English Mystery Plays – Staging Patterns and Orality Features

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Medieval plays share a lot of features which make them seem underdeveloped when compared with the modern plays. Their plots are episodic and repetitive, their characters are flat, their language is simple and illustrative and their intellectual content seems to be simple and unchallenging. The forth coming generations of plays offered tightly developed plots with heightened climaxes and psychological insight. On the other hand, when the plays began to be staged, the audiences were surprised by the fluency of their language and their dramatic impact. The actors were surprised how the text itself helped them to memorise long monologues. The plays that were considered clumsy and lengthy proved to be fresh, vivid and sophisticated pieces of drama. The question is how the plays can be sophisticated when they seem to be so deficient.

Applying modern standards to medieval plays only proves their deficiency. In the interpretation of medieval plays, we must understand why they were composed in the way that is so different from our standards. In the following chapter, I will analyse the features of oral communication in the plays to prove that the above mentioned deficiencies are not caused by the incapability of medieval authors; rather, they are features typical for drama in an oral culture.

3.1Oral culture

In the illiterate or oral culture, people share knowledge orally. The simple observation that people speak and listen instead of reading and writing is only the top of an iceberg. What lies beneath is the huge, fundamental difference between the oral and literate cultures. The culture gap given by the orality-literacy difference is as big as the culture gap between Western European cultures and cultures of Native Americans.

The simple rule of listening instead of reading has far reaching consequences. To live completely without the aid of writing brings different system of storing and communicating knowledge (Ong 24). This system modifies the worldview in such a way that it is almost impossible for a modern, literate mind to imagine the way people in a primary oral culture think.

3.2Ong and oral cultures

W. J. Ong says that, “Human beings in primary oral cultures [...] learn a great deal and possess and practice great wisdom” (Ong 9). An oral trained mind equals the literary mind in the complexity and amount of information it can handle. The difference lies in the selection of information. Oral and literate persons would organise the same information in a different way. While the literate mind is trained to think in terms of labels and categories, the oral mind prefers illustrative examples and context. The difference lies also in preference. While oral mind is fully capable of abstraction, this kind of thinking is not useful in an oral culture. Thus, the difference between oral and literate cultures is not a matter of superiority or inferiority. It is a matter of different cultural habits.

Writing is a “technology” and as such it “restructures consciousness” (Ong 78). It fixes the words to the paper and distances the writer from the reader. Compared with spoken language it is static as opposed to dynamic and solitary as opposed to social. Writing encourages analytical distance while speaking encourages empathy. Writing encourages categorical and analytic thinking while speaking brings illustrative language and real life examples. Writing also fixes events in time; it helps to see their causes and consequences. It brings the notion of linearity of time. It also encourages individualism. Ong traces the development of this restructuring from the very beginnings when writing became to existence to the point when it became fully accommodated in human thought by the use of writing and print. He proceeds from Homer and the Bible through Poe down to Kafka and Beckett to analyse the development in literature (the treatment of plot and character) to trace the development of human thought (the perception of time, analytical thinking, introspection) (Ong 154).

Since Ong’s theories deal directly with the “deficiencies” I mentioned in the introduction to this chapter, I will use them to support my conclusions. In the next subchapter, I want to analyse the oral features in medieval plays, particularly in The Second Shepherds’ Play.

3.3Oral features in medieval plays

The composition of The Second Shepherds’ Play dates to late fifteenth century. It is not a record of purely oral communication, nor it is the oldest of the cycle texts, but with its emphasis on medieval everyday life it is a good example of oral residues in the written text. The human dimension which is added to Biblical figures obviously reveals a lot of details about medieval society.


Medieval plays are written in verse; none of them contains any parts written in prose. Does it suggest that verse was the only accepted artistic expression? If we concentrate on the functionality of medieval verse, we can come to a different than the aesthetic explanation. As E. M. Browne, the director of the York cycle revival in 1951 remarked: “We had to work very hard but we were greatly helped by the verse - it has tremendous power and it helps the actors very much” (Browne). Every medieval play is a constant flow of words, which is seldom interrupted. The function of verse is to preserve the fluency and enable the speaker to continue in his speech without interruption.

The text of The Second Shepherds’ Play has a regular structure. It is organised in nine line stanzas with two parts, one containing a four line verse AAAA with inner rhyming, the second containing a five line verse A BBB A. Those units help the writer or performer to separate individual thoughts and ideas. Each stanza develops a certain idea. This idea is either developed in the next stanza or succeeded by a different one. The line of thought seldom changes its direction within a single stanza.

