The Chester Plays
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.
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.
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.
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.
I. Fall of Lucifer—the Tanners
II. Adam and Eve; Cain and Abel—the Drapers
III. Noah's Flood—the Waterleaders and Drawers of Dee
IV. Abraham, Lot, and Melchysedeck; Abraham and Isaac—the Barbers
V. Moses and the Law; Balaak and Balaam—the Cappers
VI. The Annunciation and the Nativity—the Wrights
VII. The Shepherds—the Painters
VIII. The Three Kings—the Vintners
IX. The Offerings of the Three Kings—the Mercers
X. The Slaughter of the Innocents—the Goldsmiths
XI. The Purification; Christ and the Doctors—the Blacksmiths
XII. The Tempation; the Woman Taken in Adultery—the Butchers
XIII. The Blind Chelidonian; the Raising of Lazarus—the Glovers
XIV. Christ at the House of Simon the Leper; Christ and the money-lenders; Judas' Plot—the Covisors
XV. The Last Supper; the Betrayal of Christ—the Bak ers
XVI. The Trial and Flagellation—the Fletchers, Bow yers, Coopers, and Stringers
XVIa. The Passion—the Ironmongers
XVII. The Harrowing of Hell—the Cooks
XVIII. The Resurrection—the Skinners
XIX. Christ on the Road to Emmaus; Doubting Thomas—the Saddlers
XX. The Ascension—the Tailors
XXI. Pentecost—the Fishmongers
XXII. The Prophets of Antichrist—the Clothworkers
XXIII. Antichrist—the Dyers
XXIV. The Last Judgement—the Websters
†Accompanying each title is the name of the guild that staged the play's performance.
Chester Mysteries: De Deluvio Noe. De Occisione Innocentium, edited by J. H. Markland, 1818
The Chester Plays, edited by Thomas Wright, 1843-1847, reprinted in 1853 The Chester Mystery Plays: Seventeen Pageant Plays from the Chester Craft Cycle, edited by Maurice Hussey, 1957
The Chester Myster Cycle: A Facsimile of MS. Bodley 175, edited by R. M. Lumiansky and David Mills, 1973
The Chester Mystery Cycle, edited by R. M. Lumiansky and David Mills, 1974
The Chester Mystery: A Reduced Facsimile of Huntington Library MS 2, edited by R. M. Lumiansky and David Mills, 1980
The Chester Mystery Cycle: A Facsimile of British Library MS Harley 2124, edited by David Mills, 1984
Hardin Craig (essay date 1913)
SOURCE: "The Origin of the Old Testament Plays," in Modern Philology, Vol. 10, April, 1913, pp. 473-87.
[In the following excerpt, Craig argues that the Old Testament plays in the Chester Cycle originated within the church itself "from the lectiones and responsoria of the period of Septuagesima and Lent…some weeks before Easter, " and later joined with the Easter and Christmas plays to form the cycles.]
The current theory of the origin of the Old Testament plays in the religious drama is derived from M. Sepet's  dissertation, "Les Prophètes du Christ." He there propounds the theory followed by subsequent writers [e.g. E.K. Chambers, in The Medieval Stage, 1911] that the plays on Old Testament subjects made their appearance in connection with the various prophets of
the Processus Prophetarum until there arose the whole series of Old Testament plays from the Fall of Lucifer to the Nativity of Christ.
The theory that the Old Testament plays, to use Mr. Chambers' expression, "budded off from the stem of the Prophetae," has not seemed to me to be adequate, and I venture to offer the following materials in support of another theory; namely, that the Old Testament plays, particularly those derived from the Book of Genesis and those relating to the Fall of Lucifer and the angels, in other words, the stock plays of the English cycles and of the popularly developed Continental cycles, did not originate from the Processus Prophetarum, but from the addition to the Passion play of a body of epical and homiletic material derived, in the first instance, from the lectiones and accompanying ritual of the church. Such additions must have been in the nature of deliberate amplification in the direction of a cyclical completeness long familiar in mediaeval literature and theology, as witnessed, for example, in the Old English poem of Genesis together with the other poems of that manuscript, in the sermons of Ælfric, and in the Cursor mundi. Such an amplification was, moreover, a natural development of the Passion and Resurrection and was required to bring out the full significance of those plays. This would connect the Old Testament plays with those that grew up at Easter, and not with those that grew up at Christmas. It presupposes the borrowing in certain cases, but by no means all, of the Prophetae into the Easter play, and there is no disposition to deny that for the Balaam play, the Nebuchadnezzar play, and probably others, Sepet's theory may be entirely correct.
M. Sepet's chief documents are the Rouen Prophetae, preserved in a fourteenth-century ordinarium, and the Ordo representationis Adae, a late twelfth- or early thirteenth-century play of Norman-French origin. With regard to the former, M. Sepet points out that, following a tendency which he calls "assimilation," the number of prophets in the procession has been increased. To the original list appearing in the eleventh-century Limoges Prophetae, which is a dramatized version of the famous pseudo-Augustinian Sermo contra Iudaeos, Paganos et Arianos de Symbolo, has been added a considerable number of prophets. Such a tendency no doubt operated widely, and there were probably other local amplifications similar to those at Rouen; but in examining the plays in their later forms no evidence can be found for any basal list of prophets more extended than that of the original sermon. The prophets common to the various English, German, and French plays are apparently the original set; namely, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Moses, David, Habakkuk, Simeon, Zacharias and Elizabeth, and John the Baptist, together with Virgil, Nebuchadnezzar, and the Sibyl. This does not bear on the question except negatively, as tending to show that a simple form of the Processus Prophetarwn was disseminated over a wide territory, and that its variations were of a local character.
In the Rouen play there are two cases of what M. Sepet calls the tendency to "amplify certain prophecies." The second one of these and the one of less importance is the Nebuchadnezzar episode. When the time comes for Nebuchadnezzar to utter his messianic prophecy, there is introduced a little play of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego with a fiery furnace "in medio navis ecclesiae." This play does not appear anywhere as a regular Old Testament play, and may be regarded as sporadic. The other is the Balaam play. When Balaam appears in the procession, he is seated "super asinam," and there is enacted the little play of the speaking ass. Only the first words of the speeches are given, but it is possible to follow the plays by reference to the sources.
The Balaam play is of fairly wide currency. It occurs as an appendage to the Ordo Prophetarum of Laon, a processus of primitive structure, where the Balaam episode is apparently a borrowing, and if so, an illustration of the mediaeval tendency to borrow widely rather than to originate from mere opportune suggestion. A Balaam episode occurs also in a somewhat imperfect form in the Benedictbeuern Christmas play, in the Chester Whitsun Plays, and in the French Mystère du Viel Testament. In the Chester cycle Balaam scene is merely an episode, though the principal one, in the Processus Prophetarum, as it is in the Benedictbeuern play, and had been from the time of its origin. The Mystère du Viel Testament is a compilation and as a whole probably not of popular growth; but it is to be noted that we have to do with the same Balaam play. In spite of considerable literary development, it shows traces of its origin. At the end of the play Balaam utters his familiar prophecy, "Une estoille istra de Jacob, etc." The play is out of its historical sequence and appears as an episode in the life of Moses. In the Chester cycle, also, Balaam follows Moses and the Tables of the Law.
