A research paper that I wrote not too long ago for a seminar on Medieval Drama. The original is reproduced from the rough draft below for your reading pleasure. It is a bit obscure in some places, but serves as a fairly-well extrapolated introduction into the subject.
The subject matter of these plays really doesn't need any introduction apart from the Wakefield Second Shepherd's Pageant that repeatedly finds itself mentioned in the text. This was an amusing little vignette that was performed directly before the Nativity pageant, which was completely secular in content. It took place somewhere in the Northern English countryside, complete with the appropriate accents and dialect, in which a thief named Mak, through craft and sorcery, manages to steal a sheep away from his shepherd neighbors and bring back to his cottage. When the shepherds come back looking for their property, he quickly smuggles the young lamb into the crib, trying to pass it off as a newborn babe. The shepherds retaliate by tossing him (Mak, that is) in a sack, the scene is closed, and Jesus's adoration begins immediately thereafter.
For further reading, I would recommend A.C. Cawley's "Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays." It's a nicely-compiled survey of Medieval British biblical drama, translated into modern English, with the morality play of "Everyman" placed at the end. The terminology is somewhat esoteric at times but an abundance of margin- and footnotes left by Cawley ensure that anyone with a decent knowledge of English can get the gist of the lines.
I. Introduction and Background
Processional staging, in comparison to other theatrical forms, is an extremely taxing endeavour that takes its toll on all involved. In addition to planning a clearly-defined circuit which can be traversed in a reasonable amount of time and kept to a more-or-less synchronized schedule, the actors and stagehands find themselves faced with numerous difficulties that are diminished or altogether absent in traditional theatre: the rigors of constantly portraying a single episode over and over throughout the day; the problems of creating a convincing scene in a mobile, isolated staging place, and the hardships inherent in keeping the action running in a smooth, comprehensive, and entertaining manner. English medieval playwrights faced such an ordeal throughout the 14th-16th centuries as they struggled to develop a new dramatic art form from an ancient religious tradition, uniting a panoply of biblical vignettes into a thorough, tightly-linked tableaux which spanned Christian legend from the Fall of Lucifer to the Last Judgment. In the process, while its content remained ecclesiastical, serious drama was brought out of the church and into the city streets, and made all the more accessible, enjoyable, and above all contemporary to a medieval audience. These trends have been rediscovered in modern times as enthusiasts and scholars have plotted and put forward their own variations and improvements on the older cycles, proving that the appeal and morals of such plays have not diminished throughout the ages with their force and ability to capture the public"s attention and make a truly memorable impression.
A 'play' in the context of this essay refers to a complete production of individual scenes, or (in the original Middle-English connotation of the word) 'pageants.' The separate miracle plays known collectively as the 'Corpus Christi' cycle trace their origins back to the holiday that shares their namesake. With the adoption of transubstantiation as official dogma of the Catholic church – meaning, that upon consecration at mass, the host becomes the actual body of Christ – Pope Urban IV announced in 1264 the need for a new holy day that would honour both the Last Supper of Christ and the Eucharist. This proposal was finally put into action in 1311 by his successor, Clement V, and the date for new holiday was set for the first Thursday after Pentecost. The bull issuing the feast in that year specified it was to include a procession to honour the sacred host, but individual arrangements for this procession were to be left to each community.
Although the holiday fell out of favour in England in the mid-sixteenth century, not long after the Reformation began to gain ground in Europe, the procession is still often observed on the continent, especially in Catholic-populous nations that still venerate the transubstantiation doctrine, such as Spain, Italy, France, and Portugal. Generally, the procession, although highly variable depending on each individual locality, involves the parading of the host through town, accompanied by clerics, culminating in the exposure of the host at the last stage to the public. Being a holiday whose date was dependent on the date of the celebration of Easter, Corpus Christi would have fallen somewhere between the dates of 23rd May and 24th June, a period of time that would have been likely to offer fair skies in contrast to England's rather inclement weather conditions as well as the longest days of the year – both ideal factors for staging an outdoor theatrical event.
