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REPRESENTATIVE ENGLISH PLAYS
I. THE MIDDLE AGES
Pope Urban IV, when he instituted in 1264 the church festival of Corpus Christi, became a real though unwitting patron of the drama. On the continent, Corpus Christi Day, the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, was soon established as an occasion for presenting religious plays. In England espe
cially was the day notable, for the trade i guilds, the associations of craftsmen roughly
corresponding to the trade unions of our day, adopted it as their chief holiday, and assisted the church in its celebration with a procession through the town. In another way also they came to the aid of the church by taking over a form of activity which had for some time been growing in disfavor with the church authorities; namely, the performance of the liturgical plays. Originally introduced at Christmas and Easter for the edification of ignorant audiences, these became so popular that their primary didactic purpose was in danger of being forgotten. From motives in which religion and business — for the church feast brought visitors and trade to town were oddly mixed, the guilds added pageantry to their procession,
soon giving performances on 1
scale more sumptuous than the church had ever reached.
By the time that the miracle, or, as they are sometimes called, mystery, plays passed from the hands of Mother Church into the care of the guilds, they had already developed into a great drama of many acts, covering scriptural and apocryphal history from the Fall of the Angels to the Last Judgment. They were, therefore, well adapted for guild performance. Each guild took one section of the Bible story and tried to outdo its rivals in effectiveness of presentation. A quaint humor often marked the distribution of the separate plays among the various guilds. It is not difficult to see why, in the York plays, the Shipwrights undertook the Building of the Ark, and the Fishmongers the Flood; nor why in the same cycle the Goldsmiths selected the story of the Three Kings, with their offerings of gold and spices; the Vintners, the Miracle at Cana; the Bakers, the Last Supper. To the Tanners was assigned the Fall of Lucifer and the torments of the fallen angels in hell, where the tan
ning process was likely to be thorough; while the Cooks, well trained in taking things from the fire, could present, more fittingly than any other craft, the Harrying of Hell, with its delivery of well-roasted prophets and martyrs.
The performances took place upon pageant wagons, which could be drawn from place to place through the town. At street corners or open squares stations were assigned for the acting of the plays. When the play of the creation had been acted at the first station the pageant wagon moved on to the second station, while the story of the fall of Adam and Eve took its place at the first station, and so on. This method made possible the simultaneous production of many plays, each little audience, of course, seeing the entire sequence in the proper order. The wagons seem usually to have been built with two platforms, the lower curtained in and serv. ing as a dressing room for the actors, the upper as the stage. Stage properties were of the simplest. Among the most prominent was Hell mouth, a great gaping pair of jaws at one side of the stage, painted flame color and belching forth the smoke of the torment, from which leaped forth the Devil with his boisterous “ Ho! Ho!” and into which he pitched the lost souls with his wooden pitchfork and himself plunged at the end of the play. Some attempt was made at appropriateness of costume: God appeared in white leather, with gilded face and hair, the Devil in black leather, with full equipment of horns, hoofs, and a tail. But Herod boasted the full panoply of a knight of chivalry, and in general anachronism of attire as well as of speech was rampant.
We have records of such dramatic activity lasting from the thirteenth until far into the sixteenth century, all over England, as well as in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. Not only the cathedral towns but market towns and even villages had their collective or individual miracle plays. The greatest activity, however, seems to have been localized in certain places. There are extant manuscripts, the earliest belonging to the fifteenth century, for four great cycles of miracle plays: the York, Chester, Towneley or Wakefield, and Coventry cycles. While each has its indi
amusing things about the play is the naïveté with which the passage of time is recorded, (e. g., on p. 11). The local allusion of Noah's wife 7" Stafford blue," p. 8), and the oaths by Peter (p. 10), Mary (p. 8), and “ God's pain” (i.c., Christ's sufferings on the cross, p. 8), illustrate the lack of historical
vidual characteristics, all cover about the same ground and influences of one cycle upon another are evident. Of the authors practically nothing is known, but we infer that they were churchmen. What we know of the history of the miracles makes it seem improbable that any one man should have created all the plays of a cycle. As they come down to us they may rather represent the bringing together and amplification of the work of many hands, and such a cycle as that of York, with its forty-eight episodes, may have been in process of development for decades before its text was reduced to the comparative orderliness of our manuscript version. Occasionally, as in some plays of the Towneley cycle, there are manifest excellences in the handling of situation, the characterization, and the quality of the verse, which lead us to infer composition by a hand more competent than that of the average clerical playwright.
A modern reader is likely to underestimate the dramatic effectiveness of the miracle plays. Their writers had, of course, little or no apprehension of the niceties of technique
they were concerned chiefly with making the teaching of the play so plain that the most ignorant spectator must understand; hence the wearisome repetitions, the expounding of Christian doctrines in long didactic passages which sadly interrupt the action, the introduction of Doctor or Expositor to drive the moral home. The literary value of the miracles is not great. But they possess the virtues of strength and sincerity and human interest. With no finesse but with indubitable power they present some of the great episodes in the Bible story, in particular those of Christ's life and passion. By frequent bits of homely realism they made their audiences realize the humanness of the Bible figures, and that was a useful service. The occasional coarseness of language and situation should not blind us to the simple reverence of purpose and treatment. The impressiveness of the Passion Play at Oberammergau is sufficient evidence that the theory of the miracle play is sound.