Sepet's theory may hold also for the Beauvais Daniel, but neither the Balaam nor the Daniel ever became, as did, for example, the Noah and the Abraham and Isaac, a regular member of the cycles, found wherever Old Testament plays were played. The Ordo Joseph, recently discovered by Professor Karl Young, shows the liturgical origin of the widely current play of Joseph and his Brethren. The material of the play would indicate that, although it seems to have had an existence independent of the cycles, it belongs to the group to be treated later. There is, however, in several liturgical plays of the Slaughter of the Innocents, a confusion of the Rachel who utters the planctus with Rachel, the wife of Jacob and the mother of Joseph, which may have suggested the composition of the play. It at any rate shows no connection with the Prophetae. The fragmentary Isaac and Rebecca of the Kloster Vorau is treated below. Nothing can be told of the Elisaeus mentioned by Gerhoh of Reichersberg or of the elaborate battle plays of the Riga performance except that they seem to be outside of the current of the popular development of Old Testament plays.
The Ordo representationis Adae is made up of a long and elaborate Adam play with full stage directions, a shorter Cain and Abel play in the same style, and a prophet play ending with the part of Nebuchadnezzar. There is also in the manuscript a version of the Fifteen Signs of Judgment, material connected with the Sibylline prophecy. The Adam and the Cain and Abel show deliberate literary composition, and the play as a whole is evidently an early attempt at cycle making. The plays are based upon the Scriptures, or rather, as I believe, upon the pericopes from Genesis read in the week of Septuagesima Sunday, and show little, if any, legendary or apocryphal influence. Because of the presence of the prophets, the Adam is usually regarded as a Christmas play; but there is some reason to think that the play belongs rather to Easter and is in fact the fragment of a Passion play. The play looks strongly forward to the Redemption. Adam bewails his fate and relies upon the promise of salvation through Christ; Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and each successive prophet are dragged off to Hell. I do not know of any other cases where the prophets are so disposed of, though they sometimes appear as patriarchs in Hell awaiting redemption. There are several other cases where the Prophetae was borrowed into the Easter series, and Adam and Eve are in like manner dragged off to Hell in the Vienna Passion play and in several other plays of the same structure. This use of a prophet play is exceptional, for the normal and original function of the prophets is to foretell the Nativity. Then, as against Sepet's idea of the origin of the Adam and the Cain and Abel from the Prophetae, it is to be pointed out that the traditional machinery of the prophet play, the introductory speech, does not precede the Adam play, but occurs at the beginning of the Prophetae in its usual place, as if the prophet play had been appended as a unit.
The Adam is also singular in the fact that Adam and Eve are carried off to Hell before the murder of Abel, a feature which does not elsewhere appear. If the play is in the line of popular development at all, it is the forerunner of such a cycle as La Nativité, la Passion et la Résurrection of the Sainte-Geneviéve manuscript, to which in general structure it seems to bear some resemblance. The mass of popularly developed cycles had a restricted number of subjects, and usually practically the same subjects; namely, the Fall of Lucifer, Adam, Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham and Isaac, and usually Moses and the Exodus. Round about these themes were sporadic episodes from the same field, such as the Death of Adam, the Death of Cain, Abraham and Lot. The French Mystère du Viel Testament has been written in solidly with most of the Old Testament stories as far as Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. There seems to be a tendency, the cause of which is not very clear, to regard the simpler French cycles as abridgments of the longer, more highly developed ones; but, in the face of so many plays in France and in other countries showing a like lower stage of development, it seems unnecessary to do so. Le Mystère du Viel Testament is a composite work based upon popularly developed cycles. It contains, for example, the complaint of Adam, as do all Old Testament cycles, and the debate of the Four Daughters of God, and these scenes look forward to the redemption, as if a passion were to follow. La Création, Passion et Résurrection of MS Bibl. nat. fr. 904, La Création, et la Chute de l'Homme, etc., of the Douai-Valenciennes MS, and possibly also the Texte de Troyes and the prologue to Gréban's Passion, show only the traditional subjects. Other plays with the longer more amplified list of subjects are the Eger Passion play the Künzelsau Corpus Christi play, and the Cornish Origo mundi. The last-mentioned has been amplified by the embodiment of the Seth legend. The English cycles which have been preserved, and the lists of subjects in lost cycles, show a general use of the conventional subjects in England.
