Clare Sponsler

title.none: Sugano, N-Town Plays (Clare Sponsler)

identifier.other: baj9928.0804.015 08.04.15

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Clare Sponsler, University of Iowa,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Sugano, Douglas. The N-Town Plays. TEAMS Middle English Texts Series. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2007. Pp. vii, 502. ISBN: $25.00 (pb) 978-1-58044-116-2 (pb).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.04.15

Sugano, Douglas. The N-Town Plays. TEAMS Middle English Texts Series. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2007. Pp. vii, 502. ISBN: $25.00 (pb) 978-1-58044-116-2 (pb).

Reviewed by:

Clare Sponsler
University of Iowa

The N-Town Plays is a very welcome addition to the TEAMS Middle English Texts Series of affordable editions in modernized spelling published by the Medieval Institute Publications. Douglas Sugano's fine edition not only makes these plays readily accessible to students, but will also prove useful to specialist scholars, both those who work in the area of drama and those who range more widely over medieval literature and culture.

The N-Town plays survive in a single manuscript, BL MS Cotton Vespasian D. 8, a composite codex of dramatic texts that were probably transcribed between c. 1468 and the early sixteenth century. The plays have been known by various names--Ludus Coventriae, as well as the Hegge, Coventry, Cotton, and Lincoln plays--with the "N" of their current and preferred name generally thought to be an abbreviation of nomen, in reference to their moveable places of performance. The dialect of the plays has been identified as East Anglian, but beyond that regional affiliation, no consensus has emerged as to precisely where the plays were performed, when, or by whom. Although the plays within the extant manuscript must have been staged in a variety of places and in a variety of ways before being brought together as a compilation, the fact that the manuscript shows signs of revision after having been compiled argues that it may have had a permanent home--Norwich and Bury St. Edmunds have been proposed--and perhaps functioned as a compendium that could be loaned out for regional performance.

As the most puzzling of the four surviving English biblical cycles, the N-Town plays have been the subject of a number of studies and have been recently edited in their entirety by Stephen Spector and in part by Peter Meredith in his separate editions of the Passion Play and the Mary Play from the compilation. The present edition adds to these existing studies by providing a readable text enhanced by explanatory material that helps contextualize and explain the plays, while also pointing the way to future lines of inquiry.

The succinct but thorough Introduction emphasizes what is distinctive about the N-Town plays and suggests what that distinctiveness tells us about the York, Chester, and Towneley cycles, as well as about other kinds of early drama. Dexterously sifting through the complicated and often confusing information that the manuscript yields, Sugano situates the N-Town plays in the culturally and economically rich locale of East Anglia and links them to the region's religious fervor. He notes that the plays stress literacy, religious instruction, and female piety, traits that might connect them to local religious and parish guilds, lay institutions that had an interest in instructing their members in proper religious devotion and that thus might have sponsored plays. Sugano also discusses the complexities of the manuscript, considering its status as a devotional text as well as the possibility that it represents a playbook to be used for staging. Certainly many, if not all, of the plays had a performance life before they ended up in this manuscript, and Sugano makes sure readers see the pre-existing parts that make up the whole: the N-Town game, which comprises a rudimentary cycle of plays; the Mary play on the events of the Virgin Mary's life; two passion plays; and a play on the Assumption of Mary. Stage directions and various textual details show that each of these four units demands its own form of staging; that evidence argues for a broad array of staging possibilities, possibilities that extend far beyond the pageant wagons pushed or pulled in procession known to have been used at York that are often, even if erroneously, taken to be the norm. To its credit, the Introduction succeeds not only in laying out what we know about the N- Town plays and the manuscript within which they appear, but also in reminding us of how different N-Town is from the other extant cycle plays and indeed how much all of the cycles differ one from the other. Sugano's attitude towards all this indeterminacy and variability is the bracing one of seeing the opportunities for interpretation opened up by what from another angle could look like deficiencies of knowledge. In that optimistic spirit, he concludes the Introduction with a call for continued work to reinsert the plays into their rich social and historical contexts.

The text helpfully includes glosses of difficult words and phrases, but it is the Explanatory Notes that are likely to be the biggest aid to readers. Most of plays are introduced by an opening paragraph that presents a brief commentary on the play and its key issues, often with a nod towards current critical assessments or interpretive problems. Generous commentary on individual lines points to antecedents, notes biblical and other allusions, describes likely staging and costuming, comments on metrical form, explains unfamiliar concepts, and in other ways teases out for readers the threads that make up the text. Particularly useful are the notes that compare a particular usage in N-Town to that found in the other cycle plays, that discuss probable ways of staging a specific action, or that link references in N-Town to other medieval texts, such as the Cursor Mundi, the Viel Testament, and the Legenda Aurea. Such information makes it easier to envision the plays in performance and also demonstrates how much they were shaped by and responded to a wider cultural sphere. The Explanatory Notes also do a good job of suggesting areas of scholarly debate about the plays while usefully mapping a devotional and literary context for them. Textual notes, a bibliography of secondary criticism, and a glossary round out the scholarly apparatus.

This edition of the N-Town plays makes an important set of dramatic texts available for teaching purposes; at the same time, it charts current critical controversies surrounding the plays and points the way to new approaches. Sugano's carefully edited and thoughtfully annotated volume will no doubt benefit and energize young scholars and old pros alike, by bringing these plays to a wider audience and by situating them within the literary and devotional concerns of their historical milieu.