The three plays which follow fairly represent the miracle at its best. Though the long didactic beginning of the Towneley Noah's l'lood is characteristic in its dullness, the play brightens up at once when Noah returns to the bosom of his family. From the rank and file of miracle personages a few stand out with special clearness, usually because the spirit of comedy has touched them into life. Of these Noah's wife seems to have been a particular favorite, for in the York and Chester cycles she plays the shrew as she does here, and in them also the taming of the shrew is done in the same rough-andtumble fashion. One of the unintentionally
The Brome play is so called because the manuscript
found in Brome Hall, Suffolk. Abraham and Isaac is the most truly pathetic of all the miracle plays. The scene is pathetic rather than tragic because, since Abraham is from the first determined to obey the will of God, his natural revulsion against killing his son never reaches the intensity of the struggle with fate, involved in true tragedy. But this is as close an approach to tragedy as we find at this stage of the drama. Despite the ineptitude and slowness of the beginning, the playwright really understands how to handle his material in such a way as to produce on the audience the effect he desires. A briefer · treatment would have been better -- he holds the situation till he gets the maximum emotional response,
but the tension of suspense is undeniable. The characterization is not quite individual; we feel about Abraham and Isaac that they are rather types of parenthood and childhood than an individual father and an individual son. The child's actual physical terror of the bright sword and his messages to his mother are notable as showing how the miracle authors sometimes visualized and humanized their material.
The Towneley Second Shepherds' Play (Second because the Towneley cycle contains two versions of the announcement to the shepherds ) is the flower of the miracle plays. Here is an admirable acting play, with plot, characterization, atmosphere. The exposition is clear and reasonably rapid, providing a neat differentiation of the three shepherds as they make their appearance one after another. Mak and Gill are masterpieces in miniature of comic characterization, done with deftness and gusto. The action mounts steadily to the climax; the understanding of the value of suspense at the climactic point, when the discomfited shepherds actually leave the house, only to return in response to the youngest shepherd's kindly thought of a gift to the child is proof enough that the man who? made this play was a real dramatist. After the punishment of Mak there is an artless transition to the angels' song and the tradi. tional bit of the gifts to the Christ child. The blending of Yorkshire setting and figures with the Bible story is naïve and delightful. This episode of Mak is true farce comedy, comedy better than anything else England was to produce till the middle of the sixteenth century.
Noah. Mightful God very, maker of all But burn in bale? for ay; that is,
Shall they never dissever. Three persons without nay,' one God in
Soon after that gracious lord to his likeendless bliss,
ness made man, Thou made both night and day, beast,
That place to be restored even as he befowl, and fish;
gan, All creatures that live may, wrought thou
Of the Trinity by accord, Adam, and at thy wish,
Eve, that woman. As thou well might;
To multiply without discord in paradise The sun, the moon, verament,
put he them, Thou made, the firmament,
And sithen 8 to both The stars also, full fervent,
Gave in commandment To shine thou made full bright.
On the tree of life to lay no hand. Angels thou made full even, all orders
But yet the false fiend that is,
Made him with man wroth, To have the bliss in heaven: this did thou
Enticed man to gluttony, stirred him to more and less,
sin in pride. Full marvelous to 'neven ; : yet was there
But in paradise securely ' might no sin unkindness
abide, More by folds seven than I can well ex- And therefore man full hastily was put press.
out in that tide, For why?
In woe and wandreth 10 for to be, pains Of all angels in brightness
full unrid 12 God gave Lucifer most lightness;
To know, Yet proudly he flitted 4 his dais,
First in earth, sithen in hell And set him even him by.
With fiends for to dwell, He thought himself as worthy as him that
But 18 he his mercy mell 14
To those that will him trow. 15 him made In brightness, in beauty; therefore he Oil of mercy he us hight,16 as I have him degraded,
heard rede, 17 Put him in a low degree soon after, in a To every living wight that would love braid,
him and dread; Him and all his meinie, where he may But now before his sight every living be unglad
lede, For ever.
Most part day and night, sin in word and Shall they never win away
deed, Hence unto doomsday,
Full bold; 1 denial,
9 certainly. 2 truly. 6 company. 10 wretchedness.
18 people. 11 MS, in pains.
15 believe. 4 forsook. 8 afterward.
Some in pride, ire, and envy,
And otherwise many fold.
take vengeance, For sin is now allowed without any re
pentance; Six hundred years and odd have I, with
out distance,20 On earth, as any sod, lived with great
I wither away.
me fall, Save from villainy, and bring to thy hall
I pray thee hear my steven ! 22
living, Duke, emperor, and king, with mine own
hand, For to have their liking by sea and by
sand, Every man to my bidding should be bow
By reason, and repent.
made him to be
24 thus will I wake,
[To] him to mickle win 31 hastily will I
go, To Noah my servant, ere I blin,32 to warn
him of his woe. On earth I see but sin running to and
fro, Among both more and min,33 each one
That will not repent.
Noah, my friend, I thee command, from
cares thee to keel,34 A ship that thou ordain 35 of nail and
board full well. Thou was alway well working, to me true
as steel, To my bidding obedient; friendship shall
Of fifty also in breadth.
19 covetousness; the
seven deadly sins
are here listed 20 without dispute,
21 offspring; under:
stand who before
84 cool, assuage.