Despite this, it is not overtly clear why a dramatic cycle of plays linked itself to this feast day, nor why it was staged in imitation of its holy procession. Some scholars point to the significance of the church matins that took place on the octave of the feast (the eight days including and following Corpus Christi) as emphasizing the miracle of the Holy Eucharist and God's other wonders, bound to each other in a causal, easily understandable sequence of the Fall and Redemption of Mankind. On the other hand, critics of this claim point out that many of the plays themselves (York and Wakefield in particular) give little attention to the subject of the Holy Eucharist, and wilfully seek in some cases, in fact, to avoid referring to it. They also note that very often the plays were performed on other days besides Corpus Christi proper, apart from the actual religious procession. At the towns of both Chester and Wakefield, both procession and play took place initially on Corpus Christi, but they were later shifted back in the week to Whitsunday. In York, they managed to stay together until 1426.
Even though Corpus Christi was first officially celebrated in 1311, this does not necessarily mean that the pageants were immediately initiated as complete, ready-to-go cycles. According to Craig Harkin, the plays originated at some point in the first quarter of the 14th century somewhere in the north of England – not necessarily in a combined form -- and were disseminated to various other areas, and were firmly established by the end of the century. However, hard documentary evidence of the miracle plays being performed before 1375 is somewhat lacking, and medieval scholar F.M. Salter goes so far as to point out, 'no plays surviving in England, which linguistically or otherwise, share any traces of greater antiquity than the last twenty-five years of the 14th century.' More than likely, however, the complete building-up of a cycle took many decades, constant revisions and improvements, and joint efforts from multiple collaborators until it could be performed in a united, cohesive fashion. Whatever the case, it can be safely said that by the end of the 14th century, the plays at the cities of Chester and York (of which we have managed to retain the greatest amount of scripts and documentary evidence) were in an early functioning form of existence (Chester with twenty-four plays, the York cycle with forty-eight).
The rise of the influence of England's craft guilds and English as a national language during the 14th century helped to galvanize the formation of the cycles, concurrently fulfilling desires to show off the wealth and skill of the participating trade organizations as well as the colour and intricacies of the vernacular English, and its viability as a medium for religious drama.
II. Production and Pre-Staging
In each occasion, the responsibility of each pageant was assigned to one or more of the cit'"s trade guilds – with minimal oversight from the civic authorities. In the case of York, the governing body of the city would convene early in Lent to decide whether to to authorise a Corpus Christi pageant for the coming season (or, in lieu of that, substitute one of the other plays in the city"s repertoire) If they moved in favour of Corpus Christi, each appointed guild's pageant master – an officer given the charge of producing his guild"s scene – would begin to collect 'pageant silver' from the guildsmen that would be used to cover production costs. The next step, apparently, was to hire a director to oversee matters of preparing the wagon, actors, props, costumes, rehearsals, and other facets of the show.
The plays were held in high esteem by the merchant class, as it provided an important source of revenue through the attraction of a considerably large outside audience. Regular production of the plays ensured a regular stimulus to the city's economy, especially with regard to the provision of food, drink, and lodgings for visitors. Furthermore, they capitalized on both a strong sense of civic pride and community spirit unique to the fledgling towns of the middle ages – sentiments, that, a 21st century director might admit – are impossible to completely recreate in a modern day theatrical production of any kind.
It seems that church authorities had no direct part in the production of the plays themselves at the official level, though individuals within the church were surely involved in the construction of individual pageants; evidence in the records of the Mercers' and Bakers' guilds of York exists to suggest that the director of these pageants was sometimes a cleric. The modern-applied term, however, is something of a misnomer, as the 'director's' tasks included not only stage management but the hiring, rehearsal, and payment of the actors by means of the pageant silver fund set up by the pageant master. As the director himself was a non-member who was directly employed and paid by the guilds, this suggests a genuine concern for professionalism in the presentation of the cycle.