In Germany the Passion plays developed into complete dramas of the Fall of man, the Passion of Christ, and the Resurrection, with or without Old Testament plays, and, as I think, independent of the Prophetae. The stages of this development can be seen by an examination of the various plays preserved, though of course it is necessary to take into consideration the forms of the plays and their degrees of development as well as the dates of their preservation. In Germany, and certainly in France also, we have developed, from the simple Latin plays of Passion and Resurrection, logically complete cycles with no regularly present Old Testament plays and frequently no prophets. The plays show an amplification of the rôle of the Devil. At first he is merely the scriptural Satan; later he becomes Lucifer, and the story of his fall and his betrayal of man is introduced. The most primitive plays introduce Satan only in connection with the Harrowing of Hell, and in other places demanded by the sources. In the Benedictbeuern Passion play Satan appears as a mute character in connection with the part of Judas. The play is fragmentary and breaks off before the Harrowing of Hell scene, though that was doubtless part of the original, as it certainly was of the fragmentary Anglo-Norman Resurrection. The Kloster Muri fragments contain a simple Harrowing of Hell scene in which Satan appears. There is also a somewhat primitive conception of Satan in the Innsbruck play of the Resurrection and the plays of its type, the Frankfort Dirigierrolle, the St. Gall play, and others. In the Donaueschingen Passion play Satan appears in the Temptation, the Remorse of Judas, Pilate's Wife's Dream, and the Harrowing of Hell. Disregarding certain developments of the part in the direction of diablerie, we may regard this play as presenting the normal appearances of Satan in the more primitive plays. In another large number of plays, in which the part of the devil is greatly amplified, there is the introduction of the story of Lucifer and his betrayal of man. Such plays are the Redentin Passion play, the Frankfurt play, and the plays of that group, the Alsfeld play, and the Tyrol plays. In this series of plays the stories of the fall of Lucifer and of man are frequently introduced in connection with the prayers of Adam and the patriarchs for redemption from bondage, a characteristic also seen in the French plays. There are, however, German Passion plays which show an arrangement according to chronological sequence. The Vienna Passion play, which is one of the oldest preserved, dating, as it does, from early in the fourteenth century, begins with the presentation of the fall of Lucifer and the fall of man. This is also seen with the fullest development of Old Testament subjects in the Eger Passion play and in the Künzelsau Frohnleichnamsspiel, both of which, however, treat Nativity subjects, as does the similarly constructed Middle-Frankish play from Mastricht. Der Sündenfall seems to be the fragment of a cycle chronologically arranged; the introductory speech of the Proloculator seems to indicate this, as also the contents of the play. It has a full list of Old Testament subjects, a complaint of Adam and the patriarchs in limbo, a debate of the Four Daughters of God, and, at the end, the presentation of Mary in the Temple. The Innsbruck Frohnleichnamsspiel of the end of the fourteenth century, a procession of prophets, apostles, and Magi, begins with the thanking of the Savior by Adam and Eve for their release from Hell, as if the scene had been borrowed directly from a Harrowing of Hell play. In some of the Passion plays the prophets appear; but, when they do, they are usually in the rôle of patriarchs awaiting redemption, which is manifestly not their original or their commonest function in the religious drama. They are primarily prophets of the Nativity, and there are a large number of plays and many indications within the great composite cycles which tend to show that the play of the prophets was closely bound up with the plays of the Nativity, a thing which would be very natural, since they all unquestionably grew up at Christmas time. Sepet devotes a section of his article to proving that the Processus Prophetarum is the regular prologue to the Nativity. He cites the Benedictbeuern Christmas play, the St. Gall Nativity play, Laus pro Nativitate Domini from a manuscript in Bibl. Vallicelliana in Rome, and the Rouen Incarnation and Nativity. Several other French plays show the same thing, and in the English plays there is also the closest connection between the Prophetae and the Nativity. The prologue to the Annunciation in York is a summary of a prophet play. In the play of the Shearmen and Taylors of Coventry, Isaiah acts as a prologue to the Nativity, and in it and in the Weavers' play, there is evidence that the Prophetae has been split up into parts and distributed among the plays of the Nativity. At Chester the prophet play has been divided, and one portion of it incorporated with the Annunciation.
It is evident then that there are two types of cyclic plays—the one, familiar to us in the English Corpus Christi plays, is chronologically arranged and complete; the other, familiar to us in the German and French plays, is usually not chronologically arranged and not complete, since it has no Old Testament plays, and frequently has no Nativity plays, and no Prophetae. The latter, however, sometimes approximate the former both in content and in arrangement and are logically complete, since they embrace the fall and redemption of man. Since it is possible to trace the growth of the second type, even when entirely independent of Prophetae and Nativity plays, to a stage approximately parallel to the first, it has seemed to me reasonable to believe that the first type is only a variety of the second; namely, a Passion play to which has been added a number of scenes derived from the Old Testament. I am inclined to think that this amplification occurred before the Easter and Christmas plays were united into a single cycle, and the form of the original Easter play at such a city as Chester could then be arrived at by withdrawing from the cycle the Processus Prophetarum and all the plays of the Nativity group. It would be absurd to think that the Lucifer and Adam scenes of the German passion plays originated from the Prophetae, because their development bears every mark of being entirely within the Passion plays themselves. They were demanded by the subject, and we have a natural point of growth provided for them in the Harrowing of Hell and other scenes of the Passion and Resurrection.
Neither the documents cited by M. Sepet, nor the evidences of the manner of development of the larger plays, so far as they are ascertainable, seem to establish his theory; let us, therefore, inquire more directly into the origin of the Old Testament plays.
The series of Old Testament plays, referred to above, stand as a single conventional group with practically the same subjects and in the same order, as if they had been introduced as a unit from one principal source, or at least introduced to conform to one definite pattern. It is evident that a parallel exists between the cycles of plays and the great religious epics of the Middle Ages. The conception of an epic of redemption had long been in existence. The contents of Junian MS XI show just the features needed to make of the drama as developed within the church a complete cyclical presentation of man's fall and redemption. Besides the Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel, it contains a poem known as Christ and Satan, which is made up of, first, the Fall of Lucifer, secondly, the Harrowing of Hell, the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the return to final judgment, and, thirdly, the Temptation. I have no disposition to regard this or Avitus as a source for the plays; but they both offer examples of the epical treatment of the earlier Old Testament themes with manifest consciousness of their theological significance. The Cursor mundi represents a very much more amplified form of religious epic than the one which seems to be paralleled in the more primitive cycles of plays. The Historia Scholastica of Petrus Comestor is a summary of Old Testament events, and contains most of the legendary materials involved; but it goes very much farther in its account than the mystery plays do. It gives only a brief form of the Lucifer story, as compared to the Old English Genesis and the thirteenth-century Genesis and Exodus. The Genesis and Exodus and the Vienna Genesis follow the scriptural accounts with a fair degree of closeness. The Canticum de Creatione refers to most of the events of the Book of Genesis and gives special prominence to the Seth legend. Grosseteste's Castle of Love presents, from the Old Testament, only the Fall. Die Erlösung shows a selection of material somewhat similar to the Castle of Love and offers a parallel to the amplified Passion plays of the German type, a thing which may also be said of Das Passional, though it confines itself to the life of Christ.
Such epical accounts may have had influence on the later forms of the plays, or suggested the cyclical idea; but I think it is not necessary to go so far afield for the sources of the earliest Old Testament plays. In fact the Adam and the Cain and Abel plays of the Ordo representationis Adae seem to bear upon their faces the evidences of their source. The stage direction at the beginning of the play contains these words: "Tune incipiat lectio: In principio creavit Deus celum et terrant," to which the Chorus sing the response, "Formavit igitur Dominus." After Adam has been placed in Paradise, they sing this response, "Tulit ergo Domínus hominem." When God forbids Adam to eat of the forbidden fruit, they sing the response, "Dicit Dominus ad Adam"; after the Fall, the response, "Dum ambularet"; after Adam and Eve are expelled from Paradise, the response, "In sudore vultus tui." When Adam and Eve are outside of Paradise, "quasi tristes et confusi," the Chorus sing the response, "Ecce Adam quasi unus." After the murder of Abel, they sing the response, "Ubi est Abel, frater tuus." These are regular responses which accompanied the lectiones from Genesis for the week of Septuagesima Sunday. The subjects for the week, as indicated by the responsoria, were the Creation, the Temptation and Fall, and the story of Cain and Abel. The actual selections read in the service varied to a certain extent, but the subjects were always the same, and it will be noticed that the responses themselves carry the story. The Adam is practically a dramatization of the lectiones and responsoria of the week of Septuagesima Sunday. In like manner the lectiones and responsoria of the Sunday and ferial services of the week of Sexagesima were devoted to the story of Noah and the Flood; those of Quinquagesima, to the story of Abraham; those of the second Sunday in Quadrigesima, to Isaac, Jacob, and Esau; those of the third Sunday in Quadrigesima, to the story of Joseph and his Brethren; those of the fourth Quadrigesimal Sunday, to Moses and the Exodus. I have followed the order of the Sarum Breviary; but the use of these subjects for readings for the period of Septuagesima and Lent, as shown by the responsoria and by the lectiones from sermons which accompany them in various service books, was general. We have here the entire list of Old Testament subjects appearing in the more primitive cycles except for the play of the Fall of Lucifer. The play of Isaac and Rebecca of the late twelfth century Latin fragment from Kloster Vorau in Styria seems to bear some traces of origin from lectiones of the week of the second Sunday in Quadrigesima; there is at least a chorus which accompanies the action with the narrative of that time. The Fall of Lucifer could have been derived from sermons on the Creation; there is a full account in Ælfric's De initio creaturae.
