York Plays Essay - Critical Essays

York Plays


York Plays

A series of fifty or so plays eminently designed to be seen in performance, the York cycle was in every dimension a communal effort when it was presented annually from around 1375 to 1569. Originally the plays were staged as part of the city's day-long celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi. The content of the cycle reflects its religious purpose: each play dramatizes a moment from the Bible, such as Adam and Eve's fall or the crucifixion of Jesus. Taken overall, they present the history of humanity's fall and ultimate salvation. Over the years, the pageants grew so popular and attracted so many spectators that in 1476 authorities decided it was no longer possible to combine the liturgical observance with play performances; from that time on, the ecclesiastical celebration took place the day after the theatrical pageant.

In the opinion of most modern scholars, the York cycle is a "true processional": the plays, staged on pageant wagons at street level, were presented in narrative sequence at a series of stations along a route laid out through the city. Each play was assigned to one or two of York's many craft guilds—from tailors to shipwrights, from plasterers to goldsmiths—who were responsible for mounting the production each year and for maintaining the pageant wagon, the stage properties, and costumes. Performances began at dawn, and scholars conjecture that it is unlikely that the full staging of the cycle at a dozen or more stations could have been completed before midnight. The wealthiest trade guilds produced lavish spectacles, and the annual performance provided an opportunity for groups of craftsmen to enhance their prestige—and for the City of York to celebrate its stature as one of England's most prosperous cities.

From 1375 until the cycle was suppressed nearly two hundred years later, individual plays were constantly revised. The composition of the cycle varied as pageants were added, withdrawn, or joined together. The texts of the plays, originally the work of several playwrights, were reworked by many authors. The Reformation movement led to the suspension of the cycle from time to time during the 1560s; in 1561 the plays devoted to Jesus' mother, Mary, were forbidden altogether on doctrinal grounds. When ecclesiastical authorities took control of the text of the cycle in the 1570s—and refused to return it despite pleas from civic leaders—the York plays vanished from public view.

Plot and Major Characters

The narrative range of the York cycle begins with the Creation of the universe and the Fall of Lucifer and ends with a Judgment Day pageant. It features Old Testament episodes from the books of Genesis and Exodus, New Testament accounts from the Annunication to the Resurrection, and material from biblical legends and apocrypha. Figures and events from the Old Testament include Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and their expulsion, the story of Cain and Abel, one play on the building of Noah's Ark and another on the Flood, a pageant of Abraham and Isaac, and a dramatization of the Israelites in Egypt. New Testament plays—which comprise the majority of the cycle—principally focus on Christ's Nativity and Passion, although there are also some that enact his teachings and miracles. Apocryphal books and legends provided the basis for plays treating the Harrowing of Hell, the doubt of St. Thomas, and the post-Crucifixion life and death of the Virgin Mary.

Many scholars have pointed out that Old Testament characters in the cycle—Lucifer, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and his wife, Abraham and Isaac—are conscious "types" or foreshadowings of characters in the New Testament plays. For example, Abraham's resolve to take the life of his son Isaac prefigures God's willingness to sacrifice His son to redeem mankind. New Testament personages prominently featured in the York plays include Joseph, Judas, Herod, and Pilate; Caiaphas, Annas, and Pilate's wife Procula also have noteworthy roles in the drama. Some of the most vivid characters in the York cycle are the nameless ones representing Common Man. Most remarkable in this regard are the four men who carry out the Crucifixion; they are carefully individualized, and their struggles to stretch and nail Christ's body onto the cross and then move it to a nearby hill are forcefully—and gruesomely—presented. Although characterization is important to the plays, it is not consistent from one play to another: each pageant treats its central figures in its own particular fashion. For example, Pilate is arrogant and overbearing in the play depicting Jesus's first trial, while during the second trial Pilate seems at times to be a reasonable administrator of justice.

Textual History

The surviving text of the York cycle, known generally as the York Register, was apparently compiled from actors' prompt copies or individual play books maintained by the craft guilds. Modern scholars believe it was assembled between 1463 and 1477 and thus reflects the form of the plays during that period. They point out that the composition of the cycle was fluid over the 200-year period when it was part of the York Corpus Christi celebration. There is evidence that many of the individual plays were reworked or substantially rewritten during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

The York text is the oldest and best preserved of the English mystery cycles. It was compiled under the auspices of the Common Clerk of York as a means of checking the authenticity of the dialogue being spoken by the actors in the pageants. Many of the notes in the Register are in the handwriting of a single individual, John Clerke. These notes include annotations; indications of additions, revisions, and conflations of plays; organizational details about the guilds that presented the pageants; and some remarks about stage business. The text contains dialogue for more than 300 speaking parts. It was kept by city officials until the 1570s, when ecclesiastical authorities acquired it for the ostensible purpose of reviewing it. Sometime during the next century it passed into private hands. Its ownership can be traced from 1695 to 1899, when it was acquired by the British Museum. The text, designated British Library MS Additional 35290, is also known as the Ashburnham manuscript, after the last private owner. Scholars and critics most frequently refer to it as the Register.

