contributor.author: Robert S. Haller

title.none: Sahlins and Rudall, eds., The Mysteries

identifier.other: baj9928.9504.010 95.04.10

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Robert S. Haller, Department of English, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1995

identifier.citation: Rudall, Nicholas. Sahlins, Bernard, edd. The Mysteries: Creation. A New Adaptation by Bernard Sahlins of the Medieval Mystery Play. Series: Plays for Performance. Chicago: I. R. Dee, 1992. $7.95. ISBN: Elephant Paperbacks EL 412. Rudall, Nicholas. Sahlins, Bernard, edd. The Mysteries: The Passion. A New Adaptation by Bernard Sahlins of the Medieval Mystery Play. Series: Plays for Performance. Chicago: I. R. Dee, 1993. $7.95. ISBN: Elephant Paperbacks EL 414.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 95.04.10

Rudall, Nicholas. Sahlins, Bernard, edd. The Mysteries: Creation. A New Adaptation by Bernard Sahlins of the Medieval Mystery Play. Series: Plays for Performance. Chicago: I. R. Dee, 1992. $7.95. ISBN: Elephant Paperbacks EL 412.

Rudall, Nicholas. Sahlins, Bernard, edd. The Mysteries: The Passion. A New Adaptation by Bernard Sahlins of the Medieval Mystery Play. Series: Plays for Performance. Chicago: I. R. Dee, 1993. $7.95. ISBN: Elephant Paperbacks EL 414.

Reviewed by:

Robert S. Haller
Department of English, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

These two volumes contain the text of "The Medieval Mystery Play" as performed at the Court Theater, Chicago in 1992 and 1993. The venue was the Rockefeller Chapel on the University of Chicago campus, whose Gothic spaces struck the editors (who were also the producers) as most appropriate for the presentation as they conceived it. The volumes contain, besides the two performance texts, extensive suggestions for those who would produce the plays themselves.

The title refers to "The Medieval Mystery Play" in the singular; the introductions recognize that there was more than one cycle in Medieval England, but the title indicates an attitude, which is that all the cycles were one with insignificant local variants. The introduction acknowledges the "Mysteries" as adapted by Tony Harrison and performed at the National Theatre London1 in three rather than two installments ("The Nativity" "The Passion" "Doomsday"), and refers also to the many performances of the cycle plays in England, characterizing them as antiquarian exercises. The editors claim that they have cleared the smell of Yorkshire from that version and have made something entirely American. In fact, the text will strike most people unfamiliar with the original as some strange compromise between Middle English and the modern idiom.

The texts themselves may be described as shortened versions of plays selected from various of the cycles as modernized in recent texts.2 The eclecticism of resulting text reflects a similar quality of the Tony Harrison text, and it is difficult to determine whether Rudall and Sahlins used the originals, the modernized versions, or the National Theatre versions for their own work. They do not acknowledge any source text whatsoever, something that renders their text unusable in any scholarly context. Their language is in many cases precisely that of an existing published text, but for some lines they have replaced an obsolete expression with a modern word or phrase, usually trying to preserve the alliteration, metric configuration and rhyme scheme of the original. When they have shortened a passage, they have tried to keep to the prosody of the original, and transitional additions or eclectic passages are written in imitation of the style of the Medieval plays.

The first volume "The Creation" contains abridged versions of Old Testament plays on The Fall of the Angels, The Creation, The Fall of Man, Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham and Isaac. It concludes with a Nativity play based on pageants which in the original would have been concerned with the Annunciation, the Shepherds, the Magi and Herod. The second volume The Passion takes a different tack, as the authors tell us and can be considered one continuous play, using parts of various cycle plays of The Baptism, The Temptation, The Woman Taken in Adultery, The Conspiracy, the Buffeting, The Appearance before Pilate, the Crucifixion and the Last Judgment. The sections are easy enough to identify for those familiar with the original cycle plays. The result is a drama of sufficient continuity and interlocked themes to play without scene changes and yet to preserve focus. There is much more original material (presumably written by Sahlins himself) in volume two, taking the form of transitions, commentary and dramatic additions. Since both volumes make a serious and successful attempt to imitate the prosodic features of the originals insofar as this can be done in modern English, the additions, when they stand out, do so because they show no signs of the strain resulting from trying to make modern sentences out of Medieval syntax. These passages, to put the matter simply, are better written for modern speaking. They also stand out because of differences in spirit and ideology. The editors are not scholars of Medieval theology, and sometimes do not recognize when they have written a passage that no Medieval writer could have written; but such lapses are quite rare.

