The Wakefield Master was an unusually talented playwright. He used tradition and the Bible to create plays that make insightful comments on humanity. Although he was very much a medieval Christian, his authorial techniques presaged the outburst of English Humanism that occurred only two or three generations after he wrote. Notable for his wit and skill with language, he was also a highly skilled dramatist who took best advantage of what the form of the mystery pageant offered him. Characterization, format, theme, and staging—in these and the other major facets of drama he was superbly accomplished. He was therefore not only a good writer of mystery plays, nor only a good medieval dramatist, but also a great dramatist for any age. Perhaps the strongest impression retained after reading his plays is that of a writer who knew people and knew how to show them truthfully onstage, one who understood the problems that afflict every generation.
To appreciate the Wakefield Master’s work, one needs to understand the nature of the mystery pageants, which were specialized religious dramas with staging and format requirements different from those of modern drama. Part of what elevates the Wakefield Master’s plays above the ordinary is his manipulation of the limitations of his dramatic form to obtain sophisticated dramatic effects. His actors were shopkeepers and laborers, his employers undoubtedly expected him to follow carefully the well-known biblical stories, and his stage was limited in the props and scenery it could contain. The Wakefield Master made these limitations into assets, using them to heighten the effect on his audience of the characters and events in his plays.
A medieval mysterypageant is a play that deals with the Christian concept of the universe. The creation of the world, the sacrifice of Christ, and the Judgment are parts of the mystery, with the life of Christ being central to all the events. Thus, in a mystery cycle, the creation of the world is related to the life of Jesus, as are the biblical events that precede his birth; events that follow his ascension to heaven are shaped by his life, with the end of the world coming as a logical consequence of Christ’s life. The word “cycle” has a double meaning: It refers to the medieval Christian concept of God’s creation as a unified whole, which the mystery cycle portrays with plays depicting Christian history beginning with God before the act of creation and ending with the final judgment. “Cycle” also refers to the medieval tradition of viewing life as cyclical. Therefore, a mystery cycle is a dramatic representation of the medieval Christian’s view of the universe. The mystery cycle presents the beginning and end of the world, unified and given their meanings by Jesus Christ.
Mystery plays are sometimes called Corpus Christi pageants because of their association with the spring Corpus Christi festival. The mystery cycles seem to have evolved as part of the public celebrations held after Easter, but their performances were held not only during Corpus Christi celebrations but also at other times, notably during Whit week. Regardless of whether they coincided with the Corpus Christi observances, these plays were springtime events and were profoundly religious in purpose. Their origins were both religious and secular, a blend that resulted in the mysteries of God’s work becoming powerfully accessible to lay audiences. Liturgical drama began in the early Middle Ages as a way to teach biblical ideas to illiterate audiences who could neither read their vernacular languages nor understand Latin. Such early plays probably were staged inside churches and were part of significant religious holidays. Late medieval performances of the Lincoln Corpus Christi plays were probably still staged at the Lincoln cathedral—although outside—long after liturgical drama had evolved into the complex mystery cycles and miracle plays (the miracle plays focused on the lives of saints, not on Christ). By the time the Wakefield Master wrote his plays, mystery cycles were well-established religious celebrations, with rules and audience expectations that he had to fulfill. The rules involved inclusion of important aspects of Christian faith, and the expectations were based not only on the biblical accounts themselves but also on Christian tradition. For example, tradition had it that the wife of Noah was a shrew: She was anticipated comic relief in the mystery cycle.
Indeed, extrabiblical tradition played a large role in the development of the mystery cycles and was an important influence on the Wakefield Master. The medieval audience rarely read the Bible; it developed embellishments and twists for biblical stories. Some of the embellishments linger in modern tradition: Satan with horns, hooves, and a tail; the Apostle John as Jesus’s closest friend; the apple as the forbidden fruit of which Adam and Eve eat in the Garden of Eden. The satire and ribald humor in the Wakefield Master’s plays reflect the influence of folk dramas such as the Feast of Fools, in which Church ritual was mocked. In addition to popular biblical traditions and folk dramas, the mystery cycles reflected some of Western Europe’s most significant secular—sometimes even pagan—myths. The death and rebirth of Christ is informed by old myths of hero-gods of the pre-Christian era; the legends of King Arthur and Roland reflect the old myths of heroes rising from their graves to help their people in times of peril. Christ was thus a secular hero-figure as well as a messianic one.
