Of the four complete mystery cycles in the extant body of Middle English biblical drama, the N-Town plays are the most enigmatic. The single manuscript in which the cycle is preserved contains an amalgamation of scribal and authorial efforts. The institutional and geographical origins of the plays have been the subject of extensive research and debate, as has the means by which they were staged. Even the name of the cycle has been unstable: designated variously as the Ludus Coventriae, the Hegge cycle (after the first known owner of the manuscript), and the Lincoln plays, the plays are now commonly referred to as the N-Town cycle because the Proclamation that opens the collection refers to their performance in "N-town."
Like other biblical cycles, the N-Town plays contain stories from the Old and New Testaments and apocrypha. The opening Proclamation, spoken by three vexillators, describes a numbered series of pageants that does not correspond exactly to the dramatic episodes and plays contained in the manuscript that has come down to us. The divisions between plays are often unclear, with relatively few announced in the manuscript with specific titles or rubrication. The cycle includes a number of scenes unique to this collection, including the cherry tree incident involving Mary and Joseph, and the killing of Herod. Even more noteworthy, the N-Town cycle incorporates two smaller cycles that can be performed separately: a series of plays on the life of Mary, and a two-part Passion play. The N-Town cycle is also distinguished by what numerous scholars have identifed as an unusual concern with themes of redemptive promise, grace, and mercy.
A central issue in the study of medieval texts is their instability and indeterminancy. Medieval manuscripts are seldom complete and were typically revised, separated, compiled, or erased in the process of copying. The N-Town manuscript is a case in point. It was originally attributed to the city of Coventry, in the West Midlands, because of the label ("Ludus Coventriae") placed on the manuscript's flyleaf by a seventeenth-century librarian. Its dialect and calligraphy, however, indicate the involvement of at least four scribes from four different locales in East Anglia (modern-day Norfolk and Suffolk). The manuscript also contains evidence of additions and revisions at various points in its history. Early in the twentieth century, Esther L. Swenson suggested that the cycle's various meters indicated different scribes or authors. Although this idea has since been dismissed, more recent scholars, such as Stephen Spector (1991), have observed that sections that share metrical forms also have thematic and verbal affinities. A character named Contemplacio frames the series of Mary plays, probably indicating the sequence's prior independent existence; the manuscript's revisions of his speech may represent changes made to fit the self-contained sequence into the larger cycle.
The manuscript's eclectic character has given rise to debates over its provenance. While the early attribution of the cycle to the Grey Friars in Coventry has been discredited, most scholars agree that the cycle was associated with a religious institution of some sort. It is generally agreed that the manuscript was probably generated in the rich social and cultural environment of East Anglia in the late fifteenth century. Many scholars have accepted Gail McMurray Gibson's argument (1981) that the cycle originated in the abbey of Bury St. Edmunds, home of poet John Lydgate, but others insist that other sites nearby are just as likely.
The manuscript also contains unusually detailed stage directions, leading to a great deal of speculation as to how the play was staged. Like Continental drama of the time, many of the N-Town plays seem to require a fixed stage, or plataea, with various loci, or stations, rather than the movable pageant wagons more typical of English drama in that period. Most scholars agree that the cycle may never have been staged wholly in the manner in which it survives. Still, its plays allow for some of the most spectacular stage effects in medieval drama. In the Passion sequence the stage directions are particularly detailed, calling for rapid juxtapositions of scene and simultaneity of action.
Scholars have noted the cycle's unusual concern with Mary, more typical of Continental dramas than of English cycles. The Mary of N-Town is only intermittently the pious and humble Madonna; more consistently, she figures as the glorious virgin queen whose purity the cycle dramatizes to the fullest. Critics also find in the cycle an unusually strong emphasis on theological concepts. Unlike other cycles, N-Town focuses on Christ's dual nature as God and Man and on Christ's Incarnation as the central act of mediation between God and humankind. N-Town is heavily peopled with ecclesiastical characters—bishops, priests, etc.—who mediate the action and underline its connections to the liturgy. The sacraments, especially Communion, and prayer are brought to the fore as practical, quotidian methods of communication between God and humanity.
Most of the critical discussion of the N-Town cycle has centered on the origins of the manuscript and the staging of the plays. After Hardin Craig (1914) proposed Lincoln as the origin of the cycle, his idea was not seriously contested until Gibson put forward her argument in favor of Bury St. Edmunds. Current critical consensus is that the plays originated in East Anglia, but that the exact location is yet to be convincingly determined. With regard to staging, Swenson suggested that the Mary cycle and the Passion plays were produced on a fixed stage, while the others were acted on movable stages. Kenneth Cameron and Stanley J. Kahrl (1967) maintained that the older plays in the cycle were acted on movable stages and the newer ones on fixed plataeas. Anne C. Gay, on the other hand (1961), argued for a continuous place-and-scaffold staging and found no evidence of movable stages at all. Alan H. Nelson (1972) and Martial Rose (1973) similarly found no evidence of movable staging. Spector remarks only that the staging of the plays is open to conjecture, suggesting that the construction of the manuscript "seems to suggest a tendency toward the isolation of plays rather than continuous acting, or indifference to such issues during compilation."
The eclectic nature of the N-Town plays has led to arguments for and against the cycle's thematic unity. While critics such as Peter Meredith (1991) observe that the process of compiling the manuscript appears to have been haphazard, many would agree with Spector that "the eclecticism of the text does not preclude the possibility of thematic and artistic unity." Timothy Fry (1951) saw in the cycle a unified theological message, while Patrick J. Collins (1979) identified fruit and growth imagery and other motifs that perform a unifying function. Kathleen M. Ashley (1979) argued that the limited nature of human wisdom is a dominant theme throughout much of the cycle.