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FringeReview UK 2024

The Bible in Early Modern Drama: Robert Owen The History of Purgatory

Wanamaker Globe, Shakespeare’s Globe

Genre: Classical and Shakespeare, Debate, Drama, Event, Historical, Lecture, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, Scratch Performance, Theatre, Tragedy, Workshop

Venue: Wanamaker Globe, Shakespeare’s Globe


Low Down

Dr Will Tosh (WT) leads a discussion The Bible in Early Modern Drama. Robert Owen’s The History of Purgatory. With Dr Will Tosh, Professor Gašper  Jakovac, Professor Alison Shell,Father Brian Service. Next Event on staging Marlowe, July 11th.


The Bible in Early Modern Drama: Robert Owen The History of Purgatory Wanamaker June 12th  2024


Dr Will Tosh (WT) leads a discussion The Bible in Early Modern Drama.

What follows is write-up from verbatim notes typed at the seminar, with questions from the audience necessarily unattributed. What I’ve transcribed won’t always be accurate, but in revising I’ve tried to be as accurate as possible. Trying to capture the flavour and pulse of debate, I hope I’ve conveyed something of what several said was an exceptional – and revelatory – seminar.


Dr Will Tosh (WT)

Professor Gašper  Jakovac  (GZ)

Professor Alison Shell (AS)

Father Brian Service (BS)



WT: Robert Owen’s recusant play was discovered by Alison Schell 15 years ago. It’s The History of Purgatory. It might date in this form circa 1609.

There’s a dialogue with commercial theatre. How does this differ from religious ritual on a stage? This was created for a Catholic household.

AS: It probably was staged – there’s stage directions quite specific and very helpful –  it’s not a masterpiece, indeed very derivative, and was a translation of a French medieval text. There’s a performative challenge to break up the static feel.

WT: What relationship can there be between this liturgically inspired text and drama? That depends on all of you. We work on vibes here at the Globe!

BS: Staging the mass means navigating between mockeries and sacraments. There’s also a sense that people were not monolithic Protestants. Jonson’s Catholic elements for instance.

And there’s languages of anti-theatricalism and anti-Catholicism. This work – a quasi-doctrinal discussion, {or staging elements apparent in the Mass’s theology} – is seen as everything that’s wrong with Catholicism… It’s an overlap playwrights use

John Reynolds who wrote in 1599 was educated and eloquent in anti-theatricalism. He was in fact President of Corpus Christi College Oxford.

There’s a quote on Polish mystery plays I didn’t catch. Northern Mystery plays are also referenced. Things out of bounds are in fact practiced by the Jesuits for instruction….

AS: It’s the nature of Purgatory: those souls needing intercession from the audience.

AS: “The arc of memory” (a quote from Owen’s work) enacts the idea of Catholics being borne along by memory of before the Reformation. Dead relatives they weren’t allowed to pray for, interceding for their souls. At least openly.

Q: Where did the texts go?

AS: To the four winds basically.

WT: Manuscripts disseminated this play. Both play and liturgy. Now this is not meant as disrespecting any religious feeling that might be present here in this room. We do everything respectfully.


Now introducing the Actors:

Amanda Chinyanganya

Sophie Russell

Simon Scardifield

Callum Coates


First scene

Soul dying and presented before a council, anxious as to the possibility of Hell. But goes to Purgatory. (Not quite The Dream of Gerontius but analogous – Cardinal Newman must have taken from this tradition).

The four actors show paired in twos, where candles can be seen through the opened central doors. The two male actors speak in alternation, or antiphonal liturgical prayer.


Discussion of First Part

WT: What does everyone think of the experience? A religious or aesthetic experience?

Audience: Both. There’s a call and response feel say several of the audience.

Callum: That different garb – if I were in priest’s vestments – would elicit a different response.

The audience laughed at a third reference to hell.

Simon: Your line has a job to solve a problem.

Q: how much interaction was there in 17th century church?

AS: Latin. Altar servers sound in fact as if they respond in just such a mode. A discussion about the vernacular’s inviting everyone to join in. The Latin would have allowed a certain interaction.

Q 2 Is there the dynamic of clergy or actors performing?

AS Clergy. As for Translation the question’s a very good one. This version dates from 1609. It’s an authorised translation and Owen’s sticking to orthodoxy.

Simon: Household drama and Christmas – a “jolly”…


Questions from the audience on conventional Catholic notes.

WT: There’s character choice

Q: I grew up Catholic (recently, as a young woman). So I’m intrigued with these four Recusant Catholics here, and what the play’s for.

(Q Used a term WT and myself were unfamiliar with. Transalgesic? Translogistic?)

Q What is this work for?

AS: Its didactic element instructs English Catholics how to live, cope with illness. For instance when you were ill you couldn’t get absolution by going to Mass or sending for a priest. So you write your contrition and send to your priest. There’s an overarching sense this sounds as if the burden of the work is addressing the schismatic Catholics. Those who believe but go to Protestant churches. They were playing a double game as many Catholics did to survive.