The Wakefield Master had to fulfill the basic purposes of the mystery plays, the foremost of which was to teach the audience about fundamental Christian doctrines. In Noah, he must communicate the idea of the Great Flood as God’s response to the sins of humanity and must be sure to tell his audience how animals and the human race were preserved. In the shepherds’ plays, he must convey the importance of the birth of Christ. In The Buffeting, the belief that Christ suffered as a surrogate for all people, past and future, is important.
Staging and Presentation
In addition to meeting such expectations, the Wakefield Master had to work within the peculiar stage conventions of the mystery pageant. No one knows exactly how the Towneley Cycle was staged in the era in which the Wakefield Master flourished, although many scholars assume that the Wakefield plays were staged in a manner similar to the staging of the York Cycle about which more is known. There were crucial differences between York and Wakefield that make some of the York practices unlikely for Wakefield, but York represents the broad pageant tradition in which the Wakefield Master worked. York was a relatively large and prosperous medieval city, with a large mercantile class. The mercantile class was divided into trades, and each trade was represented by a guild. Each guild was responsible for the performance of a particular play in the York Cycle. The effect of this is a fragmentation in the cycle; each play had to suit the available players in a given guild and would be altered to suit changes in the membership of the guild. Therefore the continuity found in the Towneley Cycle is not found in the York Cycle. Further, the cycles were associated with a processional tradition that was part of the Corpus Christi celebrations. The procession, a kind of parade, would involve an entire community; the guild actors would participate in their roles. Eventually the procession and the performances split because the cycles became too complex to be performed on the same day as the procession. In York, twelve to sixteen stations were designated along a processional route; at each station, a single audience could see all the plays. The stages were on large carts that were pulled by horses or oxen, and each stage belonged to a particular guild that was responsible for a particular play. Thus, Jesus, who would appear in several plays, would be performed by a different actor in each play; there was no continuity of actors from one play to the next. The York Cycle grew so long that it probably had to be performed on two or three consecutive days because of the time needed to move the stages from one station to the next.
The manner of the York Cycle’s presentation is generally believed by literary historians to be the standard one for mystery cycles, but Wakefield differed from York in ways that might have made the presentation of the Towneley Cycle significantly changed from that of the York Cycle. Wakefield was relatively small; it probably did not have the large number of guilds that York had. The Towneley Cycle is believed to have included at least thirty-two known plays; missing numbered leaves from its manuscript indicate that it consisted of even more plays in the Wakefield Master’s day. The city of Wakefield may have been too small to have the necessary number of guilds; it might even have had trouble finding enough actors for the multitude of roles if its plays were to have separate companies as in the York performances. In The Wakefield Mystery Plays, published in 1961, Martial Rose suggests that the Towneley Cycle was performed on one stage with the same actors playing the major roles throughout.
There is much to recommend the theory that the Wakefield plays were performed in a single location, probably in a theater-in-the-round. The Towneley Cycle was edited, perhaps by the Wakefield Master himself, to give it a continuity in structure and theme not found in the York Cycle. A continuity of actors and a minimum of guild plays would allow for such consistency. Also, the few records that exist indicate that the plays began and ended in one day; if they were performed in one place, they could have fit into the dawn-to-dusk schedule required by daylight performances (dusk was customarily the legal curfew). The Church, as with the Corpus Christi procession, could have had principal responsibility for staging the cycle, instead of the guilds, although there is evidence that, after the Wakefield Master’s day, at least a few guilds were given specific plays. This would explain the consistent editing that is evident throughout the cycle; the plays could have been the responsibility of a central group rather than many.
The theater-in-the-round was used by traveling companies. The Castle of Perseverance (c. 1440), one of the great medieval morality dramas, was roughly contemporaneous with the Towneley Cycle and was performed in an outdoor theater. The use of such a theater by traveling troupes indicates that this kind of stage could be quickly set up in a field. An easily set up outdoor theater would have been well suited to the needs of Wakefield and the annual...
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