This was shared by the civic officials of York, who introduced several means of regulation for the plays in an attempt to ensure the quality of their content, to keep the length of each pageant to its allotted time span, and to produce a master list of the organizations which would be involved that year at the performance. The first, originally drafted in 1415, was the Ordo Paginarum, which consists of a long list of guilds that produced and performed plays of Corpus Christi that year along with a brief synopsis of each"s respective subject matter in the right-hand margin of the text. On the heels of this document came a master text of the entire Corpus Christi pageant called 'The Register,' which was assembled sometime in the latter half of the 15th century, midway through the cycle"s lifespan and used by civic officials to check the actual content of the plays against the dialog that was presented onstage. It is therefore no coincidence that such a document was created at this period, for at that time the dramatic procession was beginning to surpass its liturgical counterpart in terms of both reputation and popularity.
At Chester, in contrast, the city records are not quite as forthcoming with information on its cycle. There is evidence to suggest that collective organization took place outside of the direct supervision of the local government and under an informal syndicate of guilds instead. It can be said with certainty that the Chester craftsmen mounted pageants in plays on Corpus Christi day by the year 1422, by proof of which exists a signed agreement in the custody of the Coopers' guild. Numerous other contracts and covenants exist in written agreements between various guilds regarding the division of labour and financial duties among the various participants. The city council was responsible, however, for shifting the date of the plays to Whitsunday itself in the early 16th century – possibly to avoid schedule conflicting with Chester's Midsummer watch, a newly-developed holiday created sometime at the end of the 1400"s.
The city authorities and, by proxy, the pageant masters, had considerable power to sanction negative behaviour exhibited by those whom they employed, mostly in the form of fines, which could be extremely stiff in some cases. They were mainly used as a protective measure to ensure that the actors fulfilled their assigned duties. However, as evidenced at York, there was an effort to limit the players from each taking on more than one role. In addition with keeping the cycle running smoothly by stressing allegiance to just one pageant, it also implies an effort to control professional actors, as it stands to reason that if one actor was playing in two separate pageants, he was playing in at least one that did not belong to his guild – and that he was doubly assigned due to either his skills as an actor or to personnel shortages (the latter being a lack of foresight on the director's behalf). In this way, the one-actor-per-role limit kept an elite set of players from monopolizing the highly-sought after parts and insured that directors would engage the correct number of players for each pageant.
Near the end of the preliminary planning stages, the performance would be announced and advertised by the posting and recitation of banns within the city itself and throughout the countryside, proclaiming not only the dates and details of the plays, but also a command for public order and relinquishment of weapons. At York too, a document entitled the Proclamacio ludi corporis christi was utilised, which stated the general regulations for public conduct as well as prescribing how the pageants should be played and their processions expedited as best as they could be.
The Corpus Christi plays at the towns of York, Chester, and Coventry are concluded, through the aid of surviving guild documents, to have been presented processionally through the streets in pageant wagons. In contrast, the plays of the Ludus Coventriae, better known as the 'N-Town' cycle, were acted not in a series of sequential pageants but on a standing group of wagons arranged around a central viewing area, called a 'place,' from which the audience could see the action from the inside in a reverse form of theatre in the round. This was performed not by a trade guild cooperative but by a single religious organization, the Guild of St. Anne, of which every man and woman in Lincoln (the most probable place of N-town's staging) was a member. After 1470 the plays were given a new day of staging on St. Anne's day itself (26th July) and the format was adjusted to allow a procession to St. Anne's cathedral, whereupon the wagons arranged themselves on a central playing space and conducted the action. Six different scaffolds were apparently used for the first part of its Passion sequence, and the action could have moved very fluidly from one scaffold to another, according to stage directions. Spectators had the opportunity to watch from stands or the scaffolds themselves.
