Towneley Plays Essay - Critical Essays

Towneley Plays


Towneley Plays

The Towneley plays, also referred to as the Wakefield plays, are a cycle of medieval English mystery dramas comprised of thirty-two religious pageants dramatizing biblical history from the Creation to Judgment Day. Although few details are known about their authorship or mode of presentation, a number of the Towneley plays have been attributed to the anonymous author commonly called the Wakefield Master. Praised for their skillful handling of language, adept use of humor, and successful blending of secular and sacred themes, the plays have received much critical attention in the latter half of the twentieth century; two Towneley dramas in particular, Noah and The Second Shepherd's Play, are among the best-known and most frequently anthologized of all mystery plays.

Textual History

The only extant manuscript of the Towneley plays was in the possession of the Towneley family of Burnley, Lancashire, until they sold it in 1814. The family, scholars believe, probably obtained it from the Abbey of Widkirk, near Wakefield, York. Historians have proposed that the plays began to be written down in the late thirteenth century and were completed around the early fifteenth century, with the only known manuscript dating from the sixteenth century. Textual evidence from the plays themselves links the pageants to the locality of Wakefield, but, although the manuscript identifies the plays as the "Wakefield Cycle," scholars have concluded that no such cycle actually existed. Rather, the manuscript seems to have been a collection from which to chose individual productions, and, judging from signs of heavy use, probably a transcription intended for acting purposes. There are few staging instructions in the manuscript, but many of the plays as written could not have mounted on the typical pageant wagon. Because of the specific, complex staging requirements of individual dramas, scholars believe that they may have been acted out on multi-level scaffoldings.

The group now consists of thirty-two plays; two additional plays are believed to have been lost, and two (numbers xxxi and xxxii) to be placed out of order in the manuscript. Considered the most pieced-together of all the mystery play groups, the Towneley plays were much revised and rewritten over time. Based on the metrical and stanzaic forms used in the texts, scholars have discerned three layers of influence in the plays: ordinary didactic-religious plays, plays derived from the earlier York group of plays, and plays that appear to have been written by a single author and that are characterized by a bold sense of humor. The five plays derived from York are Pharao, Pagina Doctorum, Extraccio Animarum, Resureccio Domini, and Judicium. Critics are in agreement in attributing the Mactacio Abel, Processus Noe cum Filiis, Prima Pastorum, Secunda Pastorum, Magnus Herodes, and Coliphizacio to the Wakefield Master. Written in a North Mid-land dialect, these plays display the Wakefield Master's trademark style—use of thirteen rhyme words in each nine-line stanza, humor, and word play.

Plot and Major Characters

The plot of the Towneley plays is the plot of biblical accounts of the creation, humankind's fall from grace, the life of Jesus, his crucifixion, and resurrection. The plays were intended to show, by example and illustration from various biblical and apocryphal stories, how humankind deviated from the path that God ordained for them, and how they may be saved. Major characters in the plays are personages from the Bible, with Noah, Jesus, Herod, and Pilate having some of the most prominent parts. Scholars have pointed out that, while characters are often similar in various plays and in various cycles, they can also vary from play to play. So, for example, Pilate can be a buffoon in one pageant, and a wise judge in another.

Major Themes

The Towneley plays blend liturgical and everyday themes, often with humor and satire, and sometimes, as in Noah and The Second Shepherd's Play, with humor that is downright boisterous. The bickering between the henpecked Noah and his wife, and the concerns of the petty thieves in The Second Shepherd's Play coexist in those plays with serious commentary regarding God's plan for humankind and with admonishment about the dangers of straying from the path of Christian behavior. In other plays, religious themes are placed alongside social criticism—for example, a critique of cock-fighting or exposition of corrupt churchmen. The range of situations depicted in the various pageants showcases humankind's suffering as a result of sinfulness as well as their seemingly endless capacity for hope and self-improvement. Therefore, the plays exhibit a mixture of realistic detail and biblical typology, humor and didacticism, along with a pronounced interest in rhetoric, linguistic playfulness, and the legal terminology of the day.

Critical Reception

Martial Rose has deemed the Towneley plays "the most dramatic series of [the medieval mystery] plays" because of their varied themes, colorful characters, and linguistic brilliance. Despite those characteristics, however, the plays were considered rather primitive popular entertainments up until the early twentieth century. When modern scholars turned their attention to the Towneley plays, one of the main critical debates that emerged regarding their artistic merit was the question of their unity. Some critics theorized that, while humor is one of the unifying elements in the cycle, it is also misplaced thematically because it subverts, especially in Herod and The Second Shepherd's Play, the sacred meaning of the plays. Acknowledging that the plays are a mixture of folk drama, mummers' plays, and liturgical drama, most critics now view the Christian themes in the plays as overriding and as that which structures as well as lends unity to the plays. Another point of discussion among critics has been deciding to what extent, if any, the Wakefield Master can be credited with the final shape of the Towneley plays. Some critics limit his role to the six plays closely identified with his style, others, like John Gardner, maintain that he may have been the final reviser and shaper of all the plays, and still others, like Martin Stevens, theorize that he may have been the author of the entire cycle, the "guiding intelligence" of all the Towneley plays. In the latter decades of the twentieth century, The Second Shepherd's Play has received the most critical attention of any of the Towneley plays, yet scholars continue to demonstrate an interest in exploring the plays, both individually and as a group. So, for example, E. Catherine Dunn has studied the several manifestations of the narrative voice in the plays, Jeffrey Helterman has focused on the interplay of typology and realism, and several critics have charted the interconnection between the use of humor, didacticism, and rhetorical style in the Towneley plays.

