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The Medieval Theatrical Hell-mouth: Ritual/ Colonial Formations and Protestant Transformationsin Anglo/Saxon and Early Modern England

John A. Warrick. "The Medieval Theatrical Hell-mouth: Ritual/Colonial Formations and Protestant Transformations in Anglo/Saxon and Early Modern England." Diss. U of Washington, 2006.

This dissertation traces the formation and disassembly of one medieval theatre artifact, the Hell-mouth, at the limits of the medieval world. The property piece served as the conventional setting for three popular cyclic episodes of the middle ages, the Fall of Lucifer , the Harrowing of Hell , and the Last Judgment . Although often celebrated for its spectacle---flames, pyrotechnics display, smoke, and tumult were the staples of its appearance---the Hell-mouth was also of profoundly dramaturgical and theological import. Its theatrical promotion of the medieval Catholic dogma of Purgatory eventually assured its demise on English stages upon that nation's Protestant reformations.
I begin inquiry, following from Stephen Greenblatt's historical abjuration against motiveless creation, at the acknowledged formation of the mouth of Hell in Anglo-Saxon England. Although the earliest formal Hell-mouths have, to this point, been attributed to classical iconographical traditions, I argue that one emanation materialized in a performative context in the Easter officium known as The Lighting of the New Fire. It was at Winchester's Easter celebrations that the ritualistic New Fire and the more theatrically inclined Visitatio sepulchri first coexisted, and the comparative analysis of these processionals forms one area of investigation. I furthermore contend that the Hell-mouth's greater proliferation was due to its viability to English Scandinavian populations already acquainted with visually congruous, though conceptually non-Christian art forms. What emerges from these inquiries is the recognition that the earliest Hell-mouths were hybrid creations whose functions were determined by national colonial contexts.
Although the theatrical Hell-mouth largely disappeared at the advent of the early modern period, it is nevertheless possible to discern the shrapnel of its remove by tracking its many components. In this, hellish cauldrons, devilish characterizations, and textual echoes reconstitute the original medieval artifact in vastly altered visual formations. These components, when analyzed in the plays of William Shakespeare, Thomas Middleton, and Christopher Marlowe, among others, expose the novel deployments of conventional medieval stagecraft on early modern stages. Finally, it is worth considering the incorporation of Hell-mouth imagery into representations of English Jesuits and criminals in post-medieval, Protestant England.

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