English Mystery Plays – Staging Patterns and Orality Features

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2.1Processional Staging - York

Processional staging is a pattern exclusive to the Corpus Christi cycles and among them it was most probably practised only in York and Chester. This staging pattern developed out of the Corpus Christi procession. This form of staging is impractical on one hand but theatrically economic on the other. A single play has to be performed at several stations, which in the end requires hours of performing. The economy that is thus achieved lies in dividing a large crowd of spectators into several smaller groups.

Processional staging developed from pageants and mute tableaux in the Corpus Christi procession. These pageants, without dramatic text, were drawn in the procession with the host. Denis van Alsloot’s painting The Triumph of Isabella depicts similar pageant wagons in the procession in Brussels. Although van Alsloot’s painting is from the seventeenth century, it can give an idea what the wagons probably looked like.

Meg Twycross says: “True processional staging is more complicated to describe than it is to execute” (Twycross 39). The plays in York were performed at twelve stations. The performers gathered at the Toft Green, a meeting place near the first station, at 4:30 am. The Fall of the Angels would start with the dawn at The Trinity Priory. After the play was over, the pageant wagon was drawn to another station and freed the station for staging of The Creation. Thus the plays moved from one station to another until late in the evening when all the plays had been performed at all the stations.

Scholars argue about the practical possibility of staging all the 47 plays at the twelve stations in the course of a single day. The processional theory was most eloquently challenged by A. H. Nelson in his Medieval English Stage. According to his calculations (Nelson 25) the plays, starting at 5 am at the first station would have lasted at least until noon the other day. Nelson argues for a pageant procession through a city in the morning and staging of the entire cycle at a single station later in the afternoon or the day after. He also supports his argument with the 1399 controversy when the twelve stations were established and the document which shifts the plays from Thursday to Friday (Nelson 25). Nelson supposes that the original procession with the host, members of the clergy, followed by mute tableaux took place on Thursday through the given stations, and the entire play was then performed on Friday at a single station.

Despite Nelsons objections, modern productions in Toronto and York turned to processional staging. In the Toronto production in 1998 various companies staged successfully all the 47 plays at four stations in the university campus. The production started at 6 am and lasted sixteen hours. These modern productions verified processional staging, but also showed the time limitations. Nowadays, scholars admit the possibility of processional staging, but most of them break away from the claim of staging all the plays at all the stations. Beadle claims that some plays could have been performed “in tandem” (Beadle 99).

The greatest advantage of processional staging is the manageable size of the audience. Given the size of the streets in York, the number of spectators was limited. In the streets, which are only a few metres wide and surrounded by overlapping houses, while the actors and the audience were almost touching each other, the plays must have achieved a great deal of intimacy.

Apart from intimacy, a small audience also amplifies the theatrical effect. A relatively small pageant wagon (although some of them could have been six metres high) placed in a narrow street could look impressive. When people tilt their heads back to follow the angels to the Heaven deck which is among the rooftops, they “get a real sense of height” (Twycross 48). If the wagon was placed in an open space and watched by a large crowd, the play could never achieve the same kind of an overwhelming effect.

The result of processional staging in York is that it achieves considerable theatrical effect by relatively modest means. The pageant wagons were small compared with scaffold constructions of East Anglian plays. The fact that the audience was small allows the actor to perform in the street without the risk that people standing in the back would not see him. A metaphorical effect that he achieves is that the audience becomes the part of the play. I will discuss these effects in the York play Entry to Jerusalem.

2.1.1The Entry to Jerusalem – action in the street

The Entry to Jerusalem deals with the episode when Christ is welcomed by the crowd of Jerusalem on the Palm Sunday. The dramatist added the episodes of healing the blind man and the lame man, and the episode of Zacheus in the sycamore tree. He also added eight honourable citizens to welcome Christ and a character of the Porter who acts as a messenger between the Citizens and Christ. He extended the dramatic action of the entry. This allowed him to place the Christ in the street and to emphasize the dramatic effect by Christ’s slow progress towards the pageant wagon of the Citizens which represents the city of Jerusalem.

The plot begins with Christ’s introductory speech. Then he sends Philip and Peter for the ass. Philip and Peter meet with the Porter, they inform him about Christ’s coming and he in turn goes to inform the Citizens. When the Citizens learn about Christ’s coming, they give their soliloquies to praise Christ’s deeds. The plot continues with Christ riding the ass. As he proceeds towards the wagon, he heals the blind man and the lame man and converts Zacheus. The action culminates with Christ’s final prophecy: “For stone on stone shall none be left, But down to the ground shall all be cast,” (lines 475-476), and the Hail speeches given by the Citizens. There are also two notes that require singing.

The presence of a real animal in the play shows that the action has to take place in the street. That the animal is real is suggested by the fact that Jesus needs to mount it: “Do on this ass your clothes ye lay, And lift me up with hearts good (lines 275-276). The text also shows that the characters are a distance away from one another. When Peter and Philip meet the Porter he asks about Christ’s whereabouts: “But tell me first plainly, where is he?” (line 86). This scene would seem strange if Christ was standing right beside him. The following speech that Porter gives as he goes to inform the Citizens (lines 101-117) suggests that he needs to go a certain distance before he reaches the wagon. This is the distance between the two central points of attention (Christ and the Citizens).

The play is the beginning of the passion sequence (Christ’s introductory speech), but the inclusion of the extra episodes also emphasises Christ as the healer and redeemer. The extra episodes also helped to achieve balance in action and soliloquy. The main soliloquies that form the spiritual message of the play: Christ’s introductory speech, Citizens reports of his deeds, Christ’s final prophecy and the Hail speeches of the Citizens, are divided by dramatic action of the episodes.

In terms of theatrical space, the included episodes allowed to express the entry with real movement. It placed the actor among the crowd, where he can appeal directly to the audience. The audience is thus included in the reality of the play. The spectators become Christ’s disciples and it seems as if Christ was entering the city of York.

The attention of the audience is divided between the Citizens on the wagon and Christ in the street. Christ slowly proceeds towards the wagon and these two points of attention then meet in the final scene. The cumulative effect of individual soliloquies reaches its peak with the repetitive Hail speeches and singing at the end.

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