The Plays

  1. The Creation (incomplete)
  2. Mactacio Abel (The Killing of Abel)
  3. Processus Noe cum Filius
  4. Abraham (incomplete)
  5. Abraham and Isaac (incomplete)
  6. Jacob
  7. Processus Prophetarum (incomplete)
  8. Pharao
  9. Cesar Augustus
  10. Annunciatio
  11. Salutacio Elezabeth (The Visitation)
  12. Prima Pastorum (First Shepherds' Play)
  13. Secunda Pastorum (Second Shepherds' Play)
  14. Oblacio Magorum (The Gifts of the Magi)
  15. Fugacio Joseph & Marie in Egiptum (The Flight to Egypt)
  16. Magnus Herodes (Herod the Great)
  17. Purificacio Marie (The Purification) (incomplete)
  18. Pagina Doctorum (The Doctors) (incomplete)
  19. Johannes Baptista (John the Baptist)
  20. Conspiracio (The Conspiracy)
  21. Coliphizacio (The Buffeting)
  22. Flagellacio (The Scourging)
  23. Processus Crucis (The Way of the Cross)
  24. Processus Talentorum (The Talents)
  25. Extraccio Animarum (The Harrowing)
  26. Resurreccio Domini (The Resurrection)
  27. Peregrini (The Pilgrims)
  28. Thomas Indie (Thomas of India)
  29. Ascencio Domini (The Ascension) (incomplete)
  30. Judicium (The Last Judgment) (incomplete)
  31. Lazarus
  32. Suspencio Jude (The Hanging of Judas) (incom plete)

Principal Editions

The Towneley Plays, edited by J. Raine, or J. Hunter, or J. S. Stevenson, 1836

The Tonweley Plays, edited by George England, 1897; reprinted 1973

The Wakefield Pageants in the Towneley Cycle, edited by A. C. Cawley, 1958

The Wakefield Mystery Plays, edited by Martial Rose, 1969


Alfred W. Pollard (essay date 1897)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Towneley Plays, edited by George England, 1897. Reprint by Oxford University Press, 1925, pp. ix-xxxi.

[In the following excerpt from his introduction to George England's highly respected edition of The Towneley Plays, Pollard discusses the relative merits of several of the plays and singles out The Second Shepherd's Play as "perfect as a work of art."]

Long before the publication of the York Plays, the composite character of the Towneley was recognized by its first editor, though the reasons he assigned were less happy than his surmise itself [In a footnote, the critic adds: "He says that there are no Yorkshireisms in the...

(The entire section is 3184 words.)

Homer A. Watt (essay date 1940)

SOURCE: "The Dramatic Unity of the Secunda Pastorum" in Essays and Studies in Honor of Carleton Brown, New York University Press, 1940, pp. 158-66.

[In this influential early study of the literary value of The Second Shepherd's Play, Watt examines such aspects of the piece as structure, symbolism, parallelism, and use of music.]

Considered as effective drama many of the English miracle plays are, it must be admitted, pretty sorry stuff. Indeed, they could hardly be otherwise. The essential story was dictated by biblical material that did not always offer a dramatic conflict. In transferring this material from Bible to play the anonymous authors were...

(The entire section is 2765 words.)

A. C. Cawley (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Wakefield Pageants in the Towneley Cycle, edited by A. C. Cawley, Manchester University Press, 1958, pp. xi-xxxiii.

[In the following excerpt from his introduction to his much-admired translation, Cawley offers a general assessment of the style of the plays, focusing especially on the Wakefield playwright's adept and masterful use of language.]


Although the raw materials of the Wakefield pageants are as variegated as life itself, it is clear that the Christian tradition is the dominant influence on these pageants.

The Towneley cycle, like every other Corpus...

(The entire section is 3681 words.)

Martial Rose (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Wakefield Mystery Plays, edited by Martial Rose, 1961. Reprint by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1969, pp. 19-55.

[Below, Rose discusses the staging of the Wakefield plays, elaborating on his theory of the use of a circular set and the combined staging of several of the plays.]


The reference concerning the suppression of the Wakefield Plays in the records of the Diocesan Court of High Commission at York is one of the very few pieces of external evidence that Wakefield possessed a cycle of mystery plays. The document tells us that the plays were planned for 'Whitsonweke…or...

