The Pageant of History: Nostalgia, the Tudors, and the Community Play

The Pageant of History: Nostalgia, the Tudors, and the Community Play

Dobson, Michael (Birkbeck, University of London)

Sederi, 20 (2010) 5-15


This paper considers the persistence of the Renaissance pageant in modern and post-modern culture, both as a recurrent metaphor for history in general and as a feature of stage, cinematic and communal representations of early modern history in particular. After examining the status of public processions in Renaissance London as conscious revivals of the Roman triumph, indebted at the same time to aspects of the medieval mystery plays,the essay examines the English historical pageants of the Edwardian and inter-war years as themselves revivals of both Renaissance pageantry and aspects of the Shakespearean history play. It looks in particular at their emphasis on the Tudor monarchs and on the ethnic origins of Englishness, identifying the fading of the pageant as a genre in the post-war years with the collapse of certain ideas about English exceptionalism and historical continuity. 

In thinking about the early modern past in general, Anglophones still habitually use the phrase “the pageant of history,” as if picturing the sequence of historical events as so many decorated floats in a passing procession. The project of this essay is to unpack this dead metaphor, to think through the pageant of history in terms of the history of pageants. It will examine the extent to which the “pageant of history” metaphor hasn’t in fact been dead at all over the last century, but lived on for film-makers determined to make an emblematic spectacle of the Renaissance, and for their immediate precursors in amateur dramatics, who re-enacted the early modern period on the village greens of England. The essay will proceed in three stages: first, it will outline the pre-history of the modern pageant, by looking at its forebears and analogues in the Renaissance proper; then it will look at how and why Renaissance history and drama were so central to the great pageants of the early twentieth century; and then it will consider how pageantry, and the assumptions about the nature of history which it encodes, migrated into cinematic depictions of the sixteenth century.

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