The Theatre In England - Miracle Plays Of The 15th Century And Their Performance

( Originally Published 1902 )

The Woodkirk (or Towneley) Plays—The Coventry Plays ; importance of the allegorical element in these mysteries—Features of the different cycles of Miracle Plays—Character of performances at York, Wood-kirk, Chester, and Coventry—The pageants : mise-en-scène, locality, costumes—Religious Drama in London.

NEXT to the cycle of York Plays in chronological order comes the Woodkirk, or Towneley, collection, which in its complete form dates from the reign of Henry vi., doubtless from the year 1450. These miracle plays were named after a little hamlet, where the performances usually took place, near Wakefield, in the county of York.

The Towneley Plays are thirty-two in number, in the following order :-1. The Creation and the Rebellion of Lucifer ; 2. Mactatio Abel ; 3. Processus Noae cum Filiis; 4. Abraham ; 5. Jacob and Esau ; 6. Processus Prophetarum ; 7. David ; 8. Sibilla propheta; 9. Pharaoh; 10. Caesar Augustus ; 11. Annunciatio ; 12. Salutatio Elizabethae; 13. Pastorum; 14. Alter eorundem; I5. Oblatio Magorum ; 16. Fugatio Josephi et Mariae in Egiptum ; 17. Magnus Herodes ; 18. Purificatio Mariae ; 19. Johannes Baptista ; 20. Conspiratio Christi 2I. Colaphizatio ; 22. Flagellatio ; 23. Processus Crucis ; 24. Processus Talentorum ; 25. Extractio Animarum; 26. Resurrectio Domini; 27. Peregrini ; 28. Thomas Indiae ; 29. Ascensio Domini ; 30. Judicium ; 3I. Lazarus ; 32. Suspensio Judae. (These last two are later additions—the series of course ending originally with the Judicium, or Doomsday.)

There is reason to suppose that the earliest plays of this collection were composed about 1360, and are consequently contemporaneous with the York cycle, which they closely resemble. The Woodkirk, or Towneley, Plays are believed to be the work of the Augustinian friars, who had houses in this district up to the time of the Reformation. They were written in the vernacular, and contain endless dialect - words and forms, which make them difficult reading. The secular character of this series is much more pronounced than in the other cycles of miracle plays, and their object seems to be less that of serving the cause of religion than of amusing the people, for there is a distinct note of buffoonery in their interpolations on the Scripture narrative. It is supposed that these miracles were played on fair-days by the different trade-guilds.

A fourth and famous collection is that of the Coventry Plays, later by some years than the Wood-kirk cycle. It dates from the reign of Henry VII., and was only completed at that period. But undoubtedly some of the plays in this series were represented as early as I416. The entire collection consisted of forty-two plays, of which all the manuscripts save one have been preserved. These are :—1. The Creation ; 2. The Fall of Man ; 3. Cain and Abel ; 4. Noah's Flood ; 5. Abraham's Sacrifice ; 6. Moses, and the Two Tables; 7. The Prophets ; 8. The Barrenness of Anna ; 9. Mary in the Temple ; 10. Mary's Betrothment; 11. The Salutation and Conception ; 12. Joseph's Return ; 13. The Visit to Elizabeth ; 14. The Trial of Joseph and Mary ; 15. The Birth of Christ; 16. Adoration of the Shepherds ; I7. Adoration of the Magi ; 18. The Purification; 19. Slaughter of the Innocents ; 20. Christ disputing in the Temple ; 21. The Baptism of Christ ; 22. The Temptation ; 23. The Woman taken in Adultery; 24. Lazarus; 25. Council of the Jews ; 26. The Entry into Jerusalem ; 27. The Last Supper ; 28. Mary Magdalen ; 29. The Betrayal of Christ ; 30. King Herod; 3I. The Trial of Christ ; 32. The Condemnation and Crucifixion ;; 33. The Descent into Hell ; 34. The Burial of Christ ; 35. The Resurrection ; 36. The Three Maries ; 37. Christ appearing to Mary ; 38. The Pilgrim of Emmaus ; 39. The Ascension ; 40. Descent of the Holy Ghost ; 41. The Assumption of the Virgin ; 42. Doomsday.

There is every reason to suppose that the Coven-try Plays were the work of clerical hands, for their religious character is distinctly more pronounced than that of the other cycles, and as literary efforts they are far superior. These plays were acted only on Sunday, and more than a year would frequently elapse between the first and the last performance of the cycle, for they were not given every week. A feature unknown elsewhere was the proclamation of the Coventry Plays some days beforehand by vexillatores (banner-bearers). And the expository prologue, spoken by the principal characters of each play in the other cycles, is here replaced by an allegorical personage or Pro/opts, called Contemplacio. Moreover, in the Angelic Salutation, there is not only a prologue, but also the abstract characters of the virtues, Justicia, Misericordia, Verilas, and Pax. Hence we find in these an element of the moralities, to be treated below.