(The entire section is 6068 words.)

E. Catherine Dunn (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "The Literary Style of the Towneley Plays," in The American Benedictine Review, Vol. 20, No. 4, December, 1969, pp. 481-504.

[Dunn examines the narrative voice in the various parts of the Towneley cycle, characterizing it as prophetic and lyrical. She also comments on the function of language and its role in the development of the plays.]


The nature of the meaning in the Towneley cycle, like that of other Corpus Christi plays, is historical in the sense that the Sacred Scriptures are historical, and by the same token, prophetic of a realization yet to be achieved by the dynamic historical process. The genre...

(The entire section is 8077 words.)

Walter E. Meyers (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: An introduction to A Figure Given: Typology in the Wakefield Plays, Duquesne University Press, 1969, pp. 7-20.

[In the following excerpt, Meyers describes his approach toward studying the Wakefield plays and his particular focus on typology in order to demonstrate the plays' unity and sophistication as literary works.]

The traditional view of the Middle English cycle plays has been unenthusiastic: it has claimed that the cycles cannot be judged as works of dramatic art since each cycle as a whole lacks an overall unifying structure, and that the individual plays are formless and hopelessly mixed in style. This is the traditional view, and probably the most...

(The entire section is 5174 words.)

Rosemary Woolf (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "Navity Plays, II," in The English Mystery Plays, University of California Press, 1972, pp. 182-211.

[In the brief excerpt below, Woolf analyses the First and Second Shepherd's Play in the light of their portrayal of shepherds and their role in other English mystery plays.]

The dramatists in their treatment of the Nativity and of the events preceding it had a wealth of apocryphal or meditative amplifications to draw upon. The story of the shepherds, however, had gained no accretions of this kind. The basis therefore remained Luke ii, 8, 'And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night'....

(The entire section is 4959 words.)

John Gardner (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: A prologue to The Construction of the Wakefield Cycle, Southern Illinois University Press, 1974, pp. 1-12.

[In the following prologue to his study of the structure and unity of the Wakefield plays, Gardner argues that, although the dramas may have been written by different hands, "at a late stage of cycle evolution, one poet took the whole hodgepodge in hand and, by ingenious revision and some rewriting, shaped the collection into an artistic unity."]

If we concentrate principally on the more obvious features of the techniques found in the Wakefield pageants—the characteristic stanza, the randy language, the social criticism—we find the pageants unusual....

(The entire section is 4557 words.)

Josie P. Campbell (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "The Idea of Order in the Wakefield Noah," in The Chaucer Review, Vol. 10, No. 1, Summer, 1975, pp. 76-86.

[Here, Campbell suggests that the theme of Noah is love and that the dramatic struggle in the play stems from the mistaken notion about mastery in marriage held by Noah and his wife.]

On the surface, the Wakefield Noah seems to be simply a working out of its biblical counterpart. Noah's opening prayer states that the world suffers from a malaise. The prayer is a recapitulation of the history of mankind, beginning with the creation, moving to his lifetime, and looking toward doomsday; and Noah's story is that of a second creation...

(The entire section is 3357 words.)

Clifford Davidson (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Jest and Earnest: Comedy in the Work of the Wakefield Master," in Annuale Mediaevale, Vol. 22, 1982, pp. 65-83.

[In the essay below, Davidson discusses the use of visual comedy in the Wakefield plays, focusing on the Second Shepherd's Play, Coliphizacio, Magnus Herodes, and Judicium. He stresses that the combination of humor and high didactic seriousness in the rhetorical style of the plays "provides a surprisingly strong presentation."]

The contribution of the Wakefield Master to the Towneley Manuscript has been carefully studied, and on the whole his work has received the highest praise from those who focus on theatrical skill rather than moral...

(The entire section is 6379 words.)

Martin Stevens (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "The Wakefield Cycle: The Playwright as Poet," in Four Middle English Mystery Cycles: Textual, Contextual, and Critical Interpretations, Princeton University Press, 1987, pp. 88-180.

[Stevens argues that a single individual, the Wakefield Master, was the compiler of the Wakefield cycle, marshalling historical, metrical, and "circumstantial" evidence to support his claim.]

…[The] York cycle developed over the years as a corporate enterprise. As civic pageantry it apparently started in improvisational performance, gradually became recorded in a series of texts by the performing guilds, and eventually was compiled by the city fathers into a register, or a...

(The entire section is 14557 words.)

Peter Meredith (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "The Towneley Cycle," in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre, edited by Richard Beadle, Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 134-62.

[In the following excerpt, Meredith discusses the general background of the Towneley plays, the style of the Wakefield Master, and the plays as part of a dramatic cycle.]

Almost certainly the most anthologised of all medieval English dramatic pieces is the so-called Second Shepherds' Play, containing the double story of Mak the sheep-stealer and the visit of the shepherds to Bethlehem. Through this public exposure, not only the play but the 'name' of the author also has become familiar—'The Wakefield...

(The entire section is 8078 words.)