Discussion of John Bale’s drama requires some background on the theatrical conventions of the times. At festivals, common folk enjoyed song, dance, games, and ritual skits satirizing the nobility and the clergy. Some plays were enacted, drawing from English folklore. Also in medieval England there had developed a tradition of religious instruction through drama. Certain towns presented annual cycles of plays, productions lasting three days and made up of individual plays dramatizing selected Bible stories. Such series were designed to present a Christian worldview from the creation of Adam through the life of Christ and on to the Last Judgment. The religious purpose, however, did not preclude use of humorous, even bawdy, stage business and dialogue. Depictions of saints’ lives and of moral fables were also common.
Medieval religious drama, which provided a rich heritage for English Renaissance drama, included three major categories: the mystery play, the miracle play, and the morality play. The mystery play drew on liturgy and on episodes of the life of Christ, dramatizing the “mysteries” of divine intervention in the temporal world. The miracle play presented events from lives of saints or martyrs for the purpose of asserting the virtue of faith in divine power and intervention. The morality play personified abstractions such as hope and charity in conflict with vices such as pride or greed in simple stories designed to teach moral, ethical, or theological premises.
Bale’s verse drama God’s Promises fits expectations of the mystery play. Although it does not focus on the life of Christ directly, it presents a pattern of biblical characters—Old Testament personalities and John the Baptist from the New Testament—as the essential preface to Christ’s coming. It is understood to be a play that Bale would use as the first in a trilogy. Second and third plays would cover Christ’s life, death, and resurrection and possibly the Second Coming and Last Judgment.
God’s Promises consistently embodies a Christian vision of pre-Christian scriptures as the record of preparation for and prophecy of Christ’s appearance on earth. Ancient and medieval theology included searches for proofs of divine order both in the natural world and in Scripture. Numerological formulas were invoked to prove the divine source of Scripture. The number one, for example, was the number of God; three represented the trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Six was the number of mortals, while seven, combining the mortal and the divine, was the perfect number.
Bale includes himself as a commentator in God’s Promises, but the mortal characters of this seven-act verse drama are seven in number: Adam Primus Homo (Adam, the First Man), Justus Noah (Noah the Righteous), Abraham Fidelis (Abraham the Faithful), Moseh Sanctus (Moses the Holy), David Rex Pius (David the Pious King), Esaias Prophetas (Isaiah the Prophet), and Joannes Baptista (John the Baptist).
Although one might expect a play featuring Old Testament figures to begin with material from Genesis, Pater Coelestis’s (Heavenly Father’s) opening is a Trinitarian self-description that seems a creedal expansion of the first chapter of the Gospel of John. Following Heavenly Father’s introduction, which includes references to Adam’s Fall and God’s judgment on both man and woman, Adam enters to plead for mercy. The second act summarizes the era of Noah. Heavenly Father recites the evils that provoked his judgment on mortals, and Noah, like Adam, pleads for mercy. Heavenly Father, in the third act, expresses displeasure over the depravity of Noah’s descendants, particularly their falling to idolatry and sodomy. Abraham, on behalf of his nephew Lot, who lives in the vicinity of Sodom and Gomorrah, appeals for mercy. He bargains with Heavenly Father until he secures a promise that God will spare the cities if ten righteous citizens can be found in them. Despite the flood of Noah’s era, and despite the witness of faith in Abraham, mortals continue to sin. In the fourth act, Heavenly Father gives the law to Moses for the people of Israel and for all nations. Dialogue in the fourth act reviews major events of Moses’s life, such as the plagues of Egypt, the Exodus and provision of manna in the desert, and Israel’s apostasy with the golden calf. For Israel’s idolatry, Heavenly Father again pronounces judgment but tempers his decree with the promise of a prophet to come.
The fifth act sets Heavenly Father in dialogue with David the Pious King. Their exchanges survey the leadership of priests and prophets between the time of Moses and the accession of Saul, David’s predecessor. Heavenly Father condemns David for taking the wife of Uriah the Hittite and for taking a national census (a sign of faith in mortal strength rather than in divine protection). David must choose a punishment, but again the judgment is linked with a promise. In David’s case, the promise is for the greatness of his son Solomon. Heavenly Father, in the sixth act, discourses with the prophet Isaiah, recounting the infidelity of Israel after Solomon, the split into the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, the Babylonian conquest, and the Babylonian captivity of Israel as punishment for recurrent idolatry. Isaiah, continuing the pattern that Bale has set for his mortal characters in dialogue with Heavenly Father, appeals for mercy. In response, Heavenly Father cites messianic verses from the Old Testament book of Isaiah that Christian tradition has long held to be predictions of Christ’s birth.
With John the Baptist, in the seventh act, Heavenly Father surveys events from the time of the Babylonian Captivity through the age of latter prophets, giving special note to the restoration of the temple in Jerusalem and to the religious renewal under King Josiah. In closing, Heavenly Father names John the Baptist the messenger to announce the coming of Christ. In a very clear paraphrase of reactions to divine call in the biblical stories of Moses, Isaiah, and others, John objects, contending that he lacks the learning and eloquence necessary for such awesome duties, but Heavenly Father prevails.
The text of God’s Promises, then, employs close paraphrase of Scripture and creedal statements throughout. For each era in the schema, Heavenly Father is a rigorous judge, punishing idolatry yet promising some form of relief to come. The emphases in dramatizing these particular characters in dialogue with, and in service to, Heavenly Father are not only traditionally messianic but also decidedly Protestant in their management.
As a friar who left holy orders to marry, Bale offers an interesting view of the Fall of Adam and Eve. Medieval tradition includes much misogynistic coloring of the Fall. Some interpreters made much of Eve’s yielding to desire and then inducing Adam to yield to desire as well. Bale, however, poses Heavenly Father attributing Adam’s Fall to a failure to use reason. Such a stance might be expected from a reformer quite given to scholarship and seeing in literacy and clear thinking a means to escape what he considered decadent superstition in religion. Furthermore, keeping the responsibility with Adam rather than with Eve, Bale sidesteps a conventional argument for clerical celibacy—namely, that a married cleric would be more concerned with a wife than with his religious duties.
Bale’s focus on the Sodom and Gomorrah episode from Abraham’s era is a means for him to stress divine judgment on sodomy. Bale insisted that the rule of celibacy for those in holy orders simply led many to engage in homosexual or illicit heterosexual activity—observing the letter of the vow but not the spirit. Also, every act of God’s Promises includes condemnation of idolatry. As a Protestant strongly opposed to veneration of saints and sacred relics, Bale keeps the anti-idolatry theme dominant.
In aspects of form other than the structural Symbolism mentioned above, God’s Promises is typical of Bale’s style. The lines of verse are roughly pentametric, sometimes straggling into six-or seven-beat lines. End rhymes appear in various groupings, often approximating stanzas of five, seven, or nine lines by interlocking couplets, tercets, and quatrains of sometimes exact, sometimes slant rhyme. The verse functions mainly to keep the great patches of biblical and creedal paraphrase memorable for actors faced with long, set speeches and dialogues only occasionally relieved by some stage business. Religious songs between acts provide some variety, though the texts of certain songs do not seem wholly pertinent to the issues in the bracketing acts. The music itself may be a counter to the radical reform views that minimized or eliminated the role of music in...
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