In addition to the Register, a wealth of contemporary documents from civic and ecclesiastical records continues to provide scholars with further evidence of the evolution of the York cycle and its actual performance. The Ordo Paginorum (Order of the Pageants), compiled by the town clerk Roger Burton in 1415, comprises a list of the guilds involved in the plays at that time, together with a brief description of the subject matter of their pageants. Burton compiled a second list a few years later, and discrepancies between these two records clearly show changes in the components of the cycle. The Mercers' guild inventory of 1433—describing at length their pageant wagon, properties, and costumes—is among the most notable of evidentiary documents. This inventory has proven to be a rich source of information, and the basis for much speculation about how the plays in the York cycle were staged. Other records include lists of stations, or "stopping places," along the processional route through the streets of York, correspondence betwen civil and church authorities about the pageant, and minutes from city council meetings that demonstrate how significant the annual performance was to the people of medieval York.

Major Themes

The overarching theme of the York cycle is the Fall and Redemption of mankind from the perspective of traditional Christian theology. Because of the sins that originated in the Garden of Eden, humanity must repent to win salvation. The dramatization of events in the York cycle had a didactic purpose: to instruct the audience in the principles of Christian teachings and show them, by example, how to conduct their lives in a way that would lead to salvation. As commentators have noted, the theme of sin and redemption in the York plays directly connects events in the past—the rebellion of Satan, Adam and Eve's fall from grace, the torture and killing of Jesus—to the immediate present of the spectators, who must experience an enactment of these events to fully appreciate their relevance not only to conduct here on earth, but to the future, in terms of eternal life. Consequently, the plays may have made very immediate the Biblical message that each Christian must choose to accept or reject the possibility of redemption represented by Christ's sacrifice. And everyone must recognize the moral implications and spiritual significance of their everyday actions.

Critical Reception

Serious critical evaluation of the York cycle of plays did not begin until the second half of the twentieth century. All the English mystery plays suffered a poor reputation from the late sixteenth century to modern times: commentators patronized the genre as crude folk literature and judged that popular audiences had become tired of them by the Elizabethan era. Lucy Toulmin Smith's edition of the York plays, published in 1885, brought them to the attention of other scholars, but for the next seventy-five years critical attention focused on textual and historial issues rather than aesthetic values. A recreation of the pageants at York in 1951 initated an appreciation of the plays' unusual stagecraft among enthusiastic audiences and scholars. Twelve years later Eleanor Prosser called for a "new approach to the religious drama of medieval England," and from that point the plays began to be regarded as the products of conscious artistry, deserving thoughtful consideration as dramatic literature.

In 1963 J. W. Robinson expanded the notion, first put forth by Charles Mills Gayley around the turn of the century, that a single author composed a core of plays in the York Passion sequence. In Robinson's estimation, the "York Realist"—as Gayley called him—had made a noteworthy contribution to English drama through creative use of detail, interest in the subtleties of characterization, and faithfulness to the essential significance of the Passion narrative. Other commentators began to give serious consideration to the language, versification, and dramatic technique of the cycle. Richard J. Collier identified the effectiveness of different styles throughout the York plays and pointed out the appropriateness of using vernacular language in "a drama which is the most popular and communal we know." For the past twenty years, critical interest in the relation between the York plays and their audience has remained high, with commentators emphasizing the unique way the street pageants involved the spectators in the dramatic action to a degree not possible in a traditional theater. Investigation and explanation of the methods of processional staging in York continue to be a central focus of late-twentieth-century scholars such as Meg Twycross, Richard Beadle, Martin Stevens, and Christine Richardson. A clearer understanding of the plays in performance has been aided by productions of the plays every three years in York, and on occasion at other sites in Britain and North America. Recent scholarship also fosters a deeper appreciation of the plays through study of the many surviving documents that shed light on the social, economic, and political conditions that helped determine the form, content, and fate of the York cycle.

