William Munson

title.none: Mills, Recycling the Cycle (Munson)

identifier.other: baj9928.9908.023 99.08.23

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: William Munson, University of Alabama at Huntsville,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Mills, David. Recycling the Cycle: The City of Chester and its Whitsun Plays. Studies in Early English Drama, Vol 4. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998. Pp. xv, 281. 55.00. ISBN: 0-802-04096-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.08.23

Mills, David. Recycling the Cycle: The City of Chester and its Whitsun Plays. Studies in Early English Drama, Vol 4. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998. Pp. xv, 281. 55.00. ISBN: 0-802-04096-9.

Reviewed by:

William Munson
University of Alabama at Huntsville

This book about the city of Chester and its plays comes from one of the principal authorities on the subject, and will be essential reading for anyone with serious interests in English medieval, or "early," drama and its survivals. David Mills, in conjunction with R. M. Lumiansky, has edited the standard modern edition of The Chester Mystery Cycle (Vol 1: Text, EETS SS 3, 1974; Vol 2: Commentary and glossary, EETS SS 9, 1986), with a third supplementary volume on texts, sources, and documents about play development and presentation (The Chester Mystery Cycle: Essays and Documents..., UNC Press, 1983). Mills later reedited the plays in The Chester Mystery Cycle: A New Edition with Modernised Spelling (Colleagues Press, 1992). In addition, Mills has furnished some of the most comprehensive and ambitious interpretation of the play texts: foremost is the chapter "The Chester cycle" in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre (ed. Richard Beadle, Cambridge UP, 1994) and, equally important for placing drama in its social context, the near book-length account, "The drama of religious ceremonial," in The Revels History of Drama in English, Vol 1: Medieval Drama (ed. A. C. Cawley et al., Methuen, 1983).

In his new book, Mills places himself centrally within the cultural criticism which has been the leading edge of scholarly interest in early drama for the last two decades. As he announces when he reaches the discussion of textual content and style (Chapter 8), "It is my purpose in this book to set Chester's plays in a wider context of civic celebration, religion, and politics, to present them as a cultural artefact" (153). I would only add that by "religion" he means primarily the politics of religious doctrines--the contest of group allegiances for which religion is vehicle. The book is arranged to give the basis for understanding Chester drama as an interactive phenomenon involving many agents: texts with their authors, revisers, and copyists; actual performers and performances at specific times and places; the network of civic, ecclesiastical, and national authorities enabling-- whether by cultivation or censorship--the phenomenon; and, not least, the audience constituencies. Mills does not engage any one theory of what drama does with the social conflicts it mirrors (and very rarely employs vocabulary such as "contestation" or "encoding"), but his viewpoint does take drama as a present gesture in a context of conflict like other cultural phenomena, rather than as text in formal isolation creating autonomous resolutions. Before engaging textual contents he treats buildings and town layout (Chap. 2), history writing and civic records (Chap. 3), civic ceremony and sports (Chap. 4), Midsummer celebrations (Chap. 5), ecclesiastical processions (Chap. 6), and commercialism and Puritanism (Chap. 7).

Beyond the attempt to uncover the interacting interests of the drama at any one moment, Mills' account takes a long view of dramatic development and reception up to the twentieth century. This involves the salutary recognition that there is always the spectre of a contemporary appropriation of the material of tradition. Mills frankly brings this into view in his first, prefatory sentence, "The roots from which this book grows are strangely emotional and personally significant. They go back to my childhood in the town of St. Helens in the northwest of England. A visit to Chester was a great expedition for me as a small child..." (vii). Chapter 9 deals with the antiquarian interest behind the copying of all extant texts of the plays, and also an account of the subsequent manuscript owners. Chapter 10, "Medievalism and Revival," deals primarily with the revivals of religious drama in the early twentieth century and then in post-World War II Chester. It might easily have continued with the revivals in the second half of the century under institutional impetus different from local pride or national patriotism: the professional academic interest in text and performance spearheaded at the University of Toronto, whose press publishes the ongoing Records of Early English Drama to 1642 and also the present book. The author's dedication to making sense of the archeological shards which remain of Chester's dramatic past is echoed not only in the general method of cultural criticism--which, at its best, sees the present in tension with both a constructed past and a possible future--but also in the theme which he finds in the text of the plays themselves: the relation of a specific, present social reality to a universal Christian history in which "the city as actor" (173-78) is positioned at a "mid-point" between God's redeeming action and final judgment. The past is an alterity: "Chester salutes both alterity and the legacy of the past as the measure of our present situation" (165).

Individuals will differ in evaluating what success is possible in illuminating the existing Chester text by linkage to cultural context. The intractable problem, acknowledged at the outset and throughout, is that the text we have is one thing but the text's use in a performance at any given time, where specific documentary evidence is usually lacking, is another. The extant texts are copies made between 1609 and 1625, long after the last performance in 1575; and the relevant contextual history--even where evidence exists--involves a long performance history certainly going back at least to the early fifteenth century. Mills' framework of chronological and developmental history reappropriates a motive driving the early twentieth-century evolutionary view of drama against which much scholarly effort in the last decades--Mills' thoughtful Chapter 1, "Approaches to Early Drama," is a useful account--has been spent: the view that European drama evolved from religious ritual into secular and entertaining forms, issuing climactically in the Elizabethan stage. One importance of Mills' approach is to understand religious phenomena (especially processions with ceremonial display) and their solemn decorum in relation to festive phenomena (shows, games; his term is "entertainment" as opposed to "ceremony") with more nuance and greater fidelity to facts of social history than achieved before. Earlier historians were not so prepared to see civic phenomena as ceremony--that is, analogous to ecclesiastical liturgy but under different institutional auspices and priorities: the city had to evolve its community self-definitions as much as monastery or church did.