Some were thinking of faith alone. This preaches against that – essentially a Protestant tenet. Acts of charity are essential to the doctrinal tenet of salvation.

WT: The play is an act of worship. It is a play.

Callum: My character is called a priest so no problems for him. Not a character as such – Simon’s has more.

Simon: My character does that but I’m attacked in a sense, by ambushing what the text should give to an actor.

Sophie: I noticed the difference and difficulty once the men acted as we understood the drama going on as with the liturgy


The Second Excerpt

WT: Second part is when the court room drama gone, and there’s judgement impelling the soul to Purgatory. We’re not going to sing that!

Quite a hopeful depiction as soul receives the po eaters of those on earth.

Sophie as soul rejoicing at judgement.

The others enter as intercessors. The two women actors then the other male adds. Then Simon.

Use of rhyming couplets.

Simon given some powerful admonitory hellfire verses. The other actor tells if the arc of memory. Resonance for English Catholics.

There’s some striking lines:

“The string of this our David’s lute

touch and all hell is mute….makes retrograde.”

“Sancta sanctorum we can say no more.”


Discussion of Second Part

WT asks Sophie about her experience.

Sophie: The really powerful, violent imagery. The devil riding disembowelling etc

WT: It’s real rollercoaster. The soul’s let off but is still reflecting on hellfire. Is this completely new to this individual?

GJ: Yes, there’s a roller coaster certainly. The hellish images make so very little difference between hell and Purgatory save one is limited… Both are a place of torture but hope wins in Purgatory. There’s a more hopeful end.

WT: We’re asking actors to think as modern actors and a conceit of two worlds lived simultaneously.

Q: I’m reflecting on how risky this was. When I visited Kidderminster which has more priest homes than anywhere you suddenly think and reflect – this is a really risky long piece. It makes demands.

WT: Yes – thinking of modern actors, actors then thinking of Catholics.

AS: I was stuck in rehearsal by the use of journey. Stage directions also written in use these little travelling bags etc.

WT: Each soul is walked off and on by a personal angel.

GJ: The whole is reliant on spectacle. Music, costume a great deal of risk.

Some of this work could get exposed and indeed some went to court.

Q: Was it used as a political tool? People escaping.

GJ: Yes indeed – it was attacking Protestant liturgy but it was more aimed at bad Catholics than Protestants…. Catholics going to Anglican church.

WT: We associate the relationship between drama and liturgy mainly abroad in the early modern period.

GJ: It’s here more than one might think. We don’t know exactly when composed. Written around the early 17th century of an early version from 15th c book. Then rewritten for 1620s. We have Welsh Marches version from 1570s.

Q: The first scene’s rather like one written for children. Isn’t it a Christmas-y pantomime etc? Children performed?

GJ: We can inquire possibly. There was a huge cast, mainly non-speaking.

Q: Again I’m struck by the Northern Stoneyhurst pageants drawing on the same texts. And English College St Omer and Rheims.

Q: I’m Italian. So is there Italian influence here? Did the dramatist know Dante?

GJ: No, there’s no direct link.

Question’s thrown open.

The previous questioner said there’s a direct imperative.

Q: Are we thinking of those directed baggages as rucksacks? Earthly possessions. And would they still be attached to bodies?

WT: That’s a great Question, we’ll come back to that.

Q (US citizen): Is this a dramatisation about recusant households holding together in the  liturgy.

Q: Is it a replacement for Mass but also replaced theatre too? Good Catholics not going to theatre.

Q: After the 1570s we might spare a thought about how precarious life was for Catholics.

There’s a brief baggage discussion – baggage as sins. Refinement in purgatory.

AS: It’s there in The Pilgrims Progress – Pilgrim chucking his burden away as he enters the Celestial City.

Simon: There’s an etymology of travel meant travail. To go on a journey risky.

GJ: Certainly a pilgrimage. No music alas survives. We have to reflect the first part is more doctrinal, but the second scene a song.

Yes – the language is more striking, poetic and uses rhymed couplets.


Part 2

WT: In the History of Purgatory and history of Catholic Education there’s been great questions to lead off. And the reputation of ritual and popular drama.

Q: English Catholics. Are they theatre goers? Tensions of being a good Catholic and on plays.

GJ: There’s a fruitful tension between playgoers and playwrights. Jonson, early on a Catholic and priests all attended. So not exclusively It’s a Protestant culture though, predominantly anti-Catholic sentiment.

WT: There’s much of this in The Duchess of Malfi and we were hoping to work in it but there were time constraints. The Plot’s given.

There’s the Banishment song. By a Cardinal.

GJ: There’s a record of an Italian priest to the Italian Ambassador in London, who complains of the offence towards Catholics. And the Success of Malfi.

