is further underscored by both the

textual and visual representations of the Harrowing of Hell preceding

the dramatic performances during the Corpus Christi pageant. The

narrativizing of the visual in the iconography (see the Holkham Bible

Picture Book, for example) again represents the completion of activity

before the activity begins. As in much of medieval iconography,

temporal spaces are collapsed, endings and beginnings are conflated in

single representative moments, and the spatiality of the image

subjugates the implicit narrative of events. Rosemary Woolf’s

description of the Limbo of Fathers demonstrates the conflation of

crucifixion, harrowing, and resurrection in a single spatial moment:

"the Limbo of Fathers is depicted as a small, battlemented building: its

doors with their heavy locks, have already crashed to the ground at the

touch of Christ’s Resurrection Cross" (emphasis mine). Complementing

the iconographic representations of the Harrowing, the Gospel of

Nicodemus, in its full mystical and miraculous detail, was the popular

and textual source for the Harrowing’s dramatists. Yet, as Rosemary

Woolf and other contextual critics have noted, the plays hardly convey

the dramatic force or poetic possibility of the Gospel. Instead, the

plays textualize the apocryphal source into the orthodox doctrine,

creating a spectacle of excess without the empowering visual

interpretation by the audience.

To some degree, the iconographic and apocryphal referents of

the Harrowing of Hell provide the base level for interpretive

possibilities: the historical and textual referent. However, as I

would hope to demonstrate, interpretive possibilities are obliterated in

the dominating desire of the play — and the church — to control the

social structure and to entrench the values — and therefore "laws" —

of the church apparatus. Oscillating within the literal referential

articulations of the play, the allegorical, moral, and anagogical levels

or senses operate. The allegorical mode is directed through the

implicit parallel between Christ’s history — his redemption of the

souls — and the church’s history — the break near the end of the play

(Chester 337 and Towneley 305) when the audience/congregation chants the

"Te Deum laudamus." The moral level is the individual, where the

subject in the audience is able to participate in self-interpolation,

placing the individual of today in the history of both the past and the

future simultaneously. The individual’s redemption, however, remains

collective, addressed to Adam’s "osspringe":

Peace to thee, Adam, my dearlynge,

and eke to all thy osspringe

that ryghtwise were in yearth livinge.

From mee yee shall not severe.

To blys nowe I wyl you bringe

there you shalbe withowt endinge.

(Chester 334, 205-210)

Isias. Adam, thrugh thi syn

here were we put to dwell,

This wykyd place within;

The name of it is hell;

here paynes shall neuer blyn.

That wykyd ar and fell

loue that lord with wyn,

his lyfe for vs wold sell

Et cantent omnes "salutor mundi," primum versum.

(Towneley 294, 37-44)

Identification with Adam’s sinfulness prefigures a (re)collection in

Jesus’s redeeming effort to break the gates of hell. Nonetheless, the

activity is utterly collective; morality cannot be apprehended on an

individual level, excluding individual interpretation from the

audience’s role. The exclusion of the individual places the

interpretive dilemma at the anagogical level, confronting the collective

"meaning" of history and giving authority to the spectacle of the

performance itself.

Earlier in this paper I identified the performance with sport —

a type of game in which the arbitrariness of the result is predetermined

by the apparatus of its production. What the Corpus Christi pageant in

general and the Harrowing of Hell play in particular present is a

dialectical foundation of empowerment and control. The spectacle posits

a knowing of "truth," creating an audience empowered by its own capacity

to know what is and to therefore possess that knowledge. The real, as

it is signified in the clarity of its repetition and form, is entrusted

to an audience of arbiters, who decide a personal validity for the means

of its articulation (to extend Barthes’s reading of wrestling, the

audience may judge the performance and the value of the performance even

if it does not judge the necessary relationship between the body of the

wrestler and the outcome of the event). The play, however, within its

limited origination as church extension, reaffirms the authority of the

church by limiting the authority of the individual. The collective is

privileged over and against the individual — so that, indeed, an

individual consciousness exists in the play only as rebellion (e.g.

Judas and Cain are left to dwell in hell with Satan exactly because they

positioned themselves as individuals, against the dominant domain of

Adam’s sinfulness).

The dialectic between the play as spectacle — and therefore a

means of enlightenment — and value-producing mechanism of the

"collective" church which institutes the myth as valid poses the problem

of seeing both operations, that is both functional modes, within the

play as identical. Adorno and Horkheimer’s potent and persuasive

definition of myth and enlightenment shows how each mode of cultural

operation serves to exercise power through what Lukacs calls


Myth turns into enlightenment, and nature into mere

objectivity. Men pay for the increase of their power with alienation

from that over which they exercise their power. Enlightenment behaves

toward things as a dictator toward men. He knows them in so far as he

can manipulate them.

For Adorno and Horkheimer, myth and enlightenment, magic and science,

mechanization and spirit, all serve as polar oppositions in a

dialectically organized agenda of manipulation and control. Likewise,

the pageant and the play orchestrate a subsumption of the individual’s

power — especially the interpretive power of the masses — into the

collectivized agency of the church.