It seems apparent, however, that the new kind of history does not entirely overthrow the broad suggestiveness of the old developmental model which saw drama arising in the church's liturgy and gradually moving into the town marketplace, and from religious solemnity to a newly problematic decorum outside the church building. The best document-informed speculation still has the suggestive outline of three crucial moments in Chester dramatic history: the plays' emergence from the liturgically controlled processions of Corpus Christi by at least the first quarter of the fifteenth century (though the status of pageants as spectacle with text or, alternatively, spectacle alone remains unresolved); the moving of the plays to three days after Whitsun (after 1521 but before the English Reformation) when a major revision of the text took place with a strong controlling unity but with performance now more clearly a civic, as opposed to ecclesiastical, function; finally the suppression of the plays after 1575 due to Protestant extremists opposing festive behaviors especially in connection to the Midsummer Show, which had developed connections with cycle performance. The last performance in 1575 was a revival which still sounds like a version of "secularization": The plays were removed from all association with religious occasion and placed in the time of the city's secular celebrations. They seem to be claimed, thereby. [sic] as a traditional civic celebration, a customary event which commemorated the city's contribution to the Protestant movement.... It is unlikely that they could have survived much longer under the pressure of the market forces within late-sixteenth-century Chester. (15l-2) Mills most incisive treatment of the conceptual (and synchronic) tensions involved in a developing historical (diachronic) perspective is included in Chapter 5 on religious festivals; from 1521 to 1548 Chester, in Mills' account, had " three mutually defining genres" which included the old Corpus Christi procession and adjunct play, a Whitsun Play cycle, and the "secular celebrations of the Midsummer Show" (111-12). The Whitsun Plays functioned in an ambiguous relation to the "secularizing" character of the Midsummer Show. Although their "initial concern" stressed connection with the traditional (Catholic) religious feast, the "weighting" changed (111) and it was possible to regard the "Whitsun Plays as religious 'end' of the civic ceremonial spectrum" (112). Unfortunately, the suggestive nuance of this formulation is blunted by separated discussions of the Midsummer Show (Chap. 5, 85-100), and of a civic "spectrum of ceremonial and entertainment" (Chapter 4).

The principal interpretation underlying Mills treatment of the complex local politics of city, abbey, and church before and after the Reformation is that cultural practices not only embody divisive contest for power but also affirmation and promotion of communal ties. So when "Chester used ceremonial and custom to create or sustain a myth of its past" (18), the complex history of the plays becomes a history of attempts by inhabitants to create distinct "communities." Ceremonial-- whether ecclesiastical as "liturgy" or civic, as "ceremonial"-- has the function of community creation and affirmation, an affirmation which is enhanced by emphasizing continuity with, not difference from, the past. The past may be an "alterity," but the plays have a conservative function in seeking positive continuity between the past, the present, and a putative future. They appropriate and adapt rather than subvert.

These reaches of Mills' patient scholarship, however, are not highlighted in the exposition so that they will be maximally accessible to readers unfamiliar with the subject, especially Mills' own previous work. I have mentioned the separated discussions of phenomena central to the developmental thesis in the key transition period of the Reformation. The documentary facts in their particular categories (and raw citation of them) are often inert and overwhelm their use in a synthetic interpretive thesis. To the non-specialist, they will seem more or less valuable depending on interests in particular facets of social life. Some sections are both very engaging in their local detail and pointed in their thesis, like the story of specific Puritan pressures in the late 1500's resulting in suppression of the plays. For others equally crucial for the cultural and interpretive theses, I would direct someone first to articles by Mills elsewhere. "Chester ceremonial: re- creation and recreation in the English 'Medieval' Town" (Urban History Yearbook 18 [1991]: 1-19) covers material at the heart of the book but makes more explicit a history of social dynamics which remains fragmented and partially submerged. ("The Midsummer Show" in Chapter 5, 85-100; "Corpus Christi procession and plays" in Chapter 6, 103-112; "The Reinvention of the Whitsun plays" in Chapter 7, 139-45). The relation of the Chester text to social context and history in Recycling the Cycle reworks ideas from a subsection of "Religious drama and civic ceremonial" in The Revels History of Drama in English (Vol 1, 172-86), but I don't find in it the social and interpretive reach and tautness of the following (about the ending of the Abraham play) which appears there: The action ends in a significant tableau, which is immediately set first in the context of cyclic structure, a distancing of perspective emphasized by the physical intervention of the Expositor; then cyclic significance yields to exemplum and the Expositor joins the audience in prayer before the tableau; and finally interpretation and meditation yield before the urgency of the guild- ceremonial whose demands for schedules and order sweep away illusion and return us to the streets of Chester. Progressively, an action which had held its audience by its dramatic immediacy is now robbed of that immediacy and restored to its place in the mind and memory, to be held there and reflected upon amid the hurly-burly of contemporary life. (182) It is not easy, often, to get to connections in the book itself or to connections elsewhere. The Index is very spare and, if the entry for Mills is typical, incomplete information in the Bibliography shows signs of haste. One does not get references in the text, beyond a conscientious minimum, to others' accounts of Chester drama and context. Martin Stevens--whose provocative reading of Chester, "The Chester Cycle: The Sense of An Ending" (Four Middle English Mystery Cycles: The Textual, Contextual and Critical Interpretations, Princeton, 1987) is suggestively parallel to Mills' sense of Christian "historical" action in the cycle--gets only one reference, and that is in respect to a technical and speculative point about the relation of the existing text to an "Original" (182). Recycling the Cycle: The City of Chester and Its Whitsun Plays may not be the very first work to be consulted about the Chester plays, but it does make the body of Mills' work about them even more indispensable--testimony to thoughtful, long, and persevering effort.