WT: The imagination of theatre goers feasts on the Catholic continent for good or ill – predominant in Shakespeare. Is there an aim there for inclusivity?

GJ: There’s a quite positive portrayal of Catholic liturgy in Jonson’s Sejanus.

WT: and in Hamlet. Some of the language picks up History of Purgatory. Deep dive. And indeed reference to the missing early Hamlet.

GJ: Could Alison explain how spirits telling us something?

WT: Yes, after the excerpt.



Callum and Sophie as Hamlet and Ghost.


Discussion of Hamlet

Alison: I’m struck by “unhousled… Unannealed” derived of a good death. Does he come from hell? So he reckons revenge on Hamlet.

GJ: It’s important to note ghosts weren’t exactly central to Protestant or Catholic theology. Catholics were more amenable. Protestants believed ghosts were sent for good and bad purposes. And Hamlet ‘s ghost joy permitted to speak of Purgatory.

Ambiguity explored. Owen was morally like all such writers was interested in ambiguity.

Q: Is it about the different generations? The Mass play was to remember the dead and Hamlet is to kill the living. Really comes out with the two Hamlets.

AS: Hamlet excites comments on how Hamlet absorbs Catholic tropes.

Q: Can I ask about Hamlet the play (this more of a general question).

Q: Hamlet’s ghost is coming from Purgatory with his burden… which he can’t speak of.

Sophie: He talks of the burden of sins purged.

Same QL Then utters “remember me”. It recalls Stations of the Cross, which is poignant amidst all the carnage: a gentle touch

Sophie: I think the Ghost is making a human comparison.

Italian National again Q: There’s a reference to Seneca but also northern roots “Remember Me” speaks Revenge.

WT: the lost Hamlet has a single line we can recover:  “Revenge Hamlet Revenge.”

Italian Q: Luther’s University was Wittenberg Where Hamlet studies.

Q: The Ghost touched in last rite. Are theyalready excluded? More dangerous…

WT: It’s doctrinal. Last rites? Illegal

AS: Yes – can confirm that.

GJ: We’re talking of the horror of Purgatory.

Simon: And the pleasure to make whole.

Q: Titus Andronicus. Seneca too is straddling Catholic liturgy in Roman plays.

WT: Yes and talking of that leads straight in very nearly to our final excerpt: Sejanus.



GJ sets scene of Jonson’s Sejanus. Tiberius’ reign, a terror state of spies etc.

Scene is from the last act. Vi. Starts with Sejanus at the top of his game, he’s triumphed and virtual ruler. Immediately after there’s bad news. Omens etc. allies anxious. Dismissed. Sejanus declares there’s only one goodness – Fortune. The Rite doesn’t go according to script.

Callum with a large branch of vervain, Simon with an impressively laid table. Silver Wine cups, tablecloth. Censor, vervain the lot. Ritual.

Sudden condition as Fortune averts her face. 

Sophie as Sejanus is splendid – she explodes with invective.


Discussion of Sejanus

WT: There’s the pagan element as well as Catholic in Jonson’s and Shakespeare’s ancient Rome.

Q: What about the vessels? Are they authentic?

WT: No, they’re not precise at all – in fact they’re earthenware (WT reads out stage directions). Quite Catholic.

Q: Unmistakably sacramental says an audience member.

Q: There’s the aesthetics of early modern playhouse though. Highly decorated, embellished, a highly Catholic environment aesthetic. Where deeply anti-Catholic works were performed.

GJ: It is remarkable though. Jonson was prosecuted for profanity over Sejanus. Jonson was scrupulous over annotations “authentic Roman rite”…

WT: Was he?

GJ: To a large extent yes but this opens up charges of blasphemy. Sejanus is deeply vile though the audience would agree with what he’s saying re superstition.

Q: that transposes debate.

AS: Yes and we must remember there’s endless pamphlets too. Most were about the wickedness of Rome and pagan behaviour. They absolutely saturated the culture.

Q: I’d like to put a question to actors on theatricality. Catholicism and theatricality poses a paradox. Amping up theatricality gives a deniability too.

Simon: It was great fun being a priest. (Much laughter)

WT: This theatre element was more entertaining but the earlier extras are giving us profound questions.

Callum: Just asking about theatricality. If possible a huge production might lend theatrical elements that are necessarily curtailed here.

WT put to GJ about this and it’s certainly potential.

Q: A last question I’d ask, about how people in Poland and now Ukraine have to hide faith

WT: Final thoughts?

Q: It’s the idea of journey and we’re told this with stage directions, effectively and with a heavy bag of theology. As we knew we’re in the playhouse but how does that play out in a great house?

GJ: I’m struck by how audiences who are mostly secular echo what we’ve heard, and reflects what we’ve been thinking – and with Alison pondering we quite a while. My general thanks.

AS: What’s most thrilling today is this might be the first performance or at least since the early 1600s. Undead!!!