Book Review: The Theatre of the Body: Staging Death and Embodying Life in Medieval London (Kate Cregan) – By Lucy Hinnie

Kate Cregan, The Theatre of the Body: Staging Death and Embodying Life in Medieval London. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2009. xvi+349 pp (HB) €85,00 ISBN: 978-2503520582

Kate Cregan’s 2009 monograph Theatre of the Body is a study of embodiment as understood in London between 1540 and 1696 focusing on three key sites: the theatre, the law courts, and the anatomy theatre. In many ways, Cregan’s investigation mirrors the anatomical process she describes, following a philosophy of codifying, anatomizing, and imaging her research.

In terms of audience, those with an interest in the specific field of the anatomy theatre and its political repercussions, as well as graduate students in fields as disparate as theatre studies, anatomy, art history, and literature, could benefit from various elements of Cregan’s study. This book is suitable for those just starting out in the field of early modern medical humanities but also yields information for those whose studies are at a more advanced post-doctoral level, given its wealth of sources.

Chapter one concerns itself with the three grounds of Cregan’s study: the legal, medical, and public playhouses of court and anatomy. This follows an introductory chapter which examines the case of Elizabeth I, in which Cregan argues that the embodiment of a monarchical role was subsumed by the physical reality of the body in death. Cregan’s description of the aestheticisation of the political process is a key point in allying the law and the body, and she paints a brutal picture of a bloody society in which issues such as illiteracy or miscarriage could lead to execution. In this chapter, Cregan also considers concepts that pervade later aspects of the book such as the distinction of the body politic and the concept of performance itself. Cregan’s command of her historical sources is commendable, as, with a keen eye for detail, she contrasts the physical dimensions and architectural layout of large performance spaces such as the Swan and the Globe with the College of physicians and the Hall of the Barber-Surgeons. Despite the “paucity of the membership” (45) relative to their European counterparts, Cregan highlights the importance of these sites as areas of public engagement, in that they “facilitated the definition of the identity of those at the margins” (47) through their stratification of viewing areas. The author enforces the idea of the “bloody circus” (56), the notion of the anatomy theatre as a location for visceral entertainment, by examining the delineated roles within the anatomy theatre, indicated by costume and props (for example, the barber-surgeon’s cap or the curtain protecting the modesty of the cadaver). The recurring idea of nosce te ipsum (‘know thyself’) appears in the chapter’s concluding remarks. This section is arguably one of the strongest elements of Cregan’s overall argument—that  the anatomical process reflects the spectator’s search for knowledge, “in and through the texts they followed” (58). This emergent awareness of the self as a corporeal and spiritual conglomerate is something Cregan returns to in Part Three and offers one of the most sophisticated lines of thought in the text.

The second chapter focuses on anatomical manuals and the gradual movement towards a more unified library of reference accessible to practitioners in London. Cregan describes the overlap between the development of art and anatomy in this period, beginning with the Renaissance fascination with dissection: “art was equally embedded in anatomy” (76). She discusses the iconography of the corpse, and the near-fetishization of the mystery of death in contemporary culture. The crucial point of this chapter is to justify the usefulness of anatomical illustration in giving an impression of the culture of seventeenth-century London. Cregan argues that these supposedly scientific and objective illustrations became loaded with symbolism and political statements about gender roles. For example, she remarks that “art and anatomy were complicit in supporting and maintaining gender distinction” (77), which was popular in the seventeenth-century, whereby man embodied God’s perfection and woman remained imperfectly proportioned, mirroring their spiritual infelicity.

The “layered and ambiguous abstraction of meaning” (101) in both theatrical performance and anatomy models is Cregan’s focus in her third chapter. She describes the coded performative gestures of femininity in a male-based performance environment, familiar tropes for any early modern scholar. These are given a new twist with Cregan’s focus on the body itself, devoid of life, as a similarly important source of meaning. She further discusses representations of the anatomical process in performances, examining John Webster’s plays The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi. These extended examples further Cregan’s discussion of gender and the corporeal negotiations of power, ultimately, showing the emerging idea of gender as a physical and behavioral condition, aided in part by the dissection of criminal cadavers.

