English Mystery Plays – Staging Patterns and Orality Features

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More common method of open air staging is called place-and-scaffold. Geographically it is most prominent in East Anglia and Cornwall. The plays that survive from above mentioned areas are the most impressive mainly with their scale. Those were large spectacular events including up to 50 speaking parts. The manuscript of the Castle of Perseverance includes a drawing of the stage. It calls for the construction of the castle in the middle and various scaffolds arranged in the circle around. Another valuable piece of evidence is a miniature by Jean Fouquet, The Martyrdom of St Apollonia, which depicts a multi-scaffold scene with inserted constructions for the audience. Audience is also crowded under the constructions and around the central action. Those two pictures are central to the interpretation of plays attributed to the place-and-scaffold pattern.

The arrangement of the stage and the shifting of action from one scaffold to the other need something that would direct the attention of the audience towards the action. This was achieved with messenger characters and crowd marshals (also used in the Toronto revival of The Castle of Perseverance).

In some plays, a contemporary logic called for one stage for every represented location. Mary’s journey to Jerusalem calls for the change of the stage, i.e. it can not be achieved by changing of the scenery or simply by announcing the change of location. This seems to be the case of locations like Jerusalem or Golgotha. Their importance would be downgraded by simple announcing of the change location.

2.2.1The Conversion of St Paul and its staging

The Conversion of St Paul is divided into three parts. The first part show: Paul as the prosecutor of Christians, the second shows his conversion and baptism and the third shows Paul as a disciple. The plot shows Caiaphas and Annas sending Paul to Damascus. As Paul rides to Damascus, he is hit by a lightning and he meets God, then he meets with Ananias who came to baptise him. In the third part, Paul’s knights inform Caiaphas and Annas about his conversion. Caiaphas and Annas decide to punish Paul, but he is informed by an angel and in the end we are told about his flight. The part also contains an inserted scene with devils Belial and Mercury, written in a latter hand.

The play raised controversy about its staging. Some scholars claimed it to be a “promenade play”, where the audience travels with the action and is led by a guide-character called Poeta (Twycross 62). Wickham argues that the word “procession”, which has been “the root cause of the trouble” in the interpretation (Wickham 104), in fact means the progression of the plot. In the beginning, Poeta says that the actors will “proceed” a “process” (line 9). At the end of the first station, he asks the audience to “follow and succeed ... this general procession” (line 156-157). It is obvious that in the first case Poeta means the progression of the plot. It the second case, it is rather confusing that Poeta asks the audience to follow and succeed.

There is more evidence in the text which speaks in favour of Wickham argument. The scene, where Poeta asks the audience is optional. Poeta has already used the word “process” with the meaning of narration. At the beginning of the next station he uses it even more explicitly when he asks the audience “to hear ... our process” (line 363). He uses the word “succeed” in the meaning of “listen”, as well as he uses the word “proceed” in the meaning of “tell”.

The only problematic issue seems to be the way Poeta greets and blesses the audience at every station. For example, at the third station Poeta greets the audience:

The might of the Father’s powerful deity

Preserve this honourable and worshipful congregation

That here be present of high and low degree. (lines 360 – 362)

The separate greetings at each station could mean that the audience has changed or that there has been a certain gap of time. If the audience travelled with Poeta, he would be more interested in presenting the new station and not in ceremonial greeting of the audience. The most probable explanation seems to be that the play was separated by substantial breaks of time when the audience left and returned again.

The Conversion of St Paul is a spectacular event. The play uses horses and pyrotechnics for a fervent that knocks Paul down from his horse and for fiery flames in the scene with Belial and Mercury. It needs two separate scaffolds; Jerusalem for the first and the third parts and Damascus for the second one. A raised construction is needed for God. The Jerusalem scaffold needs to be situated near a stable. The Damascus scaffold requires a mansion for Paul and needs to be situated near water for Paul’s baptism. Another raised construction is needed for God.

The action in St Paul is divided equally between the stage and the street. The notes require Paul and his knights to ride their horses “about the place (and) out of the pl(ace)” (line 140). The second part presents the most of dramatic action in the street before God’s scaffold when Paul is struck and blinded by a lightning accompanied with great tempest. Paul is then lead to Damascus which is separated from God’s scaffold. The distance is suggested by the length of dialogue between God and Ananias before the knights and Paul reach Damascus (lines 211-244). In the baptism scene, Paul and Ananias descent the scaffold to reach the water. Paul says: “Go you before, and after I shall sue” (line 313). This is the final scene of the second part. It provides a quiet counterpart to the dramatic beginning. It also emphasises the spiritual content of the play. The same kind of contrast is achieved in the third part when the scene with Belial and Mercury, full of farce and accompanied by pyrotechnics, is succeeded by the scene where Paul addresses the audience with his speech about pride, lechery and fornication.

Interactivity and communal character belong to the distinctive features of medieval drama. The shape of the medieval stage allowed the actors to cross the boundary between the stage and the audience both physically and verbally. Medieval characters often speak directly to the audience, they often encourage audience response. They disappear in the crowd or they come down from the stage to meet the spectators face to face. Medieval actors did not need to pretend that the audience was not there and medieval stage is shaped according to this rule.

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