York Plays Introduction - Essay


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 The composition of the cycle varied as pageants were added, withdrawn, or joined together.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.