Theses Doctoral

Making Pagans: Theatrical Practice and Comparative Religion in Early Modern England

Kuhn, John Michael

"Making Pagans" argues that British stages played a powerful role in the articulation of religious difference in the seventeenth century, an era marked by an explosion of antiquarian and ethnographic scholarship and the first disciplinary stirrings of comparative religious studies. As scholars, colonists, and theologians struggled to classify the new ritual practices brought into view by excavation and exploration, they turned to the idea of "paganism," a concept that became widely adopted to categorize non-Abrahamic religions. Not a fixed or natural category, "paganism" was a contested, mutable, and fictional set of ritual homologies imagined to exist between radically heterogeneous cultures that ranged from imperial Rome to contemporary Mesoamerica and ancient Britain. The early modern public theater was one site where this religious category came into being, and this dissertation argues that its spectacular performances of alien rituals provided a populist, embodied counterpart to the academic and theological arenas in which this category was also forged. Surveying more than a hundred plays from the emergence of the public theater in the 1580s through the end of the Restoration, each of my four chapters isolates one widely-used performance set-piece of stage paganism: oracle scenes, mass suicides of noble pagan families, triumphal parades, and scenes of magical priestly conjuration.
In designing these scenes, dramatists like Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Jonson adapted ethnographic and antiquarian scholarship to create striking ritual tableaux. Often, these set-pieces were initially tailored to the locales of particular plays--Jonson, for example, examined recently excavated Roman altars in designing his propitiation scene in Sejanus. But the cash-strapped theater companies that owned these properties and orchestrated specialized ritual performances around them apparently urged subsequent dramatists to recycle these set-pieces in new plays. This culture of material conservatism, I show, resulted in the striking anachronisms that are a hallmark of the period's drama: Jonson's Roman altars recur in plays set everywhere from mythic Thebes to contemporary South America, the carefully orchestrated group suicides in Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage pop up again in ancient Turkey and prehistoric Britain, and the triumphal parades of The Wars of Cyrus reappear in contemporary Mesoamerica and elsewhere. Rather than dismiss these anachronisms as a mark of ignorance, "Making Pagans" argues that these unexpected transpositions had ethnographic force for audiences, creating fictional homologies between different sites and helping produce a sense of a trans-geographic, trans-temporal set of "pagan" ritual practices. These set-pieces became iconic beyond their in-house runs in individual repertories, and in the Restoration, the stock pagans of the Renaissance stage would shape the work of dramatists like Behn, Dryden, Lee, and Southerne, who recycled and adapted these pre-war set-pieces for their depictions of an increasingly capacious "paganism" that included indigenous and Asian religions. Drawing together theater history, Atlantic studies, and the history of comparative religion, "Making Pagans" reconceptualizes the uniquely iterative material practices of the theater as central to the construction of radical religious difference in early modernity.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Howard, Jean E.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 19, 2016