The Plays

i. The Creation, Fall of Lucifer

ii. The Creation to the Fifth Day

iii. God Creates Adam and Eve

iv. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden

v. Man's Disobedience and Fall

vi. Adam and Eve Driven from Eden

vii. Sacrificium Cayme et Abell

viii. Building of the Ark

ix. Noah and the Flood

x. Abraham's Sacrifice

xi. The Israelites in Egypt, the ten Plagues, and Passage of the Red Sea

xii. Annunciation, and Visit of Elizabeth to Mary


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Principal Editions

The York Plays (edited by Lucy Toulmin Smith) 1885

Records of Early English Drama: York (edited by A. F. Johnston and Margaret Rogerson) 1979

York Plays (edited by R. A. Beadle) 1982

A Facsimile of British Library MS Additional 35290 together with a Facsimile of the "Ordo Paginorum" Section of the A/Y Memorandum Book (edited by Richard Beadle and Peter Meredith) 1983

York Mystery Plays: A Selection in Modern Spelling (edited by Richard Beadle and Pamela M. King) 1984

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Lucy Toulmin Smith (essay date 1885)

SOURCE: An introduction to York Plays, 1885. Reprint by Russell & Russell, 1963, pp. xlv-lx.

[An authority on medieval English literature, Smith was the first modern editor of the York plays (1885). In the following excerpt from her introduction to that edition, she remarks on the skillfulness of the unknown author of the york plays and alludes to the influence of these and other religious cycles on later English dramatic literature. Smith calls attention to the deft use of alliterative verse, keen understanding of human nature, and thorough knowledge of the Bible and the legends associated with it.]

Although the date of composition of the York Plays is not known,...

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Charles Mills Gayley (essay date 1904)

SOURCE: "The York Schools of Humour and Realism," in Plays of Our Forefathers, 1904. Reprint by Duffield and Company, 1907, pp. 153-60.

[In the following excerpt, Gayley identifies a core of six plays that, he suggests, are probably the work of a single authorto whom he refers as "the York real ist." Gayley discusses the versification, style, and dramatic techniques of these plays, and postulates three distinct composition periods for the cycle.]

The York cycle affords very few situations ministering to the humour of the incidental. Such as are of that character must be assigned to more than one period of composition; none, however, is to be found in the...

(The entire section is 1766 words.)

E. Hamilton Moore (essay date 1907)

SOURCE: "The Great Cycle," in English Miracle Plays and Moralities, 1907. Reprint by AMS Press, 1969, pp. 31-48.

[In the excerpt below, Moore discusses the connection between the York pageant plays and the celebration of the annual Feast of Corpus Christi. By 1426, Moore notes, the festival was characterized by crowds and boisterous revelry—inappropriate for the observance of a sacramental feast—and in that year the religious procession itself was formally separated from the staged production of pageants.]

The latter half of the fourteenth century saw the translation of the Bible into the English tongue, for those who were fortunate enough to have learned to read;...

(The entire section is 1591 words.)

Hardin Craig (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: "York-Wakefield Plays," in English Religious Drama of the Middle Ages, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1955, pp. 199-238.

[In the excerpt below, Craig contends that the York and Wakefield cycles were once identical. In his estimation, the York plays were earlier and provided the initial molds for Wakefield.

There is only one theory that accounts completely for the likenesses and differences of the two cycles. Many alterations and developments had occurred during the fourteenth century and, as Burton's list of 1415 shows, the York plays had become a great and extensive cycle. At some time, probably before the year 1390, the York cycle was borrowed outright and...

(The entire section is 629 words.)

Eleanor Prosser (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: "Joseph," in Drama and Religion in the English Mystery Plays, Stanford University Press, 1961, pp. 89-92.

[In the excerpt below, Prosser examines York XIII, Joseph's Trouble about Mary, finding in it an innovative and vigorous portrayal of Joseph's doubts about his wife's virtue. Whereas the Chester treatment of this episode is sketchy, Prosser points out, the York play includes extended dialogues between the couple in which Joseph passionately scorns Mary and expresses his personal shame.]

The best Joseph plays [in the English mysteries]… are those which most effectively fuse dramatic structure and doctrine…. [The] doctrine of repentance became the...

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Rosemary Woolf (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "The Passion," in The English Mystery Plays, University of California Press, 1972, pp. 238-68.

[In the excerpt below, Woolf remarks on the characterization of Judas and Pilate in the York plays. Judas's dialogue with the porter is a rare and effective dramatic device, she notes, while the role of Pilate is unusually elaborate and—by modern standards—inconsistent.]

The characterisation of Judas in the [English mystery] plays is exceptional: though so pre-eminently a collaborator with the devil in his betrayal of Christ, and placed by Dante in the mouth of Satan himself in the deepest circle of hell, yet in the plays he is not modelled upon the devil, and is...

(The entire section is 1656 words.)

Richard J. Collier (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "The Poetry of the Play," in Poetry and Drama in the York Corpus Christi Play, Archon Books, 1978, pp. 38-61.