At York, the wagons are believed to have been taken in a proper sequence around the city in a fixed route, and halted at a series of predetermined stations (usually twelve) where audiences would be waiting in advance, the more well-off being resting in rented seats in specially-constructed scaffolds. The performance is known to have first commenced at 4:30 a.m., when the first pageant (The Barkers' Guild's Creation and Fall of Lucifer) proceeded to the first station. With forty-eight plays in the York cycle, it has been proven by modern calculations that it would not have been until after midnight that the last play ended at the last station. Although this may lead one to jump to conclusions on the attention spans and endurance of medieval folk, it must also be remembered that the York Corpus Christi Festival by no means depended nineteen hours of rapt, uninterrupted attention from its audience. The spectators were free (assuming they were not tied to some form of obligation to their seats in the scaffoldry) to move about from station to station, peruse vendors for food, beverages, and other offerings, and to skip parts of the play that their interest or stamina could no longer tolerate – keeping in mind that the missed plays could usually be made up at next year's festivities.
The pageants of Chester deviated over time quite a bit from their original attachment to the Corpus Christi procession. It is known that from the periods of 1422 – 1472 that the play was associated with the city"s procession from the church of St. Mary-on-the-Hill to the church of St. John, and it hypothesised that the play was performed only at the final destination. Other records show that the play was divided into three parts – the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of Whitsun week, using a different route than that of its complete predecessor. This play-form seems to have continued into the last date of performance, at 1575.
Again, the evidence as to why this action was taken is rather sketchy. Besides easing the stress on performers and audience by splitting the action into three days which followed one another, there is the possibility that different guilds performing on different days could share the same wagon to cut expenditure. To give an example, one pageant with a 'hill' on it was used over the course of three days as a setting for a shepherd"s pasture, Calvary, and (probably after a minor conversion) the Holy Sepulchre. However, because these pacts came about after the change had already occurred, it cannot be said with certainty if they were a contributing cause to the shift or simply an effect of it after it already came about. In a broader sense, at least, the split performance had enormous symbolic overtones to a Catholic audience, being broken into three distinctive, but united segments. The cycle was enacted not only under the pressure of the Eucharist per the original edict, but in the context of Whitsun, which commemorates the coming of the Holy Spirit, and also of the following Trinity Sunday, which pays homage to the holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The change in scheduling brought in addition artistic implications, as each of the three parts of the play becomes episodic and distinct, moving from its own beginning to a clearly defined conclusion. To wit, the first day spans the stories of the Creation and Fall of the Angels to The Magi's Gifts, the second, The Massacre of the Innocents to the Harrowing of Hell, and finally, The Resurrection to Doomsday.
Since each participating guild had autonomy with the construction of its pageant wagon, no real standard for the Corpus Christi cycle was ever instituted. Wagons were cheap and easy to construct or acquire and outfit according to both tastes and necessities. There are no hard and fast generalizations to be made except that each wagon was custom-fitted for its assigned purpose, and spacious enough to accommodate actors, properties, scenery, and (if called for) special effects machinery – all without being too long, high, or unwieldy to navigate through the city streets. A record at Coventry granting a parcel of land 70 ½ ft long by 30 ½ ft wide survive from 1432 for the erection of the Weavers' 'paiont hows,' yet do not give actual dimensions of the wagon itself. Arnold Williams estimates about 18 ft long by 8 ft wide, yet, in light of the narrow, cramped nature of medieval streets, he is afraid his may be too generous of an answer. Richard Beadle provides a more compact 8 ft by 10-14 ft figure, and theorises that the wagons could have had a square front opening to increase not only mobility when turning corners but visibility as well. Supporting this claim is an account by a Archdeacon Robert Rogers, a witness to one of the Chester plays in the 15th century (comments in parentheses):
'(T)hese pageants, or carriage was (sic) a high place, made like a house with two rooms, being open at the top: in the lower room they apparelled and dressed themselves and in the higher room they played, and (they) stood upon six wheels.'
In this case, the 'top' most likely means the upper floor of the wagon. If that is indeed the case, then the wagon could have been used as a thrust stage, surrounded on at least three sides by the audience and playing in the direction of the procession"s orientation.
