English Mystery Plays – Staging Patterns and Orality Features

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1.7The East Anglian tradition

Among the counties of England, East Anglia belongs to the areas with the richest theatrical tradition. From the surviving texts and evidence of theatrical performances, more than a third is geographically ascribed to East Anglia (Coldewey 189). Among these are also the N-Town plays and The Conversion of St Paul and the most spectacular of medieval plays, The Castle of Perseverance.

East Anglia was a rich prosperous agricultural area. Wealth was distributed among smaller towns and villages and, apart from Norwich, the area lacks a bigger urban centre. The most important economic units behind the plays were not craft guilds, but peasantry represented by parish churches.

Different social makeup and different demographic conditions brought different ways of financing and producing of the plays. The plays were not sponsored by the guilds, but they were staged mainly for profit, which was a substantial part of income of the parishes (Coldewey 202). Towns and parishes joined together and raised funds to organize festivals. Being a part of a festival, East Anglian plays were given to large audience. They are thus remarkable as spectacular events. The most outstanding of those plays is The Castle of Perseverance, with 35 speaking parts and a scaffold stage built in the round. The play is most significant for spectacular battles between the good and evil characters. The staging of The Conversion of St Paul needs three live horses and a dove. The plays also employ special effects such as lightning, tempest and belches of fire (The Conversion of St Paul). For Coldewey “The spectacular form of East Anglian plays flows naturally from their function as profit-making enterprises” (Coldewey 206).

Large festivals and great spectacular enterprises were probably held more or less periodically at specific venues, but a large proportion of East Anglian drama belongs to smaller travelling companies. Companies roamed the land in smaller towns and villages. Costumes and stage properties were sometimes available to hire. There is no wonder that those conditions produced the first professionals in the theatre business. Travelling troupes produced the first actors and large festivals gave rise to the profession of a property player (Coldewey 204), a semi-professional director.

1.8Morality plays and interludes

Compared with the Mystery plays, Morality plays do not deal directly with Biblical themes. According to Pamela M. King they “offer their audiences moral instruction through dramatic action that is broadly allegorical” (King 240). Even though they deal with universal truths within the religious framework of the Christian Church, they already represent a shift towards a more abstract dramatic treatment. Morality plays thus belong to a separate genre that proved influential for later moral interludes. Their influence can be seen mainly in preparing the grounds for the shift from Biblical towards more abstract and allegorical themes. Among the surviving morality plays, the most significant are: Everyman, The Pride of Life, The Castle of Perseverance, Wisdom and Mankind (King 240).

Moral interludes belong to the youngest and the most progressive genre of medieval drama. As Glynne Wickham says, any attempt to define the genre with “certainty” or “precision” is doomed to fail (Wickham vi). The plays labelled as interludes do by no means belong to a coherent genre unit and they often mingle with morality plays. However, interludes can be seen as an interlink between medieval drama and the drama of the forthcoming Renaissance period. They introduce secular themes and they are open to fiction.

Interludes also share a more or less common attitude towards staging. Wickham says: “the stage must allow the playmaker complete freedom of movement in time and space, uninhibited by considerations of verisimilitude” (Wickham vii). Some interludes and moralities both share the economy of stage and costume. The theatrical reality is to great extend created by the actor and accepted by the audience. “The make-believe aspect of any form of drama was openly admitted and fully exploited” (Wickham vii). Those features are most evident in plays like Mankind, Fulgens and Lucres or Hick Scorner. The interludes are associated mainly with indoor venues. With their methods of staging and performance, they have the greatest impact on the forthcoming Renaissance drama.
The variety of medieval drama is enormous. Despite the variety of genres there are some features medieval plays have in common. They were staged for festive reasons. Each play is a complement to a feast. This could be a significant religious feast as in the case of the cycle plays, or a celebration of a birth or a feast held to welcome significant visitors as in the case of the interludes. Medieval plays were functional. Virtually all the plays have religious didactic content, or they operate within the doctrines of the Church. The functionality of medieval plays lies in presenting this didactic content in the popular way. Their primary concern is the audience. Another field where this functionality appears is in their staging.

2The stage

Medieval theatre does not have any conventions concerning the stage. The plays were staged for festive reasons and their acting space was shaped according to the particular occasion they were held for (Twycross 37). Liturgical plays were staged in the church or in the churchyard, the cycle plays were staged on pageant wagons and in the streets, East Anglian plays usually used scaffold constructions, interludes are linked to dining halls, some plays used house-like constructions called mansions and some plays were simply presented inside a circle of onlookers. Each particular event dictated the place where the play was performed and each play exploited the theatrical possibilities of this place (Twycross 37).

Because the stage often used public spaces, the boundaries between the actor and the audience are not clearly defined. Veltruská says that that the boundaries were “coextensive” with the existing social structure of the given place (Veltruská 129). The acting place in a church was the space before the altar, but in the street or in the hall it had to be created by the actors. Those fragile boundaries, the fact that the actor and the audience share the same space, together with the fact that the performance took place in the daylight create the theatrical circumstances typical for medieval theatre.

This theatrical space is on one hand depraved of the possibility to create the same illusion as a lighted scene of a modern theatre. On the other hand it allows for interaction with the audience and inclusion of the audience into the reality of the play. Medieval arts and theatre work more with representation as opposed to illusion. Medieval actors did not have to worry about breaking the theatrical illusion. They also did not have to worry to overcome the boundary between the stage and the audience. Medieval stage thus means not only the particular construction of a stage but also the space beneath it and among the audience.

The following chapter presents the most outstanding methods of outdoor staging patterns: processional staging and place-and-scaffold. Medieval theatre is audience oriented; its main aim is to draw its attention. I will examine the way dramatic action is brought closer to the audience in The Conversion of St Paul and The York Entry to Jerusalem.

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