The performance of the Coventry Plays was by no means limited to the town of Coventry. At occasional intervals the mystery players of that city made theatrical progresses to various other places. In 1570 it is recorded that they gave a performance at Bristol, and it is not improbable that they stopped on their way at Stratford-on-Avon, and gave a performance at which (according to Halliwell - Phillipps) Shakespeare may have been present. There is no record of similar progresses having been undertaken by the actors from Chester, York, and Woodkirk. The plays in all these collections have been corrected and added to, either to adapt them to the manners of the period or to prepare the ground for some special religious discussion.

The Miracle Plays of Chester and Towneley are full of alterations, and contain different specimens of orthography from 1350 to 1600. The Towneley series was less altered, the only perceptible modification being the suppression of passages relating to the Seven Sacraments and to Transubstantiation, both cardinal points in Catholic dogma.

The representations at York and Woodkirk took place without much stage furniture, for they were organised and acted by poor people. The expenses were covered by a yearly rate, varying from a penny to fourpence, levied on every craftsman. At Chester and Coventry it was otherwise. In these two places the town undertook the expenses, and it is reckoned that each play must have cost about £15 sterling—an enormous sum for that period. The payments to the Coventry players began at fourteenpence, and reached in some cases as much as four shillings—no inconsiderable sum in those days. The Chester and Coventry Plays were renowned throughout England for their magnificence. Crowds of players flocked to see them, and they became the occasion of so much expenditure and even debauch, that the preachers finally declaimed against them from the pulpit.

As we said on p. 122, the theatre of the English miracle plays was called a ` pageant.' " It was a movable, wooden, rectangular structure of two rooms, one over the other, the lower closed, the upper one—that in which the performances took place—being open, at least on one side, to the audience. The vehicle itself, every portion of which was visible to the audience, was grotesquely painted, and was furnished in the upper room with tapestries that answered the purposes of scenery, and with mechanical appliances for the disposition of the various objects introduced, such as hell-mouth, a favourite property of the ancient English stage. This consisted of a huge face constructed of painted canvas, exhibiting glaring eyes and a red nose of enormous dimensions ; the whole so contrived with movable jaws of large projecting teeth, that when the mouth opened, flames could be seen within the hideous aperture ; the fire being probably represented by the skilful management of links or torches held behind the painted canvas. There was frequently at the back of the stage a raised platform, to which there was an ascent by steps from the floor of the pageant, and sometimes an important part of the action of the mystery was enacted on it. Some of the properties, however rude, must have been of large dimensions. They were generally made of wood, which was invariably painted, but some appear to have been constructed of basket-work covered over with painted cloths. The larger ones were cities with pinnacles and towers, kings' palaces, temples, castles, and suchlike, some probably not very unlike decorated sentry-boxes. Clouds were represented by painted cloths so contrived that they could open and show angels in the heavens. Artificial trees were introduced, with beds, tombs, pulpits, ships, ladders, and numerous other articles. The idea of an earthquake seems to have been attempted by means of some mechanism within a barrel. In the lower room, connected with pulleys in the upper part of the pageant, was a windlass, used for the purpose of raising or lowering the larger properties, and for various objects for which movable ropes could be employed' (infra).

The general character of the staging appears to have undergone no important modifications between the fifteenth and end of the sixteenth centuries.

As in the York and Chester Plays, the number of pageants was equal to the number of companies engaged in representing the play. These defiled in order, halting each at the same point to perform the part of the mystery assigned to them, until all the scenes had been represented in each quarter, thus enabling ` all behoulders to heare and see them.'

` The costumes of many of the personages in the mysteries were of a grotesque and fanciful description, but in some cases, as in those of Adam and Eve, there was an attempt to make the dresses harmonise with the circumstances of the history. Some writers, interpreting the stage directions too literally, have asserted that those characters were introduced upon the pageant in a state of nudity. This was certainly not the case. When they were presumed to be destitute of clothing, they appeared in dresses made either of white leather or of flesh-coloured clothes, over which at the proper time were thrown the garments of skins. Many of the other costumes were extravagantly whimsical. Thus Herod was always introduced wearing red gloves, while his clothes and head-gear seem to have been painted or dyed in a variety of colours. Pontius Pilate was usually enwrapped in a large green cloak, which opened in front to enable him to wield an immense club. The Devil was also grotesquely arrayed, and had a mask or false head which frequently required either mending or painting.' The gorgeous spectacles at Skinners' Well were more than ever popular in the fifteenth century. Of I409 Stow writes, ` This yeare was a great play at the Skinners' Well, neare unto Clerkenwell, besides London, which lasted eight daies, and was of matter from the creation of the world : there were to see the same the most part of the nobles and gentles in England.' Warton states that in the reign of Henry VII., mysteries and religious plays were performed in Westminster Palace in the King's presence.

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