The result of transforming the individual consciousnesses

present in the audience and the congregation into a homologized and

homogenized extension of orthodox values is coded in the presentation of

its form. All history as it is posited within the play has already been

written; the only question — and here I mean the undervalued question

of a member in the audience — is what position is marked — not

necessarily predestined or predetermined, although the means of making

this a self-determination have been completely removed from the mass

culture of medieval Catholic orthodoxy — for the individual. Will the

audience member be a member classified as goat or sheep (a question

addressed in a parable played briefly before the Harrowing? Is hell

harrowed for him/her? Moreover, the result of the question interrogates

mass culture itself, for the operations of the church-state apparatus

are not distinctly separate in effect from the culture industry and the

mechanization of the factory that Adorno and Horkheimer evaluate:

Culture as a common denominator already contains in

embryo the schematization and process of cataloging and classification

which bring culture within the sphere of administration. And which

entirely accords with this notion of culture. By subordinating in the

same way and to the same end all areas of intellectual creation, by

occupying men’s senses from the time they leave the factory in the

evening to the time they clock in again the next morning with matter

that bears the impress of the labor process they themselves have to

sustain throughout the day, this subsumption mockingly satisfies the

concept of a unified culture which the philosophers of personality

contrasted with mass culture.

Indeed, what could be more subsumptive than a mythos of redemption and

salvation, constructed through a series of social and socially required

events, that ultimately demand a vilification of self-value and a

celebration of the church establishment.

In both the Towneley play and the Chester play, the chorus of

prophets, all participating in the monolithic community of

hell-to-be-redeemed, offer a collective subsumption of the individual.

The greatest desire of the audience must be to share in voice with the

prophets who speak of both praise and thankfulness. The consumptive and

subsumptive chorus in the Towneley play moves from Moses to David to

Isaiah in progressively shorter lines to silence the audience, rather

ironically, by invoking their collective chorus in litany:

Dauid. As I saide ere yit say I so,

"ne derelinquas, domine,

Animum meam in inferno;"

"Leyfe neuer my saull, lord, after the,

In depe hell wheder dampned shall go;

suffre thou neuer thi sayntys to se

The sorow of thaym that won in wo,

ay full of fylth and may not fle."

Moyses. Make myrth both more and les,

amd loue oure lord we may,

That has broght vs fro bytternes

In blys to abyde for ay.

Ysaias. Therfor now let vs sing

to loue our lord ihesus.

(Towneley 305, 389-402)

Affirmation through association becomes the fulfillment of the

audience’s constructed desire. The members of the audience join ranks

with the great prophets who have all been associated with their own

histories during the action of the Harrowing. The audience must join,

for it does not have access to the already written history; by being

displaced from the narratizing of redemption, it can only associate with

the characters who already participate in the code.

By this code I intend to suggest the positioning of the already

achieved narrative action which cannot be possessed as spectacle, but,

instead, must be apprehended as the mechanism of the church-state

apparatus to maintain power. The state apparatus is "defined by the

perpetuation or conservation of organs of power." The state apparatus,

to borrow an analogy from Deleuze and Guattari, is a contained system

with components and limits similar to the game of chess. The game is

played with a definite code, the pieces are determined to be what they

are by what they are. A knight is always a knight simply because he is.

A king will always be protected. In the same way, as a character to be

"played" again and again, in every year of the pageant and in every

other formulation of church doctrine, Jesus is always Jesus; he must

always win against Satan who is always Satan. God, in his redemptive

activity must be consistent (we still have this code and its response in

contemporary culture, as is typical in the Baptist belt where the phrase

"that’s not my God, my God is …" indicates an utter lack of

interpretive understanding as it is constrained by the operations of a

fundamentalist approach to a univocal God in a univocal way). The

consistency of the players, whether on a chess board or a medieval

horse-drawn carriage platform, necessitates the homogenization of the

players’ audience — the church’s congregation. Deleuze argues that the

state’s ability to reproduce itself exactly is determined through its

own public presentation — i.e. the fact that the state is and must be

public: "The State-form . . . has a tendency to reproduce itself,

remaining identical to itself across its variations and easily

recognizable within the limits of its poles, always seeking public

recognition (there is no masked state)."

The Corpus Christi plays offer then an extension of the

church-state apparatus to construct, even as the mass does, a

congregation utterly unified in its interpretive understanding and

consolidated in its desire for redemption and its means of happening.

The collective meaning of history — the anagogical level of

interpretive meaning — is discernible only through the allegorical —

which is to say that church history accurately reflects redemptive

history to the point of requiring participation in one to assure

inclusion in the other. These claims concerning the plays and its most

dramatic representative of redemptive force, the Harrowing of Hell,

attempt to discern the mechanism of producing the power of the

church-state apparatus — how indeed, the superstructure gains support

from its base — and how, in fact, the pageant is the most accessible

form for disseminating the conservation of this power.

The plays demonstrate as a combination of social artistry and

cultural design an historical moment of political conservation and

dominant authorizing. It seems we are not merely to claim, as Hardin

Craig does, that the plays are "a theological intelligence motivated by

structural imagination that lasted from age to age in the development of

a great cycle of mystery plays." Instead, we should interrogate the

multiple dimensions of artistry and artificiality of the play; our task

is to ask how these plays operate as a performative moment coming

directly from the dominant arms of orthodoxy while still being

influenced by the severely limited mass culture. We may find, then, at

the center of the controlling mechanisms of the church-state apparatus,

the necessitated desire for community that even Satan validates and


Nay, I pray the do not so;

Vmthynke the better in thy mynde;

Or els let me with the go,

I pray the leyffe me not behynde!

The desire, of course, extends past Satan’s plea, for the homogenized

desire of the congregation ultimately — which is in history written and

yet to be — is directed toward a different answer from Jesus: one that

affirms salvation and again confirms the church’s orthodox pageantry of