To give the play a unity, the authors have turned the story into a continuous battle between the Angel Gabriel and Satan or Lucifer. Where the originals have anonymous angels and devils, the authors have identified Gabriel and Satan, so that the plays become a metaphysical battle between the forces of good and evil for the control of mankind and the determination of the outcome of salvation. Given the way in which the plays are done, essentially two two-hour productions, this continuity serves a genuine dramatic purpose. It incidentally highlights one ideological aspect of the Medieval Mysteries themselves, their invocation of the idea of the divine disguise, the importance to the economy of salvation of Christ's assuming a human form that could deceive the devil into believing that this man waking the earth could not be the Messiah nor an avatar of God.

A medievalist has to regard these texts as adaptations, not translations, and as not entirely representative of Medieval thinking or of Medieval theatricality. The authors take it for granted that these are "working class" plays and emphasize this fact in the performance and production details. The same assumption seems to underlie the translation and some of the additions to the plays. The authors quote approvingly from Tony Harrison that you seek for "beer" rather than "champagne" actors. They speak of looking for "found objects" as elements of the stage business. The details surrounding the production -- the costuming, the music, the other details -- are calculated to emphasize the amateur quality of the plays and to involve the audience as equals in the performance. There is a degree to which the authors conceive of the plays almost as if they were done by Shakespeare's "rude mechanicals" of A Midsummer Night's Dream, to be regarded with some of the same indulgence which Theseus and his friends have to bring to their viewing.

There are, of course, many questions still about the how the mysteries were performed over their long history. What might be considered near to the modern consensus is in part reflected in Rudall and Sahlins and in part not. We can be certain that the mode of production with wagons or otherwise created little separation between the actors and the audience, and we know that some of the plays emphasize this close interchange. It is manifest that the writers and producers aimed at both comedy and sentimentality. The so-called Wakefield Master's Cain and Noah are used by Sahlins, and are notable for their taunting of the audience and their domestic comedy. It is easy to see the sentimentality of the Broome Abraham and Isaac, also used by Sahlins, and of the Nativity scenes, relying on the appeal to homely emotions. What would be certain as well is that the management of the stage business, the machinery, of the originals would seem primitive and amateurish to us now. Whatever devices were used to create special effects could be done much better at present. We do not know how extensively the medieval audience would have been impressed with what it saw on the stage.

The contention that these are "working class" plays should be treated with caution. The guilds were the controlling organizations of the city, and not only were some of them clubs for the wealthy, but any of them would have had wealthy members who assumed leadership within the city government. If there would from the outside be any opposition in these plays, it would come from the Country or the Court, with the cycles being perfect examples of urban culture. Of course the representations of Herod, Pilate, Annas and Caiaphas are intended as satire aimed at the Nobles and Magistrates and Prelates of the time. So, too, are the portraits of the Shepherd's in the Wakefield Master plays where their "grucching" and complaints about their lots in life reflect not so much criticism of the wealthy and powerful as the metaphysical anxiety of the unredeemed of whatever class. Eamon Duffy3 has made us aware of the degree to which these plays are a part of a sound and sophisticated agreement on the basics between classes and between the learned and the lewd. The fact that the Lollards may have objected to representations in dramatic form of divine images, and the strong opposition of Protestant leaders in the 16th century to the continuing performance of these relics from Catholic times indicates the variety of points of view that could be taken about the plays, and given the length of time over which they were performed and the number of places, there could have been variations not available in any records in the enthusiasm and skill with which the cycles were performed.