Coll, the first character appearing on the scene begins with complaining about the weather in the first stanza, then he devotes four stanzas to complaining about the masters and finally invites the other character with the last stanza. Gib comes onto the scene complaining about the weather and then he dwells on the matter of marriage for the next three stanzas. The story proceeds rhythmically in comprehensive units. The dialogues in the Second Shepherds’ Play which occasionally break the stanza-idea logic do so with respect to the structure (often they appear only in the first or in the second part), or when the dramatic action is interesting enough that it allows the risk that some of the text will be misunderstood (and the action on the scene makes up for missed words).

Coherent units divide separate thoughts; they set the rhythm of the play. The audience gets accustomed to this rhythm and it becomes easier to follow the story line. The audience, at least unconsciously, turn its attention to the phrases that highlight the central idea of every stanza. The fixed structure also provides the actor with some time until he finishes the stanza more or less automatically. In those short gaps, he can stop and think about the idea of the next stanza so that he does not lose control over the text and he can continue without any harm to interruption.

3.3.2Proverbs and formulaic expressions

Another feature of The Second Shepherds’ Play is the frequent use of proverbs: “So long goes the pot to the water,” ... “At last comes it home broken” (line 317 – 318), “Kind will creep Where it may not go”2 (line 591-592). “Seldom lies the devil dead by the gate”3 (line 229). Proverbs belong to common knowledge. When hearing the first words of a proverb we usually do not need to hear the rest. The meaning, which is sometimes so complex that it would take a few sentences to explain, comes to our mind immediately. With the use of proverbs, the text becomes easier both for the speaker and the listener. It takes much smaller effort on the side of the listener, even if he misses some words in the noise of the street. Speaker, again for the sake of fluency, saves some time to think what to say next. Proverbs were favoured also for their economy. Their abstract meaning was told in an illustrative, comprehensive and easy-to-remember way.

Another example of formulaic expressions apart from proverbs are more or less proverbial constructions based on comparison or contrast, such as formulas of work and reward, or investment and gain: “master, for the fare4 that you make I shall do thereafter: work as I take” (line 165-166). or “ in a strait5 can I get more than they that swink6 and sweat” (line 313-314). Those prefabricated mental constructions help both the speaker and the listener understand the message without greater effort in encoding and decoding it.
Medieval plays seldom intrigue the listener. The use of fixed verse structure, proverbs and easy comprehensible formulaic expressions help to achieve fluency and comprehensibility. Fluency is particularly important because when the communication is interrupted the person becomes isolated from the outside world. Comprehensibility is also important because it is one of the conditions of successful communication. Features that would modern audience find intellectually unchallenging, and thus redundant, were exactly the features that medieval audience valued because it kept them in contact with the action of the play.

3.3.3Illustrative language

The language that medieval plays use is illustrative. Abstract notions are explained with reference to real life situations, sometimes going too much into detail. In the beginning of The Second Shepherds’ Play, when Coll complains that the farmers are oppressed by the lords, he does so with illustrative language:

We are so hammed,

Foretaxed, and rammed,

We are made hand-tamed

With these gentlery-men.7 (line 15-18)

Coll continues with a real life example: “They cause the plow tarry8” (line 20). These expressions provide Coll with enough practical evidence for a more abstract conclusion:

Thus they hold us under,

Thus they bring us in blunder9,

It were a great wonder

And10 ever should we thrive . (lines 24-27)

This example shows the need to relate abstract ideas to real life experience. It is not enough to say that the farmers are oppressed. Coll begins with examples of lords not allowing the farmers to work on the arable land, examples of the lords growing rich while the farmers starve, and he ends in saying: “This is how we are oppressed.” Coll relates the abstract notion of oppression to its representations in everyday life.

Why does Coll need so much space to express a single notion? For a modern spectator this seems like wasting of dramatic time. We are not given a hint of a thought to involve ourselves intellectually. Instead, we are given a full explanation with enough practical examples. If we analyse the abstract ideas that in medieval plays, we come to a conclusion that they are explanatory. Intellectual stimulation is not their aim.