In view of the obviousness and availability of the lessons of the service and of their adequacy, I should be disposed to believe that the Old Testament plays originated from the lectiones and responsoria of the period of Septuagesima and Lent. It was a time of preparation and penance, and the devotions constantly looked forward toward Easter. The subjects of the lessons had the closest bearing upon the events commemorated at Easter. Christ was the second Adam and head of the spiritual family, as Adam was the father in the flesh. Abel was a type of Christ, and his sacrifice is mentioned in connection with those of Abraham and Melchisedech in the canon of the mass. Isaac was also regarded as a type of Christ, and is so called in a lectio drawn from a sermon of St. John Chrysostom and read on Sexagesima Sunday. Ælfric in a sermon for the second Sunday after Epiphany says that the slaying of Abel betokened God's Passion; that the ark betokened the church and that Noah betokened Christ; and that by Abraham we are to understand the Almighty Father, and by Isaac, his beloved Son, the Savior Christ. In a sermon for Midlent Sunday he gives an elaborate explanation of the typical significance of the subject of Moses and the Exodus; it shows how that subject was related to the season. Almost any series of sermons of the period will illustrate the points given; and the subjects in question have so close a connection both theological and liturgical with the Passion, that it is impossible to escape the belief that the plays dealing with them must have grown up as parts of, or as preliminary scenes to, the plays of the Passion and Resurrection. If the Old Testament plays originated within the church itself, which in some cases at least they probably did, and at a season some weeks before Easter, then they must have been united later with the plays of Easter itself; and the whole group of Easter plays later joined with the whole group of Christmas plays to form the cycles.
The Cathedral Statutes of Bishop Hugh de Nonant (1188-98) show that at Lichfield the Pastores was acted at Christmas and the Quern quaeritis and Peregrini, at Easter. At York the traditional Statutes of York Cathedral provide for Pastores and Stella at Christmas time as late as about 1255. At Aberdeen the Christmas and Easter groups seem never to have been united. The most striking case is that of the Cornish cycle. It is made up of an Origo mundi, which presents the Fall of Lucifer, and a series of Old Testament plays, a Passio Domini, which begins with the Temptation, and a Resurrectio Domini, which ends with the Ascension. There are no Prophetae and no Nativity plays and no evidence of there ever having been. If the Christmas series was acted by the same people, it must have been acted separately, and is now lost. It is difficult to see how such a cycle could have come into existence except upon the supposition that Old Testament plays are originally and organically part of the Easter series of plays rather than of the Christmas series. Professor Manly points out that the plays of the Kentish town of New Romney were also of the Continental type, and probably had no Nativity plays.
If the theory which I have advanced is true, the English cycles ought to show some evidence of having been made up by the union of the two groups. In all of the cycles there are wide gaps before and after the plays of the Nativity, and all of them, I think, show evidence of such a composition. One case in particular is very striking. I should like to present it here briefly and give a fuller study of the subject in a later paper. It is the case of the component parts of the Chester cycle.
The Benedictbeuern Christmas play is made up of a combination of dramatic themes of the season of Christmas. Augustine appears as Expositor, and the play opens with a Prophetae, in which, however, only a limited number of prophets appear. Among these prophets is Balaam, "sedens super asinam," and although the ass does not speak, the angel with the sword appears, and it may be said that it is a Balaam play in miniature. After an extended dispute between Augustine and the prophets on the one side and Archisynagogus and the Jews on the other, there is the Annunciation and immediately after it the Visit to Elizabeth; then, in a somewhat confused form, a Pastores and a Stella. At this point a stage direction gives the statement, "Herodes corrodatur a verminibus," and provides for the crowning of his son Archelaus. Then comes the Slaughter of the Innocents and the Flight into Egypt, which is followed by some purely secular matters, and then comes the Falling of the Egyptian idols. The play ends with fragments of an Antichristus play. The play is not only confused but corrupt, and yet it is possible to see in its general content a remarkable parallel to the Chester plays, particularly in those themes in which the Chester plays are exceptional. In the Chester Processus Prophetarum, a Princeps Synagogae appears, and it has a Balaam play growing out of it. It places a Salutation immediately after the Annunciation. The Sibyl plays an important rôle in the Nativity. In the Slaughter of the Innocents the legend of the falling of the idols and of the Death of Herod appear. In a later play, Ezechiel, we have further materials from the Prophetae, and, lastly, we have the altogether exceptional play of Antichrist. My inference from this parallel is that one of the component elements of the Chester cycle was a Christmas play of somewhat the same general content and form as the Benedictbeuern play. If so, the original Christmas play, back of the Chester cycle, must have been divided into parts, and these parts given appropriate places in the cycle.
A justification for the introduction of the death of Herod and the theme of the Antichrist into the Christmas plays can be drawn from a sermon by Bishop Haymo of Halberstadt (d. 853), De Sanctis Innocentibus, a portion of which, containing a comparison of Archelaus to Antichrist, was used as a lectio at matins, according to the Sarum Breviary, on the Vigil of Epiphany. The paragraphs of the sermon which precede the lectio give an elaborate account of the death of Herod.
F. M. Salter (essay date 1955)
SOURCE: "A Great Reckoning," in Medieval Drama in Chester, University of Toronto Press, 1955, pp. 81-130.
[In the following excerpt, Salter describes the meager cultural background of the Chester Plays, lauding their "significant contribution to drama" achieved "within the limits of the possible."]
