‘In Memoriam, David Bevington’, by Alexandra Johnston

David Bevington (1931-2019),

REED North-East is saddened to learn of the recent passing of David Bevington, a leading light in early drama studies, based, most recently, at the University of Chicago. The following tribute to the Professor Bevington was written by Alexandra Johnston, founder and Senior Consultant of Records of Early English Drama (shared from a post by MRDS):

In Memoriam, David Bevington

“The field of early drama has lost a leading scholar with the sad death of Professor David Bevington of the University of Chicago. David was best known for his work on sixteenth century drama but his first book, Mankind to Marlowe (1962) broke open a new approach to late medieval drama considering the few surviving fifteenth century morality plays in the same context as sixteenth century drama.  His contribution to medieval drama was greatly increased by his 1975 anthology Medieval Drama[1] that provided a comprehensive collection of early drama for undergraduate teaching unlike those compiled by A.W. Pollard (1895), J.M. Manly (1897) and J.Q. Adams (1924).[2]  In a later article he pointed out that the two earlier collections, condescended to their subject as a rudimentary stage in the development of later drama. Manly’s infamous title, Specimens of the Pre-Shaksperean Drama, implies a two-fold insult: that the plays are only archeological data with which to construct the stages of the evolution of a dinosaur, and that their only lasting value in such an archeological reconstruction is to discover in it the subsequent flourishing of more advanced forms.[3]

In the same article, he emphasized that many of the formative scholars in the field in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially in the United States, were staunchly Protestant in their religious views, and much of the subject matter of early drama was thought to be unsuitable for Protestant readers. In his analysis of Adams’ much used anthology he wrote,

The more this edition moves towards real accessibility to students, […] the more fearful it becomes of scenes and language offensive to Protestant sensibilities […] [The] edition turns blushingly away from the Crucifixion and Deposition with their vivid icons of the bleeding God.[iv]

His anthology provided, for the first time for non-specialist undergraduates, the painful drama of the Crucifixion allowing all to read or perform the tragi-comedy of medieval Biblical drama.

            David was a mentor to many younger scholars, including myself. He was among those who attended the annual Early Drama Seminars established at the Modern Language Association by Professor Arnold Williams of the University of Michigan some time in the 1950s devoted to the discussion of early drama, and especially early drama in performance. It was to that seminar in New York, at Christmas 1972 and again the next year in Chicago that Margaret Dorrell Rogerson and I were invited to discuss our work on the dramatic records of York and especially, in 1972, the new details contained in the newly discovered Indenture of the York Merchant Adventurers with their pageant masters who were responsible for the Last Judgment in the York Plays. David was part of the enthusiastic discussion in Chicago in 1973 that led to the establishment of Records of Early English Drama two years later. His written support for REED over the years has been essential to the project, especially when we first applied for funds from the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada and later to the National Endowment for the Humanities in the United States in the late 1970s. Those first grants allowed REED to establish value of the project that has attracted other grants since. Whenever we met in later years – often at the Medieval Drama Seminar at the annual Medieval Conference at Kalamazoo that succeeded the MLA seminar – he would ask specifically about REED’s progress. In a review of Richard Rastall’s Music in Early English Drama in Speculum 79 (2004) he compared Rastall’s work with REED:

… the volume shares many of the rewards and frustrations of the REED project … [It] is interested in similar sorts of data and with the same view to commendable thoroughness of coverage. So many records in both collections are repetitious, telegraphic, tantalizing in what they do not tell us … Important new perspectives on medieval drama are being constructed out of REED volumes, some of them potentially revolutionary in reassessing the nature of the drama. Much is still being learned about traveling players, about venues for performance, about what sort of plays were the dominant fare of dramatic entertainments across the British countryside. [v]

With great clarity, he recognized both the nature of REED evidence and its importance.

            Until the last few years, David had regularly attended the meetings in Kalamazoo always open to meeting new young scholars making their way in the field and discussing their work with them. He kept up with the radical changes in our understanding of early drama, encouraging us all to keep on with the discussions of new possibilities for performance.  He was a scholar willing to explore the subject of early drama, the history of the scholarship in the field and to encourage the work of those who are following him. His spirit, gentle and generous, will always be with us.”

– Alexandra Johnson, 2019

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