This brings us to the different attitude of oral and literal cultures towards abstraction. While writing helps the reader to achieve analytical distance from the text, listener in an oral culture needs to anchor his or her knowledge in everyday reality. Writing helps us to think about words as signs and to take them out of their context and to think about their abstract meaning. An oral mind must “conceptualize and verbalize all their knowledge with more or less close reference to the human lifeworld” (Ong 42).

3.3.4Episodic plot development

Medieval plays were formerly criticised for their episodic plots. It was due to the lack of a tightly developed plot that the plays were regarded as primitive forms of early drama. Modern standards require a plot that develops linearly, when events add to the dramatic tension until it is revealed by the climax and the story then ends in a denouement. Medieval plays do not follow these standards.

The plots of medieval plays are simple and predictable. The plays are episodic and the episodes sometimes do not even seem to belong together like the stolen sheep and nativity episodes in The Second Shepherds’ Play. The plot is often already known or it is told in advance. There seems to be no effort to complicate the plot to achieve dramatic tension.

Oral culture tends to perceive time in a different way compared with literate culture. Writing can record events in time. People in literate cultures can review recorded events, they can go back and forth the timeline, and thus they get the sense of time as a linear development. For people in an oral culture time is a cycle of recurring events. The way medieval plays deal with of the plot comes from this cyclical perception of time. Rather than working with viewer’s anticipation, the plays use cumulative effect. They repeat the certain idea until it culminates in the final speech.

3.3.5Community and individual

One of the basic features of speaking is that it requires a listener. Unlike writing, speaking can not be exercised without the immediate presence of the hearer. In an oral culture people are dependent on each other. Knowledge can not be acquired or communicated without human interaction. Thus, for the sake of preserving knowledge, oral cultures tend to be organized in close-knit groups (Ong 74). Thus we can try to judge the importance of the guilds and the importance of the Corpus Christi feast as a communal celebration.

The speaker and his audience form a unity. When same audience is asked to read a handout, each member of the audience “enters into his or her private reading world” (Ong 74). Reading is a “solitary activity” (Ong 69). It is natural that drama is the genre where the communal character of the oral culture reveals itself. J.L. Styan says that “theatre is an electric circuit between the actor and the audience”. Medieval theatre, much more than the theatres of the forthcoming generations, emphasises the interactive element between the actor and the audience.

3.3.6Direct address to the audience

One of the signs of interaction is the direct address to the audience. The boundary between the actor and the audience is not so clearly defined in medieval plays. The actors do not worry to cross this border both physically and verbally to invite the audience into the reality of the play. Christ in the York play of The Crucifixion addresses the audience: “All men that walk by way or street, Take tent you shall no travail tine11” (lines 253-254), or sooner in The Entry into Jerusalem he opens the play: “To me take tent and give good heed My dear disciples that be here” (lines 1-2). This direct address to the audience includes the audience into the play. The audience is thus invited into the theatrical reality to play the crowd greeting Jesus in Jerusalem and the onlookers on the hill of Golgotha.

In medieval plays it is also common to have an introductory speech given by one of the characters or by an impresario type of a character. The audience is informed in a way that is nowadays common in talk shows. In Everyman, there is a Messenger who opens the play: “I pray you all give audience, And hear this matter with reverence” (line 1-2). There is also a Doctor at the end who gives a final concluding speech. In The Conversion of St Paul there is a Poeta who opens the play:

Honourable friends, beseeching you of license

To proceed our process, we may, under your correction,

(Show) The Conversion of Saint Paul, as the Bible gives experience.

(lines 8-10)

Poeta acts as a guide though the play. He gives conclusions to separate parts and guides the audience: “Another part of the story we will redress12” (line 165) and gives a conclusion at the end: “Thus we leave Saul ...” (line 649).

In medieval drama, there is a constant need to keep contact with the audience. Same as medieval audience needed to relate their knowledge to the real world, they needed to involve personally with the characters. People needed to absorb the knowledge communicated in the play in the context of human relations and they achieved it by personal involvement. Modern audiences prefer to keep distance from the action on scene. A modern spectator analyses the play and participate in it by intellectual involvement. The unity that functions between the actor and the audience is achieved at the intellectual level, when both the actor and the audience share the same thoughts.

The oral character of medieval society plays an important role in the interpretation of medieval plays. Their modes of expression are derived from the way oral society communicates. Their form follows oral mnemonic patterns. By following those features of oral communication their qualities appear and they are best apparent when the plays are performed. All of their features draw the audience into the play. They may seem intellectually unchallenging on one side, but on the other they provoke great emotional response.

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