It is customary to look upon the mystery plays of the late Middle Ages as the crude and childish productions of a childish and crude people. Bernhard Ten Brink [in History of English Literature, II] long ago said, "Only a few details made any aesthetic effect—such as character, situation, scenes; the whole was rarely or never dramatic." Katherine Lee Bates [in The English Religious Drama, 1917] admits that "A grand dramatic framework is discernible," but only "through the awkward language and the naive ideas." C. F. Tucker Brooke [in The Tudor Drama, 1911] refers to "the artless and provincial makeshifts of guild performances and the yet ruder devices of the incipient morality." More recently, Harold C. Gardiner in his Mysteries' End speaks of "their more sober and moving devotional aspects, which undoubtedly impressed the simple minds of the English craftsman and laborer and, indeed, of king and noble, too." And in 1950 A. P. Rossiter [in English Drama from Early Times to the Elizabethans, 1950] sums up a half-century's scholarship with the statement, "From the literary point of view the workmanship is never far from crude and, in the older strata, insipid to a degree." By the "older strata" he seems to mean the Chester Plays which, as I have tried to show in earlier lectures, do not really deserve to be called older. Rossiter says also, "Probably most 'effects' were nearer children's improvisations than 'production.'"
With this view I find it hard to sympathize; but I might be more disturbed by the solid unanimity of modern criticism of the mystery plays if I had not had the annual experience of reading the essays of Freshmen who patronize Chaucer. It is admittedly difficult for us who have reached the pinnacle of culture not to look with contempt upon our ancestors who had neither Holly-wood, soap opera, nor the atomic bomb. These are great achievements which set our minds free for productive labours. Besides, we have running water in our homes, upholstered furniture, and all those time-saving mechanisms which have eaten up our leisure. Still further, all of us can read and write, after a fashion. But comforts and machinery are not an absolute necessity of the higher life—unless the Greeks were less civilized than we have been led to believe. A man may be well educated though unlettered; learning by book is not the only way to learn. Students in our classrooms seem content to sit hard, provided there is some challenge in what they hear; and many of them have actually been known to learn more by ear from men than by eye from books. As a matter of fact, we tend to overestimate the illiteracy of the Middle Ages; every monastery had its school, and bailiffs and merchants kept records. I should be very glad to debate—in the affirmative—that there was more real and genuine beauty surrounding the whole life and being of the ordinary man of the Middle Ages than is to be found in a street-car and assembly-line society. The men who dreamed cathedrals and built them to centre every town; who made, for the wage of a pound a year, less than a penny a day, stained-glass windows such as have never been equalled and of such great beauty that in modern times of war we have taken them out and catalogued the thousands of pieces before burying them for safe-keeping; who created the magnificent ceremonial and music of the Mass; who could fill their churches with such carving and statuary as the world would not lose; who could preserve for us the work of Chaucer, Erasmus, and Holbein: such men were not necessarily childish or crude.
Moreover, we have seen that business men were under heavy expense to keep the plays going. Business men in all ages have prided themselves on knowing the value of money; yet we have seen the Chester gildsmen, or their representatives who formed the civic council, fight bitterly against the opposition of the new Church to retain the privilege of heavy expenditure on mystery plays. Still further, these plays had universal appeal and universal approval for more than two hundred years. If our ancestors were childish, why did they not tire sooner of their provincial makeshifts and childish improvisations? Let us not seek escape in the naive notion that two hundred years then was somehow shorter than two hundred years now. Set it out in panorama: we must travel almost from the Spanish Armada back through the reign of Philip and Mary and the restoration of the Church of Rome, back through Henry VIII and the Disestablishment, back through the dawn of the English Renaissance and the introduction of printing, back through the long Wars of the Roses, past Agincourt, past the boy king whose cousin in civil war drove him from the throne, past the Peasants' Revolt, past Wycliffe and his preaching friars, and well into the long reign of Edward III. During that immense period of swift and violent change, the mystery plays held their own. For dramatic longevity their only rival is Shakespeare; and I take it that the real duty of criticism is not to brush them aside as crude and childish, but to ask what there was in them that could appeal to sane and sensible men in a civilized country for more than two hundred years.
When the scales have fallen from our eyes, we shall see at once that the mystery plays had the advantage over all other drama and over all literature except the Bible, Dante, Milton, and a few minor authors, of the grandest, most sublime, and most powerfully moving of all themes. When a theme is greater than its handling, the effect is inevitably comic—like a clown parading in clothes too large; but nobody has ever found the mysteries unintentionally comic. They were saved from that fate, I should say, by simple sincerity and good taste. And when we call them crude, naive, and undramatic, we are only expressing our own inability, or refusal, to see them as they actually were. What we need is a faith that our ancestors were not silly; we need also the auditory and visual imagination that will enable us to attend a performance, sitting cheek by jowl with dignitaries of the Church or officials of the city, or rubbing shoulders in the streets with men and women who had the same appreciation of art in all its forms that we have—or perhaps an appreciation not quite so dulled as ours has been by the clanking machinery of modern life, or left so uncultivated as ours by the absence of artistic objects around us.
One thing must be admitted: blank verse not yet having been invented, and prose not yet having found her Dryden, the mystery plays had to struggle with the Procrustean requirements of an unsuitable medium. Nor had Shakespeare yet enunciated his great doctrine that "The play's the thing," or demonstrated that poetry should be the handmaiden of drama, and not its mistress. These were things that Shakespeare had to learn for himself; and if even he could in his early days be confused on this issue, we can hardly blame the common people for writing their plays in verse—and sometimes, be it admitted, in verse at all costs. We only continue their error, however, when we look for "literary" qualities in the mystery plays. What we should look for in drama is drama; and seeking it in the mysteries, we shall find.
We should look for the same things that we always look for in the theatre: entertainment, beauty, representations of human life, the power to grip and hold an audience, and—above all—meaning or significance or, if I may say so, moral value.
And, in all fairness, there are certain things we should remember. One is that we may not have true witness to the mysteries in the manuscripts which survive. All of the copies of the Chester Plays were made by late scribes who, often enough, did not understand their exemplars, and who tried to make them intelligible—with sad results. We should therefore keep in mind an apt remark of Sir E. K. Chambers [in English Literature of the Close of the Middle Ages, 1947]: "Whoso would read the plays to-day must often go darkling."
Perhaps we should bear in mind the mere possible itself. If the greatest dramatic genius of all time had had the task of working up the Biblical story into drama at the end of the fourteenth century, what could he have done? As I have said, there was no Shakespearean example for him to follow; so far as he knew, the theatre of the ancient world did not exist; the theatre of modern times did not exist; neither blank verse nor prose had yet been created as a vehicle of expression. What is to be expected? On the other hand, after the stage and the vehicle and the Elizabethans have been created and done their work, what is to be expected? Considering our possible, have we so much to glory in after 1623? Nobody has yet surpassed Shakespeare, our inheritance. Did the mystery plays—even on the basis of what I have already pointed out about them—fail to surpass their heritage? It is a nonsense question. On the ground of that relativity alone, without even considering what the intrinsic merits of the plays may be, we can say at once that the unanimous modern opinion that the mysteries are crude and childish is the teaching of false prophets.
