The Towneley plays, also referred to as the Wakefield plays, are a cycle of medieval English mystery dramas comprised of thirty-two religious pageants dramatizing biblical history from the Creation to Judgment Day. Although few details are known about their authorship or mode of presentation, a number of the Towneley plays have been attributed to the anonymous author commonly called the Wakefield Master. Praised for their skillful handling of language, adept use of humor, and successful blending of secular and sacred themes, the plays have received much critical attention in the latter half of the twentieth century; two Towneley dramas in particular, Noah and The Second Shepherd's Play, are among the best-known and most frequently anthologized of all mystery plays.
The only extant manuscript of the Towneley plays was in the possession of the Towneley family of Burnley, Lancashire, until they sold it in 1814. The family, scholars believe, probably obtained it from the Abbey of Widkirk, near Wakefield, York. Historians have proposed that the plays began to be written down in the late thirteenth century and were completed around the early fifteenth century, with the only known manuscript dating from the sixteenth century. Textual evidence from the plays themselves links the pageants to the locality of Wakefield, but, although the manuscript identifies the plays as the "Wakefield Cycle," scholars have concluded that no such cycle actually existed. Rather, the manuscript seems to have been a collection from which to chose individual productions, and, judging from signs of heavy use, probably a transcription intended for acting purposes. There are few staging instructions in the manuscript, but many of the plays as written could not have mounted on the typical pageant wagon. Because of the specific, complex staging requirements of individual dramas, scholars believe that they may have been acted out on multi-level scaffoldings.
The group now consists of thirty-two plays; two additional plays are believed to have been lost, and two (numbers xxxi and xxxii) to be placed out of order in the manuscript. Considered the most pieced-together of all the mystery play groups, the Towneley plays were much revised and rewritten over time. Based on the metrical and stanzaic forms used in the texts, scholars have discerned three layers of influence in the plays: ordinary didactic-religious plays, plays derived from the earlier York group of plays, and plays that appear to have been written by a single author and that are characterized by a bold sense of humor. The five plays derived from York are Pharao, Pagina Doctorum, Extraccio Animarum, Resureccio Domini, and Judicium. Critics are in agreement in attributing the Mactacio Abel, Processus Noe cum Filiis, Prima Pastorum, Secunda Pastorum, Magnus Herodes, and Coliphizacio to the Wakefield Master. Written in a North Mid-land dialect, these plays display the Wakefield Master's trademark style—use of thirteen rhyme words in each nine-line stanza, humor, and word play.
Plot and Major Characters
The plot of the Towneley plays is the plot of biblical accounts of the creation, humankind's fall from grace, the life of Jesus, his crucifixion, and resurrection. The plays were intended to show, by example and illustration from various biblical and apocryphal stories, how humankind deviated from the path that God ordained for them, and how they may be saved. Major characters in the plays are personages from the Bible, with Noah, Jesus, Herod, and Pilate having some of the most prominent parts. Scholars have pointed out that, while characters are often similar in various plays and in various cycles, they can also vary from play to play. So, for example, Pilate can be a buffoon in one pageant, and a wise judge in another.
The Towneley plays blend liturgical and everyday themes, often with humor and satire, and sometimes, as in Noah and The Second Shepherd's Play, with humor that is downright boisterous. The bickering between the henpecked Noah and his wife, and the concerns of the petty thieves in The Second Shepherd's Play coexist in those plays with serious commentary regarding God's plan for humankind and with admonishment about the dangers of straying from the path of Christian behavior. In other plays, religious themes are placed alongside social criticism—for example, a critique of cock-fighting or exposition of corrupt churchmen. The range of situations depicted in the various pageants showcases humankind's suffering as a result of sinfulness as well as their seemingly endless capacity for hope and self-improvement. Therefore, the plays exhibit a mixture of realistic detail and biblical typology, humor and didacticism, along with a pronounced interest in rhetoric, linguistic playfulness, and the legal terminology of the day.
Martial Rose has deemed the Towneley plays "the most dramatic series of [the medieval mystery] plays" because of their varied themes, colorful characters, and linguistic brilliance. Despite those characteristics, however, the plays were considered rather primitive popular entertainments up until the early twentieth century. When modern scholars turned their attention to the Towneley plays, one of the main critical debates that emerged regarding their artistic merit was the question of their unity. Some critics theorized that, while humor is one of the unifying elements in the cycle, it is also misplaced thematically because it subverts, especially in Herod and The Second Shepherd's Play, the sacred meaning of the plays. Acknowledging that the plays are a mixture of folk drama, mummers' plays, and liturgical drama, most critics now view the Christian themes in the plays as overriding and as that which structures as well as lends unity to the plays. Another point of discussion among critics has been deciding to what extent, if any, the Wakefield Master can be credited with the final shape of the Towneley plays. Some critics limit his role to the six plays closely identified with his style, others, like John Gardner, maintain that he may have been the final reviser and shaper of all the plays, and still others, like Martin Stevens, theorize that he may have been the author of the entire cycle, the "guiding intelligence" of all the Towneley plays. In the latter decades of the twentieth century, The Second Shepherd's Play has received the most critical attention of any of the Towneley plays, yet scholars continue to demonstrate an interest in exploring the plays, both individually and as a group. So, for example, E. Catherine Dunn has studied the several manifestations of the narrative voice in the plays, Jeffrey Helterman has focused on the interplay of typology and realism, and several critics have charted the interconnection between the use of humor, didacticism, and rhetorical style in the Towneley plays.