English Mystery Plays – Staging Patterns and Orality Features

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Masaryk University in Brno

Faculty of Arts

Department of English and American Studies

English Mystery Plays – Staging Patterns and Orality Features
B.A. Major Thesis
Pavel Drábek

Supervisor: Mgr. Pavel Drábek, Ph.D.

Brno, June 2006

I hereby declare that I have worked on this B.A. Thesis independently, using only the sources listed in the bibliography.

28th June 2006 in Brno

I would especially like to thank to Mgr. Pavel Drábek, Ph.D. for his patience, support and valuable advice.


1 Introduction 6

1.1 Plays studied in the thesis 6

1.2 Introduction into the English medieval theatre 6

1.3 Early medieval secular and liturgical theatre 7

1.4 The Corpus Christi feast 8

1.5 The York cycle 9

1.6 The Chester and Towneley cycles 10

1.7 The East Anglian tradition 10

1.8 Morality plays and interludes 11

2 The stage 13

2.1 Processional Staging - York 13

2.1.1 The Entry to Jerusalem – action in the street 15

2.2 Place-and-Scaffold 16

2.2.1 The Conversion of St Paul and its staging 17

3 Orality 20

3.1 Oral culture 20

3.2 Ong and oral cultures 20

3.3 Oral features in medieval plays 21

3.3.1 Structure 22

3.3.2 Proverbs and formulaic expressions 23

3.3.3 Illustrative language 24

3.3.4 Episodic plot development 25

3.3.5 Community and individual 25

3.3.6 Direct address to the audience 26

4 Conclusion 28

5 Illustrations 29

6 Bibliography 30


Throughout the twentieth century, there has been a great rise of interest in medieval drama. There has also been a great shift in the interpretation of medieval plays. Medieval drama was recreated from a lower stage in the development of theatre to a mature and sophisticated genre that deserves the same attention as the theatre of the forthcoming periods. Modern attempts to stage medieval plays brought new insights into their theatricality. Warm reception of the audiences showed their vitality. Medieval plays now serve as a source of valuable information about the medieval society. Furthermore, they are also a rich source of inspiration for modern playwrights.

In my thesis, I am primarily interested in the methods of presentation and oral features of medieval plays. I will divide my thesis in two main chapters. In the chapter on staging, I will concentrate on various methods of staging and performance and the theatrical reality they create. In the chapter on orality, I will concentrate on the features of society which communicates without the aid of writing. I will analyse these orality features in the medieval plays. I will try to prove the influence that oral communication has in shaping the basic formative features of the plays.

1.1Plays studied in the thesis

In chapter on staging, I will concentrate on The Entry to Jerusalem. The play belongs to the York mystery cycle (extant text 1463-77). It combines the story of Christ’s entry to Jerusalem (Luke 19: 28-44), the story of Zacheus in the sycamore tree (Luke 19: 1-10) and the story of Christ healing the blind man and the lame man (Luke 18: 35-43).

I will also work with The Conversion of St Paul (after 1512), ascribed to the East Anglian region. The story depicts Saul as the prosecutor of Christians, his conversion in Damascus and his baptism, and his return to Jerusalem as Christ’s disciple (Acts 9: 1-31).

In chapter on orality, I will deal primarily with The Second Shepherds’ Play (late fifteenth century) from the Towneley mystery cycle. The play combines an older farce about the shepherds, Mak, his wife Gil and a stolen sheep, with the story of Christ’s birth (Luke 2: 8-20).

1.2Introduction into the English medieval theatre

Medieval English theatre is a term covering a large body of plays, performances and theatrical activities. The entire period of medieval drama spans for five hundred years. Linguistically, it includes plays in Latin, Cornish and the Celtic languages as well as plays written in English. In terms of genre, medieval drama includes travelling minstrels, folk mummings, dramatizations of the Bible and secular plays. My primary concern in the introduction is to present the mystery plays in the context English medieval drama. I want to give a brief history of early medieval drama, to present the secular and liturgical influences that shaped the mystery plays. Then I want to present the East Anglian tradition and compare it with the mystery cycles performed in the cities of the north. Finally I want to present the morality plays and interludes, which are a sign of the forthcoming new theatrical tradition.

1.3Early medieval secular and liturgical theatre

Medieval English drama virtually lacks any predecessor. The Roman theatre disappeared after the fall of the Roman Empire. As Chambers reports, this process was “accelerated by Christian hostility and barbarian indifference” (Chambers 2). There are few references to any drama in the period between 800-1000 A.D. Secular drama seemed to survive in various forms of minstrelsy, mime and clowning. The ecclesiastical records of the period are full of complaints and prohibitions concerning the mimi, historiones, joculatores and others. These entries show the hostility of the Church towards these kinds of folk entertainment, while their frequency suggests the popularity of these dramatic forms among the ordinary people. The repertoire of the entertainers included acrobatics, clowning, miming, dancing, singing and jesting (Tydeman 12). These entertainers did not perform drama as such, but their influence is apparent in the comic figures of the later plays. The characters like Mak in The Second Shepherds’ Play, or Servant and Ostler in The Conversion of St Paul, or A and B in Fulgens and Lucres seem to be the offspring of these joculatores.

In the second half of the tenth century, drama seems to find its way to the church. Masses began to be accompanied by dumb play, costume processions or antiphonal singing1. The Latin Visitatio Sepulchri, a sung dramatization of the three Marys’ visit to Christ’s tomb, composed around 970, is considered to be the first liturgical play. Liturgical plays were performed to accompany the most important religious feasts. At first they concentrated on single episodes, but they soon began to extent their action to include other scenes like Passion or Nativity. The Shrewsbury Fragments which date to the end of the twelfth century already includes parts of Nativity, Resurrection and Peregrinus (Tydeman 8).

English mystery plays owe a lot to liturgical plays. The Biblical content made scholars suppose that liturgical plays moved from the church to the streets and gave rise to the great mystery cycles. They claim that liturgical plays stretched their action to include more Biblical episodes until they became too large for the clergy to handle and were handed down to secular groups.

Some scholars objected to this theory with a claim that the clergy did not intend to move the plays out of the church (Tydeman 8). There is also a missing interlink between liturgical plays and the cycles. A.H. Nelson claims that there is no evidence that the plays in any city ‘were ever in the hands of anyone but the guilds’ (Nelson 1). He argues that the town guilds adopted liturgical drama with the consent of the church and the cycle plays thus developed as a new form of theatre.

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