In the second section, Cregan discusses a variety of topics including the impact of the Civil War, where anatomical dissection took place under the voyeuristic eye of a public starved for entertainment. As “drama became a textual form” (135) unable to be performed in theatres, the anatomy theatres offered an alternative environment for physical spectacle. However, this is not Cregan’s only remit in this section: further attention is given to specific examples of anatomical dissection as the author discusses the execution of Charles I at length in Chapter Four. She argues that it is exemplary of the earlier assertion “that in death, the sovereign’s body-natural is vulnerable, violable and subject to the power and authority of ontological systems which in life that same sovereign sanctioned and empowered” (144). At the other end of the social spectrum, Cregan discusses the use of criminal bodies in anatomy and their history prior to execution and dissection leading into Chapter Five where she returns to the Session House to discuss the general makeup of the felons executed at Tyburn and speculates about potential candidates for dissection, looking closely at two female felons: Elizabeth Maslon and Anne Greene. This chapter is an excellent discussion and representation of the status of women in the seventeenth century, particularly the questions of infanticide and ‘birth observed’ whereby witnesses would be required to establish the veracity of a miscarriage over a suspected infanticide. The arguments pertaining to sociocultural representation and the implications of anatomical practice are, here, secondary to a primary concern for the inadequacy of provision for women. This discussion further exemplifies the strengths of Cregan’s source work, and her depiction of women negotiates both sympathy and factual analysis.

The author returns her focus to monarchical society in Part Three and examines the diaries of Samuel Pepys as artifacts by which to understand the process of anatomy observation. Cregan exposes the underlying political nature of contemporary anatomical illustration in graphic detail, with plates demonstrating the demonisation of the homosexual and promiscuous ‘Molly’, a colloquial term for an emasculate homosexual and the gradual detheologizing of the body into a scientific, rather than spiritual entity.[1] In regards to the prevalence of the ‘Molly,’ Cregan contextualizes changes in the reintroduction of theatre in the post-war era with the employment of actresses and an examination of their status as sexualised entities, perhaps related to “an increased intolerance of homoeroticism” (224). The first part of Chapter Seven is largely focused on the positioning of bodies within illustration in order to facilitate the detheologizing of anatomy, whereby a scientific and objective depiction of the body was enabled rather than a fabrication of various Adam and Eve tableaux.  Chapter Seven ultimately moves away from the question of illustration and deals instead with the representation of the anatomical process in dramatic texts, looking at Ravenscroft’s Titus Andronicus and his translation of The Anatomist.

Ravenscroft’s re-imagined Titus Andronicus offers Cregan a platform from which to discuss the early modern view of female sexuality, while the adaptation of The Anatomist shows the process of anatomy as performed onstage. This meta-textual description details in excruciating terms the actual scientific process of anatomy, to great comedic effect as two characters experience ‘narrow escapes from vivisection’ (261). This depiction of the anxieties linked to anatomy, such as the fear of a living dissection, ties in neatly with an emergent awareness of conscience in the treatment of dead bodies, discussed by Cregan at the end of Chapter Seven. A clear sense of the temporal shift from her opening chapters has been established, as the London populace becomes more analytical and self-aware of their anatomical practice and traditions over time, leading them to ethical questions surrounding the supply of bodies.

In dealing with this ethical question Cregan once again offers fantastic detail in “Riding the Three-Legged Mare,” the eighth chapter, in which she discusses the stories of the Tyburn gallows victims and their respective legal cases. The ‘Last Words’ lead to the idea that: “this book can have no definitive conclusion […] differing processes of abstraction exist side by side, in tension, in different social formations in the present” (301). Ultimately, Part Three reads more as a catalogue of useful and often lesser-known sources and analysis, rather than as a critical narrative, but Cregan’s attention to detail in her varied source work is exemplary and carries the third section regardless.

Theatre of the Body is a complex text which deals with a number of separate issues. Within the confines of the monograph there are at least three separate works, dealing with issues such as the anatomical fascination with gender, theatricality and the misogynist bias of the law courts.  Cregan’s study holds itself together within this overarching theme of the body, but one wonders whether or not such a study would have been more impactful if divided into three separate projects. In particular, Cregan’s analysis draws heavily on the imagery of anatomical drawings of the period, a portion of the book that is interesting and well articulated, so much that the topic would merit a study in itself.

Overall, Cregan’s depth of study and capacity to work with a multitude of different and exciting sources is exemplary. Theatre of the Body piques interest in Cregan’s earlier journal articles and encourages the production of future articles about many of the topics touched upon within the text.

Lucy Hinnie

Lucy Hinnie is a first year PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh, working on her thesis provisionally entitled ‘Under the Hawthorn Tree: Women’s Voices in the 1568 Bannatyne MS’. Her MPhil thesis at the University of Glasgow offered an historicist reading of the character of Dido in Gavin Douglas’ vernacular translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, with particular discussion of Douglas’ use of commentary and para-text in his prologues. Her primary research interests focus on the work of the ‘Makars’ Robert Henryson, William Dunbar and Gavin Douglas; the tensions between paganity and Christianity in the fifteenth and sixteenth century and the nature of medieval transcreation, as well as the influence of Chaucer in Scotland.


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