Frame Structure in The Conversion of St. Paul


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

While considerable scholarly attention has been given to The Conversion of St. Paul,1 the insistent critical focus on the mechanics of its staging has obscured the author's manipulation of dramatic focus.2 As a result, its critical reputation has suffered even more than most East Anglian plays. Arnold Williams thought that "the play as a dramatic piece, needs some apology";3 Hardin Craig and Alan H. Nelson echo this opinion.4 At least one relatively recent production, however, has revealed The Conversion of St. Paul to be a play of some dramatic power.5 In part, attacks on the play are a natural consequence of scholars' attempts to apply modem critical categories to medieval drama. Instead, we need to examine the play as a product of simple place-and-scaffold staging methods which naturally lend themselves to the production of certain aesthetic effects such as "framing." The much commented upon processional movement of the audience, when employed, is merely one of the many framing devices that the author uses in order to illustrate the full significance of St. Paul's conversion.6 "Framing"-to employ a term usually applied to non-dramatic art-places the central action in perspective in order to guide the audience's affective or doctrinal responses even as the frame itself distances the action. Framing elements can be regarded as separate structural units of a dramatic whole, generally consisting of a scene or episode which could be removed without making the remaining narrative unintelligible.7 While framing devices have occasionally been noted in relation to other medieval plays,8 the Digby Conversion dramatist employs them in an unusually rigorous manner. Framing the action at a series of successive stations (which were perhaps much like the scaffold stages used in other East Anglian dramatic productions), the dramatist exploits spatial contrasts between high and low as actors either pridefully distance themselves from the audience or place themselves in close association with its members. Such techniques are characteristic of late medieval works of art and of other dramas from the region.9 The dramatist of The Conversion of St. Paul exploits the dramatic potential inherent in a frame structure in order to create, in Gail McMurray Gibson's phrase, a "concrete image of devotion."10 He carefully balances his action around the symmetrical center of Paul's conversion by means of the speeches of the Poeta, audience movement, and recapitulatory scenes. These devices in effect mediate between the moment of St. Paul's mystic experience and the audience in order to explicate the conversion's full meaning.

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