Again, to take one element which is constant in the plays, let us think of the singing. We cannot suppose that the potentials of the human voice have improved a great deal in the last five hundred years, or that the happy mother singing about her housework in the Middle Ages did so in a voice much worse than those that now bleat at the modern housewife from the morning radio. Indeed, since there was no radio then, and since people had to create their own amusements, it is likely that the ordinary person had better skill of this sort then than the ordinary person has today; and along with that universality of skill, there was perhaps taste and appreciation in judging the accomplishments of others. The term "Merrie England" has no modern relevance: it is a phrase that fitted an England that was "a nest of singing birds" long ago. When the Angel sang "Gloria in excelsis," or Old Simeon, "Nunc dimittis," or Noah and his family within the Ark sang, "Save me, O God," when the angels at the Last Judgment choired, "Rejoice in the Lord" or "The Lord and Saviour of the World," we may be perfectly sure that the singing was as well worth hearing as most of that which we now pay dollars per seat to hear. Indeed, we may spend a wry moment in the thought that with all our modern superiority, the great hymns of the Church are still those of the Middle Ages.
Neither the musical heart nor the merry one need be unrealistic; and the people of the Middle Ages came to close grips with life in a way in which we, on the whole, do not. Among the people of the Western world there has never been in modern times anything like the Black Death. Seeking for comparison one must go to the dreadful scourges of the Far East or think of that Christian gift which our own superior civilization and culture dropped upon the Japanese at Hiroshima. It is said that in the great plague of 1348 only one house in Chester remained unvisited by the Angel of Death; and the owner of that house inscribed in great letters across the front, "The House of God's Providence." There were whole villages in England in which every man, woman, and child died of the plague. Time after time in their flourishing period, the Plays of Chester could not "go" because of the pestilence, and the bodies of the dead were carried in dump carts to great community graves beyond the walls. What would the people of those times think of the "modern realism" of sophomoric writers lapped in security and comfort and uncompromisingly facing life in the raw at second, third, or fourth hand? A peasant woman once said to such a sophisticate, "Ach, what do you know of life? Haf you effer been hungry?" For a great deal of modern literature our ancestors would have had the contempt that we have for drugstore cowboys and beardless men of the world.
It would, indeed, be easy to pull out of the Chester Mysteries passages that would shock any modern audience out of their seats—even an audience brought up on the suggestiveness of Hollywood, the "raw meat" that offends Boston, and, perhaps, such unrelieved filth as Tobacco Road. What would a modern author do with such a subject as the Slaughter of the Innocents? The writers of the Chester Plays had no desire to shock for the sake of shocking, but simply wished to tell the truth. The difference is that they were much closer to the basic truths of life than we are. They knew that, whoever gave the command to slaughter all male children under two years of age, the soldiers who carried out the order were hardly likely to be gentlemen and scholars, but such as Hitler found to man the concentration camps. And they knew that women will not quietly allow their babies to be murdered. How does one find out or prove that a child under two years of age is male or female? The simple naturalism of the mediaeval dramatist has both more freedom and more honesty than much of our modern realism.
Let me turn away from that subject and remark that in the Chester Slaughter of the Innocents there is one touch of the grimmest dramatic irony. It was Herod who commanded the slaughter of the children and, among the rest, Herod's own son is slain. The Nurse has genuine touches of characterization. When the child is slain, she cries out:
Out! Out! Out! Out!
You shall be hanged, all the rowt!
Theues, be you neuer so stout,
Full fowle you haue done.
This Child was taken to me
To looke to: Theues, wo be ye!
He was not myne, as you shall see,
He was the kinges sonne.
I shall tell whyle I may drye,
His child was slayne before myne eye.
Theues, ye shall be hanged hye,
May I come to his hall.
But, or I go, haue thou one!
And thou another, Sir John!
For to the kinge I will anone,
To playn uppon you all.
Thus, after laying about her with a will, this raging tigress ramps off to the King.
He rages also, but there is a final touch of irony in that the Slaughter of the Innocents was commanded in order to kill the child who threatened to become King of Judaea; and broken-hearted Herod has to admit that of all the children in the land his own was least likely to be spared:
He was right sicker in silk aray,
In gould, and pyrrye that was so gay,
They might well know by his aray,
He was a kinges sonne.
While this play is before us, a few further remarks may not be amiss. After hearing of the death of his son, Herod goes on:
Alas! What the devill is this to mone [mean]
Alas! My days be now done;
I wott I must dye soone,
For damned I must be.
My legges rotten and my armes;
I haue done so many harmes,
That now I see of feendes swarmes
From Hell cominge for me.
Presently he dies. The line, "My legges rotten and my armes" may recall to our minds that in what Sir Winston Churchill has called "the quaint account," he perished eaten by worms. It was not quaint to our ancestors: they had seen flesh turn black and rot time and again in the terrible visitations of the Black Death.
Herod dies, and a very lively and engaging Demon enters to drag him off; for, like the Elizabethans, the mediaeval dramatist had to get rid of "dead bodies":
Warr, warr! for now unwarly wakes you woe!
For I am swifter than is the doe.
I am commen to fetch this lord you froe
In woe ever to dwell.
And with this croked cambrock your backs shall I cloe,
And all falce beleuers I burne in a low,
That from the crowne of the head to the right toe,
I leave no wholl fell.
From Lucifer, that lord, hither I am sent
To fetch this kinges sowle here present,
And to Hell bring him ther to be lent
Euer to lyve in woe.
Ther fyre burnes bloe and brent;
He shall be ther, this lord, verament;
His place euermore therin is hent,
His body neuer to goe froe!
Like Shakespeare, the mediaeval dramatist could convert a handicap into an asset. The handicap, the difficulty, is the dead body of Herod. In disposing of it, he creates this lively Demon and drives home the lesson that the wages of sin is death.
As if the spectacle of a magnificent King, with a pageboy to hold up the train of his robes, being dragged off to Hell, were insufficient to emphasize the equality of all men under God, the Demon now turns to the audience with a warning to another class of sinners:
No more shall you Tapstars, by my lewtye,
That fills your measures falcly,
Shall bear this lord Company,
They gett none other grace.
I will bring this into woe,
And come agayne and fetch moe,
As fast as ever I may go.
Farewell and haue good day!
No doubt the Innkeepers once had a connection with this play. However that may be, this lusty Demon has no sooner dragged Herod off the stage than an angel appears to the Holy Family and tells Joseph and Mary to return with the child Jesus into Judaea. But it took Shakespeare years to learn the value of contrast in drama.
Time is telescoped in this play—as, indeed, it has to be in all drama. But the material is there for a good production with the grimmest reality, terrifying irony, demonic gusto, and, for contrast, the Angel who, before the Slaughter began, warned the Holy Family to go forth into Egypt.
Let us turn back for a moment to that earlier scene. Leading forth Mary, Joseph, and the child Jesus, the Angel says:
Come now furth in God's name!