In the context of courses in the literary or cultural history of the Middle Ages, the cycles are excellent texts for teaching. Virtually anonymous in their composition, learned in their intellectual base but popular on the surface, making enormous use of the marginal texts we now call the Apocryphal Gospels but making direct allusion to customs and conditions of the time of their production, representative of the central religious ideas of the times but defiant of solemn piety and willing to depart from literalism for the sake of jokes and fun, they seem to give us access to the urban culture of the times and to radiate out into ideas and trends which give the feeling that appreciating these plays is also understanding the common urban culture of their time. Middle English cannot be performed as written, although Shakespeare can. The great plays of antiquity are translated into modern English, but can be performed in complete modern style or in a deliberately restored manner. The question of performance style for the cycles in our time is still open.

Consider the range of possibilities for present day Biblical drama. There are reverend and monumental plays written in the present (the Black Hills Passion Play) and sometimes very much in the modern idiom (Jesus Christ Super Star); there are movies attempting to appeal to modern consensus Christianity (The Ten Commandments) or to make a very modern theological point (The Last Temptation of Christ). It seems difficult for us in our age to find the right level of theological sophistication, modern theatricality, appropriate authenticity as Biblical representation and appropriate relevance to modern culture, in our equivalents of the Medieval Cycle plays. The text and production which Rudall and Sahlins have published here is a tribute to the widespread recognition that the Mysteries were in all respects right for their time, and therefore ought to serve as the basis for something right for our time. The plays can be produced with a sense of pleasure and they do not mislead anyone about the intent of the originals. But for a student who has not read a cycle play it is not quite a substitute for the original. As cultural documents, they are more suited to a course in Medievalism than to one in Medieval culture or literature.

The Mysteries #ZV4039, The Chester Purification and Doctors #ZV5242, Two Mystery Plays form the York Cycle: The Resurrection and Hortulanus #ZV 5245. Beadle, Richard and Pamela King, Your Mystery Plays. A selection in modern Spelling. Oxford: Clarendon Press,1984.

Brown, John Russell. The Complete Plays of the Wakefield Master. London: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd., 1983.

Cawley, A.C. editor. Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays. London: J.M. Dent, 1956. New edition 1974. Everyman Library

Harrison, Tony. The Mysteries. London; Boston, Faber and Faber 1985 The Mysteries Part 1, The Nativity. Staged at the National Theatre by Bill Byden; adapted from the English mystery play by Tony Harrison. Films for the Humanities and Sciences 1993. 1 videocassette (133 min) The Mysteries Part 2, The Passion. Staged at the National Theatre by Bill Byden; adapted from the English mystery play by Tony Harrison. Films for the Humanities and Sciences 1993. 1 videocassette (94 min).

The Mysteries Part 3, Doomsday. Staged at the National Theatre by Bill Byden; adapted from the English mystery play by Tony Harrison. Films for the Humanities and Sciences 1993,1 videocassette (122 min)

Henri, Adrian. The Wakefield Mysteries. A modern adaptation. Methuen Drama, 1991 [Methuen Theatre Classics]

Beadle, Richard and Pamela King, Your Mystery Plays. A selection in modern Spelling. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984

Brown, John Russell. The Complete Plays of the Wakefield Master. London: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd., 1983.

Cawley, A.C. Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays. London: J.M. Dent, 1956. New edition 1974. Everyman Library.

Martial, Rose. The Wakefield Mystery Plays. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1962. Anchor Books 1963.

Zytowski, Carl. The mysteries: a medieval triptych. Three music dramas with an afterpiece for church performance. C. Zytowski, 1990

1 Harrison, Tony. The Mysteries. London; Boston, Faber and Faber 1985. Productions of these are available on videocassette from Films for the Humanities and Sciences (The Mysteries. Staged at the National Theatre by Bill Byden; adapted from the English mystery play by Tony Harrison. Films for the Humanities and Sciences 1993. Part 1, The Nativity.(1 videocassette 133 min); Part 2, The Passion (1 videocassette 94 min); Part 3, Doomsday (1 videocassette 122 min)).
2 The following texts account for most of the language in these plays: Beadle, Richard and Pamela King, York Mystery Plays. A Selection in Modern Spelling. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984; Cawley, A.C. editor. Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays. London, J.M. Dent 1956. New edition 1974. Everyman Library; Rose Martial ed. The Wakefield Mystery Plays. Garden City,. NY: Doubleday and Co. 1962 ( Anchor Books 1963).
3 The stripping of the altars : traditional religion in England, c.1400-c.1580. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.