This is, of course, presupposing that the drama itself was limited to the wagon stage at York – or that there was even action at all. As the famous stage direction from Coventry ('Here Erode ragis in (the) pageant and in the street also' ) suggests, some pageant directors might have been partial to the idea of presenting some scenes up close and personal to the audience in a maneuver that would minimise the distance between the public and the story being presented. In addition, certain scholars have concluded that the plays were performed at the stations as tableaux vivant, a pantomime of sorts performed in lieu of the dialog, and that the pageants were acted out away from the procession in a single location. Although it is a bold proposal to solving the problems of staging an extremely long cycle – the York play in some years numbered as high as fifty-seven pageants, and there were sixteen stations by 1554 – it is considered very controversial, and has also been countered by the claim that some scenes were simply omitted in some years in order to adhere to a self-imposed maximum number of pageants.
IV. Costuming, Music, and Special effects
Costuming fell under the dominion of the pageant-master. Clothing was for the majority of characters contemporary, with little attempt at historical accuracy or embellishment beyond ways to denote race or rank. Soldiers, peasants, tradesmen, and other simple people were probably apparelled onstage not too differently from others at that time, and although visually anachronistic, their outfits provided a comfortable frame of reference against which the audience could scale the rest of the action. Indeed, taken together with the highly regional dialogue, it is difficult to imagine Mak and his fellow personalities in the Second Sheperd's Pageant of the Wakefield plays as anything other than a group of plain-speaking English rustics.
Dressing pre-eminent and supernatural figures was another thing entirely. Besides hiring the needed accoutrements, the trade guilds manufactured some outfits and accessories, and custom-applied makeup was a favourite way to convey variances in ethnicity. Herod's face was painted along with his falchion at Coventry. The artificial swarthy complexion, along with the curved sword's slight resemblance to a middle-eastern scimitar made him look as much as an infidel as an Englishman at that time could imagine. Some Coventry accounts mention his helmet as well, apparently of iron, but possibly decorated with silver, gold, and green foil. As Herod is often depicted in imagery wearing a turban or peaked cap that ends in the face of a demon (likely an indicator to his soul"s state of grace, or lack thereof) it can be assumed that the cap of Coventry was designed in a similar fashion. That, combined with a padded mace which he used to strike others in the pageant, would no doubt make his choleric rantings calling for the Massacre of the Innocents a truly over-the-top spectacle.
In addition to the Church, the garments that represented biblical kings were often hired or borrowed from notable persons. The Minute Books of Lincoln show that in the early 16th century, each alderman had to provide a silk gown for the 'kings in the St. Anne's day processions.' Long wigs and beards would also be demanded to transform a normally clean-shaven, short-haired English actor into an ancient prophet, and wigs would be unavoidable in the portrayal of women, although it is known that at Chester, some female parts were filled by women.
Masks were a favourite way to portray supernatural characters. A record for the Mercers' Guild of York contains a list for several articles, among them, six devils' faces and a gilded visor for God. A 1564 ledger in the Coventry Guild of Weavers' accounts for the 'payntyng of Jesus heade' which may mean a gilded mask used to represent His face in an identical manner. Hidden behind a mask, not only was a character"s appearance dramatically altered, but his own natural range of expression substituted for an artificial one that was both formidable and unwavering, and therefore probably the best staging choice to define such characters as superhuman or supernatural forces. Children would have played the parts of angels and been equipped with wings, probably crafted of gilded leather and decorated with feathers.
In contrast to the heavy usage if not outright reliance of music in the forms of church drama which preceded it, the Corpus Christi plays assigned it a more auxiliary role in their performances: mainly, as a way to segue between scenes and herald the arrival of divine figures or miracles with an aural flourish. Little actual music is contained in the English manuscripts. More commonly, the staging directions call for the singing of a particular hymn, presumably in an a capella plainsong. The manuscripts are even more vague on the matter of instrumental music in the cycles. Although sometimes mentioned in stage directions, the account records, especially those of Chester and Coventry, provide slightly more substantial information on the role of minstrels in the plays. A Coventry account, for example, lists payments for a trumpeter, 'dromming,' six musicians and two 'clarks' for singing – definitely not a huge outlay, considering the magnitude of the plays. For the most part, bit musicians were primarily engaged to provide fanfares, when needed in the pageant.