I shall you sheild from all shame,
And you shall see, my leefe dame,
A thing to your lykinge.
For Mahometis, both one and all,
That men of Egipt gods can call,
At your coming downe shall fall,
When I begin to singe.
True enough, the stage direction reads: "Then they will go forth, and the Angel will sing, 'Behold, the Lord will rise above the clouds, and will enter into Egypt, and the images of Egypt will fall down before the face of the Lord of Hosts,' and if it can be done, let some statue or image fall." Certainly it could be done! We cannot escape the conviction that our ancestors knew the value of stage effects.
Though I began with the question of truth or reality in drama, let us review what is to be found in the Slaughter of the Innocents so as to visualize one complete unit from the Chester Plays. First of all, Herod appears, raging that the Magi have eluded him. He calls for "petty Prat" his messenger, and sends him after his "doughty and comely knightes." With this preparation, we can easily imagine just how loathsome and foul his comely knights will be. Having waked these slumbering beasts, petty Prat brings Sir Grimbalde, Sir Launcherdepe, and Sir Waradrake to the King. They at first object to the commission: the killing of infants is no fit task for such doughty men of war; in the end, however, off they go. While they approach Bethlehem, the Angel warns the Holy Family and leads them away; and as he approaches Egypt with them, we see the images fall at the sound of his song. Immediately we turn to the sharp, grim horror of the Slaughter itself, at the end of which the Nurse rushes to scream at Herod that his son has been slain. Herod dies, and the boisterous Demon fetches him off to Hell, with a promise to return in the twinkling of an eye to carry away other sinners. The Angel appears again to Joseph and Mary, saying:
Now you be ready for to goe,
Joseph and Mary also,
Forsooth I will not depart you froe,
But help you from your foe.
And I will make a melody,
And singe here in your company,
A word was sayd in prophesye
A thousand yeare agoe.
And the play ends with the Angel's song.
If that isn't drama, then in the name of all that's mysterious, what is? Is it possible that Shakespeare is only drama because we have seen him on the stage? Have we no imagination to present to the inward eye and ear that which we have not actually beheld and heard? There have been in modern times some enchantingly beautiful motion pictures, and some with grim elemental significance: I shudder to think what our imperceptive mediaeval scholars would make of them if they were limited to the written scenarios as, in a sense, we are limited when we read mystery plays. Here, at any rate, in this many-faceted gem, in this little play of the Slaughter of the Innocents, surely there is God's plenty of contrast, of beauty and ugliness, of effective staging, of vivid and memorable teaching of the word of God. The scenes shift with the rapidity which we find elsewhere only in ballads, but they build up into an impressive wholeness and unity—and that in a bare 496 short lines. The play could be produced today, or any day, with grim and beautiful and powerful effect, but not by producers who think our ancestors crude, simple, and naïve, and not by actors who, like some I have heard on the air, suspend their animation when they approach a mediaeval Christmas play.
If, out of deference to modern proprieties, I have spared you the naturalness of the lines spoken during the mêlée of women and soldiers in the Slaughter of the Innocents, neither can I quote from the Crucifixion lines which terribly impress upon the mind the ugliness and horror of that spectacle. Our forefathers, as I have said, lived at grips with nature and close to earth. Every man, woman, and child in Chester had seen animals slaughtered for food; they knew the details that express in beasts the last extremes of pain and torment. Nay, they had seen human animals hanged at the High Cross or burnt at the stake; and our Lord, the Son of God, was also a human animal. When they exhibited Him "tugged, lugged, all to-torn," they could do so with such reality as makes the lines excessively painful reading, shattering to the soul, so that the play, when produced, must have been one of the most terrible things ever seen on a stage. I shall spare you details natural to our ancestors, and quote some of the grisly joy of the soldiers as they bind the Lamb of God to the Cross:
Lest the lines seem unintelligible to hearing, let me paraphrase them. The soldiers are binding our Lord to the Cross. The Fourth Soldier says, "Look, you fellows—see what a good job I can make of nailing down this fist!" The First replies, "Yeah, but he's short-armed. How kin we nail his other arm to the other side?" The Second puts in, "That's no trouble! We'll stretch him." The Third produces a rope which they fasten to the left hand of our Lord since the right is already nailed down. The Fourth Soldier cries, "Haul, you fellows, while I drive in the nail!" The First exclaims, "By cracky, his arm's only a fin! Go ahead, drive in your nail while we haul on the rope." Then the three go at it with a yo-heave-ho, stretching the arm while the Fourth Soldier hammers in the nail. A similar grisly touch of ghoulish inhuman glee comes when the Fourth Soldier cries,
Fellows, will ye see
How I haue stretcht His knee?
Why prayse you not me
That haue so well done?
Is it possible that our forefathers who lived close not only to life but to the Church knew nothing whatever about the basic principles of art? Is it possible that they did not know that the poignancy and holiness of that cry, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," would stand out in tragic and terrible loveliness against such a revolting scene as this? Or did they think an audience could, without being powerfully moved, turn directly from these gleeful brutes and their ghoulish humour to Mary the Mother of Jesus as she weeps:
Alas, my love, my lyfe, my lee,
Alas, mowrning now madds me.
Alas, my bootë looke thou be,
Thy mother that thee bare!
Thinke on my freut! I fosterd thee
And gaue thee sucke vpon my knee;
Vpon my payne haue thou pitty!
Thee faylës no power.
Alas, why ne were my lyfe forlorne?
To fynd my foodë me beforne
Tugged, lugged, all to-torne
With traytors now this tyde?
With neilës thrust, and crown of thorne,
Therfore I madd, both even and morne,
To see my birth that I haue borne
This bitter bale to byde.
But the way of modern criticism is to label such a piece a planctus Mariae, and having exhausted itself in that effort, to pay—blunted with community—no more attention to it. Well then, it is not a planctus Mariae, or not that merely—it has a powerful, and deeply moving dramatic effect.
The comic element in the Chester Plays, I have been trying to say, is always defensible on artistic grounds. Would that the same statement could be made of all our drama! It may be that this phenomenon is due to the Church under whose jurisdiction, as I have tried to show, the plays remained until 1531; and to the new Church whose gaze was stern. But elsewhere, we are told, similar plays are not primarily didactic and decorous, but violate their fundamental purpose. And here I can hardly do better than quote from Gayley [Representative English Comedies, 1926]:
The French mystery poets, while they develop, like the English, the comic quality of the shepherd scenes, introduce the drinking and dicing element ad lib.,—and sometimes the drabbing; they make, moreover, a specialty of the humour of deformity, a char-acteristic which appears nowhere in the English plays. The Germans, in their turn, elaborate a humour peculiar to themselves,—elephantine, primitive, and personal. They seem to get most fun out of reviling the idiosyncrasies of Jews, whose dress, appearance, manners, and speech they caricature—even intro-ducing Jewish dramatis personae to sing gibberish, exploit cunning, and perform obscenities under the names of contemporary citizens of the hated race. In general a freer rein seems to have been given to the sacrilegious, grotesque, and obscene on the Continent than in England.
