Re-Enacting the Past

Medieval English biblical plays and some modern analogues

Authored by: Margaret Rogerson

The Routledge Research Companion to Early Drama and performance

Print publication date:  December  2016
Online publication date:  December  2016

Print ISBN: 9781472421401
eBook ISBN: 9781315612898
Adobe ISBN: 9781317043669


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In the Middle Ages the Christian history documented in the Bible was re-enacted in England in various ways – in religious ritual, in the art that adorned churches, cathedrals and devotional manuscripts, in literature, and in community theatre. Few scripted plays have survived, although we are fortunate in having two more-or-less complete Mystery Play cycles originally performed by local guilds in the cities of York and Chester. Both cycles present a narrative of God’s dealings with humanity in a series of separate episodes that, in combination, span biblical time from Creation to Doomsday. Another fragmentary cycle from Coventry, represented by only two extant episodes, may have excluded Old Testament material and focused on re-playing the past of the New Testament from the Annunciation to the day of reckoning. There are a number of stand-alone play-texts dramatizing the stories of Noah, Abraham and Isaac, and the Resurrection, as well as what I have termed elsewhere Creation to Doomsday “look-alike” texts (Rogerson, 2015, 43). One of these, the Towneley manuscript, appears to have been compiled from several sources and “arranged chronologically as a cycle for a reader” (Epp, 94), while the other, the N.Town manuscript, was likewise designed for reading and consists of a Mary Play and a two-part Passion Play (Meredith, 1990, 2). Alexandra Johnston (2015) has made a further study of the N.Town volume, concluding that it derives from a number of stand-alone play-texts attached to the Mary and Passion Plays. 1 On the subject of Passion Plays, Pamela King argues on the basis of N.Town and records of plays now lost that they constitute a “distinct genre of early community-based biblical drama” (86). Clearly, as Johnston’s chapter in the current collection also demonstrates, there was no lack of biblical performance in England in the period. In what follows I consider a selection of revivals of these early plays and of modern analogues that, consciously or otherwise, emulate the medieval process of performing the Bible. I am designating this process “biblical re-enactment”, a form of the practice of “historical re-enactment” that enjoys considerable popularity in the twenty-first century. 2

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