[In the following excerpt, first published in 1977, Collier analyzes the language and versification of the York plays, emphasizing the flexibility, effectiveness, and appropriateness of both. More than twenty different stanzaic forms appear in the York cycle, he points out, with different forms used for different kinds of episodes, characters, and dramatic action. Collier discerns three levels of style or language in these plays—ornate, formulaic, and colloquial. The use of vernacular language and the prevalence of the formulaic style are wholly in keeping, he remarks,...

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Meg Twycross (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Playing the Resurrection," in Medieval Studies for J. A. W. Bennett, edited by P. L. Heyworth, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1981, pp. 273-96.

[In the following excerpt, Twycross describes the reconstruction of the production of the Resurrection of Christ, focusing on "what happens to the play in performance." Emphasizing the active involvement of the audience in the performance and the physical closeness of audience and actors, Twycross maintains that the Resurrection playwright made his audience aware of the part they played in the drama, engaging them directly in the emotional dynamics of the pageant.]

This essay is about the performance of a...

(The entire section is 7493 words.)

Clifford Davidson (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "After the Fall," in From Creation to Doom: The York Cycle of Mystery Plays, AMS Press, 1984, pp. 39-59.

[In the following essay, Davidson calls attention to the traditional dialectical pattern of hope and despair in the York plays that are based on episodes from the Old Testament. He also traces this pattern in medieval English pictorial art, including windows in York Minster and other churches, ecclesiastical sculpture, and illuminated manuscripts.]

A comparative method involving study of the York plays and analogous representations of subjects in the visual arts may suggest some new ways of approaching the vexed question of the selection of episodes in the...

(The entire section is 7815 words.)

Richard Beadle (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: An introduction to York Mystery Plays: A Selection in Modern Spelling, edited by Richard Beadle and Pamela M. King, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1984, pp. ix-xxx.

[In the excerpt that follows, Beadle provides an outline of the narrative scope of the plays and an overview of several issues connected with the York plays: the historical context of the Corpus Christi festival; the evidence of the manuscript, the Register, and other relevant documents; the role of the York craft guilds; the processional presentation of the plays; and stagecraft and dramatic technique in the cycle.]

The York cycle of Mystery Plays is one of the great literary and theatrical...

(The entire section is 7233 words.)

Martin Stevens (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "The York Cycle: City as Stage," in Four Middle English Mystery Cycles, Princeton University Press, 1987, pp. 17-87.

[In the excerpt below, Stevens contends that the unity of the York cycle is based on the medieval view of the plays as a mirror image of the city of York and its inhabitants. He argues that the processional staging of the cyclesespecially in the pageant depicting Jesus' entry into Jerusalemreflects York's use of the Corpus Christi festival as an opportunity for self-celebration that particularly emphasizes the tradition of royal entries into the city.]

The York plays present a special problem for those who find thematic...

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Christine Richardson (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "York Crucifixion Play," in Medieval Drama, edited by Christine Richardson and Jackie Johnston, St. Martin's Press, 1991, pp. 61-78.

[In the following excerpt, Richardson examines the staging of the York Crucifixion playin her judgment, "the central climactic point of the Mystery Cycle"and demonstrates how it draws the spectators into the responsibility for Christ's suffering and death. She maintains that the vivid portrayal of Christ's sacrifice leads the audience, first, to understand its personal relevance and, second, to acknowledge it as the route to redemption for humanity.]

A wealth of details in civic documents, guild...

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Richard Beadle (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "The York Cycle," in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre, edited by Richard Beadle, Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 100-08.

[In the excerpt below, Beadle evaluates the variety of alliterative verse in the York cycle. Focusing in particular on the Crucifixion pageant and the second Christ Before Pilate play, he remarks on the verbal subtleties and structural details that are carefully woven into the twelve-line stanza throughout the play.]

Most of the York cycle still awaits detailed study along lines that move towards an integration of the textual, documentary and theatrical evidence, complex and resistant to consensual...

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Further Rerading

Beadle, Richard. Introduction to The York Plays, edited by Richard Beadle, pp. 10-45. London: Edward Arnold, 1982.

A survey of important textual, historical, and performance issues. Beadle provides a thorough evaluation of the Ashburnam manuscript; the origins, early history, and mode of performing the York cycle; and a bibliographic guide to principal developments in the critical history of these plays.

——. "Poetry, Theology and Drama in the York Creation and Fall of Lucifer." In Religion in the Poetry and Drama of the Late Middle Ages in England, edited by Piero Boitani and Anna Torti, pp. 213-27. Cambridge: D. S....

(The entire section is 1035 words.)