The English plays, in short, and especially those of Chester, never got out of hand, never forgot their sacred mission.
If there is in these plays grim realism and tragic beauty, they are not without minor qualities of humour and local chit-chat of a sort always popular with audiences. For example, Octavian in the Nativity play, sending his messenger with orders to have the Jews numbered, offers him for reward the "highe horse besides Boughton." Boughton is a district outside one of the gates of Chester, and the "highe horse" is the gallows. The impudent messenger answers in kind that such a horse should be ridden by great lords "of your degree," and continues:
They bene high in dignitie,
And also high and swifte is he;
Therefore that reverance takes yee,
My deare Lord, I you praye.
Similarly, when Cain is banished and condemned to be a "lurrell" (rogue or blackguard), he turns to the audience as the play closes and says:
Now I goe, to all that I see
I graunt the same gifte.
In the highest art there is a kind of simplicity, an element of the obvious to which we say, "Of course!" But before that element arrived, it was as distant from our thoughts as Aldebaran or Orion's sword. It is at this point that art and science meet, for the great discoveries of the scientific world have been things which seemed utterly obvious once they were pointed out. That quality of the simple, yet unexpected, undreamed-of inevitable I find in an unobtrusive stage direction of the Nativity play of Chester.
But first let me ask a question: The ox and ass of the sacred manger, where did they come from? Most of us will have supposed that they were always there! And why were they not cows or horses?
When Octavius Caesar issued his mandate that all the people of his dominions should be numbered and pay tribute, Joseph and Mary went from Nazareth to Bethlehem for this purpose, and Mary rode upon the ass. To provide tribute money, Joseph took the ox along. He says:
An oxe I will take with me
That there shall be sould.
The silver of him, so mot I thee,
Shall finde us in that city,
And pay tribute for thee and me.
There follows the stage direction: "Then Joseph will bind the ox to the tail of the ass, and place Mary upon the ass." They are now ready to set out on their journey. But what a picture this is: Joseph, an old man on foot, leading the ass on which the young and lovely Mary rides, and the ox following behind tied to the tail of the ass! And that humble procession adds one more surprising, yet obvious touch to the most appealing story our ears have ever heard.
Similarly in the Shepherds Play, the four boys who serve the Shepherds approach the child Jesus in the manger:
Could anything be more obvious, more simple, more inescapable, or more beautifully appealing? Of course the Shepherds have boys, apprentices! Only, we had never thought of them and never would have thought of them. And of course the boys would worship the Child with the Shepherds; and of course they would offer gifts. But what have they to offer? They carry no gold, frankincense, and myrrh in their pockets. They give what they are likely to have and to treasure: a bottle without a cork, in which, no doubt, the lad carries a refreshing drink to the fields; the prized hood which protects from the bitter wind; a willow whistle; and a nut-hook for pulling down apples, pears, and plums. The virtue of a gift is that it should mean something to the giver, include the element of sacrifice and the element of love. No modern writer could possibly have imagined that most obvious and simple scene: it has the true mediaeval touch.
Nor could it have been written by Geoffrey Chaucer, our greatest mediaeval English writer. He, it is true, does show us the Widow's cottage, and he shows us a few other humble characters; but he sees them, as we see them with him, from the outside. The mystery author saw those shepherd boys from the inside, and felt their reverence. Further, as J.E. Tiddy [in The Mummers' Play, 1923] has pointed out, "in all the abundant realism of these plays [the mysteries] there is certainly no realistic portrayal of a gentleman"—but to have failed to notice Chaucer's interest in gentility is not to have read Chaucer. The world of the mystery plays is a world utterly foreign to the courtly and learned poets. In the mysteries you will find no tortured allegory, no threeply dream visions, no fragrant gardens of love and the rose, no women set on the sham pedestals—or whited sepulchres—of courtly love, no Dresden china maidens whose every feature from grey eyes to dainty feet is catalogued in unrealistic detail. But you will find men and women, coarse, robust, and real, like as we all are or ought to be, with our grumbling and humour, our normal confusions, tempers, and sins. The Virgin Mary herself is a sainted version of the nursing mother next door; she is neither Criseyde nor Queen Guenevere, but as simple and real and true and natural as the girl of eighteen across the way with her first baby. In the mysteries you will find no debates on love and courtly manners, on points of courtesy and gentility; their authors have no such sophistication; and the audience for whom they were written would take no delight in fine points of argument upon subjects to them trivial. The mystery plays, in short, are folk drama.
Further, no matter how we may sweat our Freshmen through the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales and proclaim that here is a cross-section of English life in the Middle Ages, in reality the life of the Middle Ages hardly appears in Chaucer at all. What does appear is London and the courtly circle, their prepossessions and interests, with an occasional glimpse of the passing procession of life seen from the sidewalk and brought back to amuse the Court. Among those glimpses there is one of Absolon playing Herod "upon a scaffold hie"—in itself evidence that Chaucer had not seen processional plays. Why, if Chaucer was so great a part of all that he had met in England, is there no single scrap of a mystery play from his gifted pen?
Indeed, why is it that up until this moment nobody has ever been able to give a name that would stick to any single author of a mystery play? True, Ritson long ago suggested that Lydgate may have written such plays, but we look in vain for evidence that he did. What he may well have written is a royal entry or two, but that is a horse of a very different colour—if it is a horse at all. The name of Sir Gilbert Pilkington has been proposed as author of the Towneley Plays, but it has not stuck. Chambers formerly believed that Randall Higden wrote the Chester Mysteries, but has recanted. I have myself advanced as the originator of the Chester Plays not a court poet, but a Carmelite monk, Sir Henry Francis. Not a single other name can be associated with any of the mystery plays of England, plays which at one time were the bloom of life itself in a hundred towns.
The truth is that the plays had no authors—or, to say the same thing otherwise, they had the same authors as the ballads; and they require for their appreciation much the same taste as the ballads require. Crude the ballads are, if you will, a
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Baird, Lorrayne Y. "'Cockes face' and the Problem of Poydrace in the Chester Passion" Comparative Drama 16, No. 3 (Fall 1982): 227-37.
Examines several possible interpretations of the medieval insults used in the Chester play depicting Christ's Passion.
Cardullo, Bert. "The Chester Sacrifice of Isaac." The Explicator 43, No. 3 (Spring 1985): 3-4.
Explains how the speeches of the Expositor in the Chester Sacrifice of Isaac play is necessary for a Medieval audience's complete comprehension.
Clopper, Lawrence M. "The Principle of Selection of...
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