The Chester Plays Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

The Chester Plays

Scholars once regarded the Chester Mystery Cycle as the crudest, least developed of the four surviving cycles of medieval English religious drama. The cycle itself is comprised of twenty-five plays that chronicle biblical history from the Creation to the Last Judgement. Little is known about the plays' authorship and performance history, though one theory attributes them to a member of a local monastery. The plays were originally staged in Chester sometime during the fifteenth century by different trade/craft guilds, but they were eventually banned during the Reformation in the latter half of the sixteenth century. Although twentieth-century scholars concur that Chester Cycle is the least attentive to matters of the ordinary human condition, they agree that its dramatic sequences are the most fideistic, and regard its author as more knowledgeable of the Bible than any of the cycle masters.

Textual History

Before 1474, the Chester cycle was probably little more than a short pageant dramatizing Christ's Passion that was staged by various trade or craft guilds on the feast of Corpus Christi. After years of revision and expansion, the pageant eventually evolved into an extended series of individual plays, becoming an elaborate theatrical event performed by and for the secular community. Early in the sixteenth century the performances had developed into a longer cycle which, by the mid-sixteenth century, was performed over a three-day period on several stages in the city of Whitsuntide. As the cycle became a popular annual civic event, it also came under strong scrutiny by Protestant religious officials. By 1561 revisions had been made to placate Protestant objections regarding certain subject matter, but Civic leaders in Chester still faced pressure from the Protestant authorities to cease the production of the plays on the grounds that they were theologically unsound. As a result, many plays, such as "The Assumption," were suppressed altogether. The last performance of the Chester cycle probably occurred in 1575, the year that the Archbishop of York banned its performance altogether.

The plays within the Chester Mystery Cycle are generally categorized either by their sequence, their subject matter, or the name of the guild that performed them. The Cycle itself survives in eight manuscripts—five of which contain cyclic versions of the Chester plays, and three which contain fragments—that date from the fifteenth to the early seventeenth century. The Manchester Fragment (a portion of the "Resurrection" play) and Peniarth 399 (which contains the entire "Antichrist" play) are the earliest known manuscripts of the cycle as they both date prior to 1500. The Chester Coopers' Guild manuscript contains the entire "Trial and Flagellation" play and dates from 1599, nearly twenty-five years after the cycle's the last performance. The later date of this manuscript suggests it was probably written as a preservation copy for the archives of the guild.

Major Themes

The Chester Mystery Cycle dramatizes the Old and New Testament episodes that illustrate the general theme of mankind's salvation. In the first two plays of the cycle, for example, the Fall of Man is presented as a thematic parallel to the Fall of Lucifer. Thoughout the course of the cycle, the eventual reconciliation of God and man is represented through the stories of characters like Abraham, Isaac, and Noah, and culminates in plays like the "Passion," "Crucifixion," and "Resurrection." While the God/man theme persists at one level, the cosmic struggle between good and evil—illustrated by dramatic representations of Lucifer and God battling for the souls of men—operates at another.

The Chester Cycle distinguishes itself from the other English medieval cycles in various other ways. Whereas other cycles tend to emphasize Christ's humanity so much so that scholars can easily identify a Franciscan influence, the Chester cycle emphasizes Christ's divinity. Also, Chester's representations of Mary and Eve—and of women in general—differ from the other cycles in that they occupy either a less-significant or less-developed role in the dramatization of good triumphing over evil, or of the reconciliation of man to God.

Critical Reception

The Chester Plays have been the focus of increased critical attention since they were acclaimed in the mid-twentieth century as being more than crude medieval representations. Scholars once regarded the Chester cycle as the earliest and least structurally complex of the four surviving cycles, probably due to its brevity. In the 1950s, however, F.M. Salter challenged the general supposition that the plays were written in the early fourteenth century by deducing Sir Henry Francis composed the plays in 1375. Though Salter's suggestions were much disputed, his work helped stimulate new critical discussion of the plays. Critical study has shifted in the past two decades from discussing the dates and authorship of the plays to examining the cycle's thematic and dramatic structures. Kathleen Ashley, for example, discusses in her 1978 article "Divine Power in Chester Cycle", the medieval, theological representation of God and his struggle with Satan and the Antichrist. Similarly Norma Kroll, in her 1987 article "Equality and Hierarchy in the Chester Cycle Play of Man's Fall", examines as part of the dramatic conflict in the "Fall of Man", the themes of power and authority in the relationships between the human characters and between man and God. Critics have also become more interested in the use of comic devices in the plays as part of the overall structure of the cycle. R. M. Lumiansky, Sidney W. Clarke, and Albert Tricomi, for example, have studied the thematic relevance of comic episodes in the cycle. Critics have also considered possible sources of the Chester cycle. In 1913 Hardin Craig suggested the cycle may have developed from medieval Christmas plays, and in 1931 Robert Wilson speculated that The Stanzaic Life of Christ influenced several plays within the cycle. More recently, critics such as Kevin J. Harty have studied the influences of monasticism and nominalism on the cycle. Modern critical approaches to the Chester Mystery Cycle have been as diverse in methodology as in academic focus. As a result, the plays have once again gained stature and influence within the English dramatic tradition.