Medieval stage managers had a wealth of tools at their disposal for the staging of special effects, most of which would have been kept behind the carts or in the curtained lower stage, to keep them from distracting from the dramatic experience. A windlass – a crankable barrel winch – would have been indispensable in allowing actors to defy gravity, as long as they had a rope securely fastened around their waists. In addition, multiple-tiered wagons made traffic between various levels of heaven, earth, and hell not only possible but an important part of staging – based on the logical premise that, in order to represent two different planes of existence, one should show their physical relationship to own another. York's Fall of the Angels pageant would thus require at least a two-level stage to portray heaven and hell, with perhaps even a third level above heaven, reserved for God.
When not employed as a staging ground for the kingdom of heaven, stagehands could have occupied the upper storey to assist with special effects in the pageant. In the Annunciation scene of the Ludus Coventriae, for example, the script calls for the holy ghost to 'discendit with (three) bemys to (Mary), the sone of the godhed next with (three) bemys to the holy gost, the fadyr godly with (three) bemys to the son. And so entre all thre to here bosom…'
This representation of the 'sone of the trinitye' could have easily been staged by someone sliding three small dolls or figurines down three cables from above, the cables perhaps being gilded to represent the 'bemys' of light.
Light is an even more important motif in York's Annunciation pageant. Stage directions specify that the Star of the Nativity, possibly an oil lantern specially crafted in a recognizable star shape, should be mounted above the stable. Child actors playing as angels, as specified in the stage notes of the Chester Plays, could have carried the star above the stable and, on the right cue, pulled away enough of the roof's thatch to let the star shine inside.
Stuffed cloth dummies could have been used to represent the young victims of Herod's wrath, as the king's henchmen would have had ample opportunity to rip them from their mothers, skewer them on the ends of their spears and swords, and shake the impaled dolls on the ends of their weapons to simulate their death throes. Well-placed touches of fake blood, as well, painted on the dummies or the spear-ends could go a long way with injecting an extra touch of realism into the scene.
Effects staged at the bottom of the pageant were often of a more apocalyptic flavour. The guild responsible for the Last Judgment scene at Coventry went so far as to create an open furnace to represent the gates of hell, which could have been stoked by a bellows. It could easily produce a great quantity of heat, smoke, and (when properly fueled) the smell of brimstone – which no doubt greatly contributed to the infernal ambience. In addition, the Coventry Drapers list in an inventory a barrel used to simulate an earthquake – probably employed by being filled with stones and swung about to simulate the sound of buildings crumbling to the ground.
Bringing live animals onstage was a difficult but not impossible feat to conduct, although artificial versions were the more realistic alternative in most cases. In the Chester pageant of the Magi, for example, two wickerwork camels were introduced into the scene, each animated by two stagehands. The stage directions for the play of Cain and Abel in the Wakefield cycle has the First Murderer bringing with him a whole plow team of four horses and four oxen onstage, though in light of the figures we have seen for the dimensions of the wagons, it seems highly impractical that eight full-sized draft animals could have been transported around on the carts. There is more convincing evidence, however, that a real ox and ass were occasionally used in the Nativity scenes of the Chester pageants. Even in the Norwich pageant of Noah's Ark, there are clues that efforts were made to conduct the boarding of the animals in a realistic fashion. A series of carvings in the niche of Norwich Cathedral shows a man trying to carry a sheep under each arm at once, and a woman with a carrying a basket full of birds. Though it may be a stretch to imagine apes, leopards, and lions being herded onto a narrow playing space at Norwich, it is within the realm of possibility that various domesticated animals, when room allowed, were carried or herded on board, perhaps in union with the staging solution put into effect at Chester, with painted cards or some other form of abstract representation standing for the more exotic, dangerous, or sizable specimens.
