English Mystery Cycle Dramas The Fall From Grace In The Mystery Cycles

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The Fall From Grace In The Mystery Cycles

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Rosemary Woolf (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "Plays of the Fall," in The English Mystery Plays, University of California Press, 1972, pp. 105-31.

[In the following essay, Woolf discusses the treatment of the subject of the fall from grace in the mystery cycle dramas, contrasting the plays' dramatic interpretation of supernatural events with the description of those episodes in the Bible and in the commentary of theologians.]

The mystery cycles begin and end in the heavens, the opening play of the Fall of the Angels being on a subject never dramatised before and rarely since. The story was reconstructed by the Fathers by the piecing together of a number of biblical texts: of these the most important were the apostrophes addressed to the Prince of Babylon (Isaiah xiv. 12-15) and to the King of Tyre (Ezekiel xxviii. 2-19), which were understood in the light of Christ's words in Luke x. 18, 'I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven', and applied figuratively to the devil; to these was sometimes added the account of the war in heaven (Revelation xii. 3-9). The account of Satan's Fall, first amply and consistently expounded in The City of God, is now best known from the elaborate narrative in Paradise Lost, and present-day criticism of Milton has made everyone highly conscious of the pitfalls that await those who venture to treat this theme in literary rather than theological form. Medieval authors largely evade these pitfalls by a concise and symbolic treatment of the subject, the most symbolic of the plays, that in the York cycle, being also the most successful.

The characters, God with the good and bad angels, are all supernatural, and might therefore seem to present the dramatist with even more perilous and intractable material than the narrative poet. Iconography, however, provided a straightforward solution to the appearance of angels, for, though they were held to be immaterial and therefore invisible, the Bible recorded many scenes in which they had adopted a visible, human form, and some of these such as the Annunciation were represented in art over and over again. However, even with the help of traditional iconography, the portrayal of God presented difficulties, for in the heavens He is not any one person of the Trinity but the Trinity itself. Pictorial representations dealt with the mystery in a variety of ways, ranging from the depiction of three identical human figures to the more abstract and intellectual symbol of geometrical patterns, interlaced triangles or circles of different colours such as Dante imagined at the end of the Paradiso. But such representations were disturbing in narrative art though theologically exact when the subject was the work of Creation, since it had been accepted from the time of Augustine that the plural forms in Genesis i. 26, 'And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness', indicated the work of the Trinity. Artists occasionally showed the world or Adam being created by three identical figures or by a somewhat Janus-like figure with three faces, but more often at the cost of theological precision, scenes of the Creation depicted the creator as though He were God the Father alone, a reverend, white-bearded figure. The authors of the plays adopted the latter tradition; within the greater realism of the plays the adoption of the former seems inconceivable and would certainly have passed the boundary which divides the strange or mysterious from the grotesque.

The authors of the plays therefore had a twofold problem: the one, earlier described, that though God appeared in human form, He was incorporeal and uncircumscribed; the other, that though He appeared as God the Father, He was yet the three persons of the Trinity. In all the plays this problem is solved by an opening speech in which God defines Himself, His eternal and unique self-understanding being deftly implied by the fact that He speaks without directly addressing the angels within the play or the audience without. He is alpha and...

(The entire section is 11,010 words.)