V. Thematic elements
The development of the Corpus Christi plays is considered a hallmark of a larger movement in religious art of the middle ages toward Gothicism, a style which, in contrast to its more restrained predecessors, sought to bring the experience of Christ's suffering closer to the lives of ordinary lay persons, in that they could both better understand it and be able to relate it to their own lives. It was characterised, in the words of A.P. Rossiter, by the juxtaposition of scenes which contained both deep spiritual reverence and vulgar comedy, sometimes showing traits of what we would nowadays call 'dark' or 'gallows' humour. This was responsible for creating a 'disturbing doubleness of tone' in the way the plays were presented to a medieval audience. Comic relief provided by Noah's cantankerous, belligerent wife was offset by the impending sense of doom brought on by the knowledge of the Great Flood; the vignette with the stolen sheep in Mak's crib in the Second Shepherd's pageant of Wakefield walked a fine line between comedic episode and a blasphemous portrayal of the Adoration; and the offhand dialog of the soldiers at Calvary on their task at hand, subsequently turning into sadistic remarks to the victim himself after it is finished, helped to drive home the horror and agony of the Crucifixion.
Much of the content of the pageants was anachronistic simply for the sake of convenience. Pre-Christian era oaths directed at Jesus or 'Mahound' were chosen out of a simple need to stick to vivid, colloquial language. To give one such example from Wakefield"s Second Shepherd Pageant:
'Resurrex a mortis! Haue hold my hand
Judas carnas dominus! I may not well stand
My foytt sleeps, by Jesus, and I water fastand
I thought that we layd vs full nere Yngland'
These lines, uttered by the first shepherd as he recovers from Mak's 'night spell,' are completely meaningless in the time frame being represented in the pageant, and in fact acknowledge that he and his confederates are entirely out of place, as he dreamed that they were sleeping in England. Although the term 'ethnocentrism' had not yet been coined at that time, such ironic statements were bound to elicit at least a few laughs from the members of the audience who had a loose understanding of historical and cultural relativism.
It is interesting to note how each of the plays follows a distinct path of beginning, middle, and end in the form of man"s fall, redemption, and ultimate judgment, in an imitation of classic Aristotelian tradition, and how each theme is indicated more than once throughout the duration of the cycle. Lucifer's fall from Heaven portrays that of Adam's from Paradise, which his son is doomed to repeat in the slaying of his brother Abel. Noah's flood is a forerunner of the Last Judgment; his nagging wife, an allegory to Eve. Abraham's intended sacrifice of Isaac is paralleled by Christ's self-sacrifice in the New Testament. Viewed in this context by a medieval English audience, the cycles were not only a unique way of connecting to what they considered to be the greatest events in history, but also made use of the means to show how the whole play was connected in terms of a predictable cause-and-effect relationship, greatly enhanced by the heavy overtones of man's sin, redemption, and ultimate salvation by Christ.
VI. Modern Revivals of the Corpus Christi Plays
In the four centuries since the demise of the English Corpus Christi plays in the mid-1500s, they had long been regarded by historians as a lowbrow, vulgar form of religious drama. The secularisation that led performances away from the church itself and into the public sector was seen as having corrupted the plays with inappropriate, even blasphemous comic overtones and other such ribaldry that detracted from the great Christian tradition instead of contributing to it. It was not considered proper that elements of comedy and drama should be synthesized, a classical precept which prevented an abundance of respect and attention being afforded to the plays. Fortunately, more liberal 20th-century perceptions, not blurred by the same kind of stylistic expectations, have brought new attention and esteem to the old plays, as well as a desire to discover ways to recreate them.
The re-emergence (and rebirth) of the Corpus Christi plays is a relatively new occurrence in the long period since they were brought to a close. Stymieing efforts by historians and dramatists to perform the plays in public settings in England were numerous blasphemy laws, which at the beginning of the 21st century made it impossible to represent God on stage, and thus, would have greatly limited the magnitude of any attempt at a large-scale production.
That fiat was first circumvented by drama director E. Martin Browne in 1951, as he obtained special permission to stage his own modified version of the York Play for the Festival of Britain in the grounds of St. Martin's Abbey. Browne chose to make his plays more accessible to a modern audience by cutting its duration to less than three and a half hours and performing it in an area well within the gaze of the public eye. At the ruins of the Abbey Church of St. Mary at York, he constructed a large platform stage about 78 inches off the ground, allowing beneath it the Holy Sepulchre and the portrayal of scenes such as the Fall of Man, Crucifixion, and so on. Directly across the stage, five arches of its north wall and northwest corner were employed as a background. A corner stairway led some twenty feet up to a 'Heaven' of clere-story windows, which behind the central one stood God's throne. On either side of this throne were the windows reserved for the angels and for Christ Himself at the Last Judgment. A large hell mouth was positioned at the very far end of the stage, representing its distance from God and the conflict between good and evil, which stretched in spatial as well as symbolic terms from the realm of heaven to the gates of hell on the other side of the playing area.
Throughout the rest of the 1950s came other experiments to revivify the plays of the period, although they sought to recreate a kind of place and scaffold staging arrangement rather than the traditional mobile pageantry stations or theatre-in-the-round. At York in 1954, Noah's Flood was given on a pageant in two separate stations in the city, followed by the Red Sea in 1957. In what must have been a highly anachronistic but pragmatic staging decision, a railway wagon measuring 16 x 6 feet was converted and utilized in both instances. Noah's Ark was constructed upon it for the first play, followed by a throne for Pharaoh to be used in the second. The Red Sea, incidentally, was a long linen cloth, painted with waves, that was suddenly thrown up over Pharaoh and his men as they attempted to pursue Moses. A production of the Chester plays was performed at Bryanston School in 1955 in the same spirit as Browne's endeavour with York, staged in the old refectory of the town's monastery.
By the 1970's, England's blasphemy laws had been repealed, and the first full-length performance of a 14th century Cornish cycle was played at one of the surviving staging places, Pirran Round. At this time, though, there was much scholarly debate as to the feasibility of processional staging – both in medieval in modern times. Much speculation was still given as to whether or not full-length processional staging was still a feasible thing that could have been conducted in an all-out fashion.
This controversy was challenged in May of 1975, when a graduate of the University of Leeds' Centre for Medieval Studies, Jane Oakshott, managed to stage a modern wagon performance in Leeds' university precinct. With the aid of twenty-one university departments and sixteen other local and church groups being assigned different episodes, Oakshott managed to mount a full production numbering thirty-six pageants in length. As in medieval times, the assignments were made partially out of practical concern, with the task of the fabrication of the Magi's crowns delegated to the Department of Metallurgy, or the university's civil engineers being entrusted to safely plan and stage the Crucifixion. Three different stations were used in the 1975 production, each being fairly close-set to the other. Stalls were also set up along the route, where visitors could buy food and drink as well as novelties such as papal indulgences and various charms. The audience was also involved with music, and instead of Latin hymns being sung only among the actors, Oakshott opted for the singing of 'Ye watchers and ye holy ones' at the end of the evening in a candlelit procession, with brass accompaniment.
The University mounted another complete cycle with Oakshott's help, that of Chester, in 1983. Three distinct practices were begun this year which ended up contributing to the quality of subsequent productions. The first was a complete set of period-correct costumes for all of the actors involved (amounting to more than four hundred outfits) designed by Meg Twycross. Secondly, the troupe performed the play in the still-controversial end-on style, mentioned earlier in this essay. Finally, there was an effort to return some of the old pageants to their original playing place, as eight pageants and their accompanying wagons were sent to the original stations of High Cross and Eastgate at Chester, after their performance at Leeds was completed.
Throughout the rest of the century, further incarnations of the plays were produced, with increasing degrees of success. Oakshott's initiative helped to bring the plays out of academic obscurity into the public limelight, where, in some cases, they have been re-established as a payment of homage to a lost tradition, proving that the magnitude and effect of this form of drama have not diminished throughout the centuries.
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