Carol Symes

title.none: Walker, ed., Medieval Drama, An Anthology (Symes)

identifier.other: baj9928.0105.004 01.05.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Carol Symes, Bennington College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Walker, Greg, ed. Medieval Drama, An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000. Pp. 630, xiii. $39.95. ISBN: 0-312-11727-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.05.04

Walker, Greg, ed. Medieval Drama, An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000. Pp. 630, xiii. $39.95. ISBN: 0-312-11727-4.

Reviewed by:

Carol Symes
Bennington College

First and foremost, the prospective user of Medieval Drama: An Anthology should be aware that it is part of the Blackwell's Anthologies series devoted to British literature and not, therefore, in direct competition with David Bevington's anthology of Medieval Drama (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975), which devotes some--although not nearly enough--space to Latin liturgical drama and the early vernacular plays of Continental Europe. On the whole, the newer compilation's advertising blurb is more accurate than its title, since Greg Walker's selection of texts "is an indispensable guide to the breadth and depth of dramatic activity in medieval Britain" even though (caveat lector) one needs to know that when the adjective "medieval" is applied to English plays one is really talking about the period after 1400 and, moreover, that only the inclusion of Sir David Lindsay's interlude Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis moves the collection beyond the confines of England proper. It is also worth noting that scholars working under the auspices of REED (Records of Early English Drama), or those concerned with the larger context of medieval theatre, might dispute that the plays gathered here represent the full range of "dramatic activity" in this time and place, given that much of that activity was either unscripted, undocumented, or impromptu.

It is commendable that Walker confronts most of these issues forthrightly in his introduction, which is both succinct and nuanced in its discussion of the principles underlying some significant editorial choices. His mission, he explains, is to "contribute to the ongoing rehabilitation of medieval drama" (viii) by bringing together a group of plays "which demonstrate theatrical vitality and playability". He intends this volume to be a resource for performers as well as for students, and has accordingly decided to focus on entire plays, rather than sizable excerpts. This means that lengthy scripts of great quality, such as The Castle of Perseverance (arguably the oldest surviving play in English) or the epic Mary Magdalene from the Digby manuscript, have been passed over, while the "rudimentary and fragmentary texts of the earlier period" have also been avoided, "partly on aesthetic grounds". Walker is frank about his reasons for this. On the one hand, he wants to show how much the playwrights of the Renaissance owed to the dramatic traditions in which they were nurtured, traditions which were still alive and flourishing into the last decades of the sixteenth century. On the other, he deplores any arrangement of texts that "might suggest support for the now discredited evolutionary model" of medieval drama--a model which may have been discredited but is unfortunately still standing, even in academic circles. While one may not endorse Walker's negative characterization of earlier plays as "rudimentary" or inartistic (and I certainly do not), he is right to insist on a chronological approach that emphasizes the degree to which the drama of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries responded to social and political upheavals, adapted itself to an array of localized performance conditions, and became alternately the tool and the scourge of competing religious reforms. To that end, he provides a table juxtaposing major historical events with representative "literary and dramatic landmarks", a map of Britain, and a plan showing the route of the Corpus Christi procession through the streets of York.

The presentation of the materials included in Medieval Drama is pleasing. Textual notes are condensed, and are placed at the foot of the double-columned pages. Latin tags and rubrics are translated into modern English, as are more difficult Middle English words, but because Walker is determined to let the plays' qualities speak for themselves he has provided little in the way of additional stage directions. Moreover, his introductions to the three parts of the volume and to individual plays are elegant and fresh, and also mercifully brief. All plays have been newly edited, and full citations of the original manuscripts or early printed texts are accompanied by select bibliographies directing the reader to the best critical editions and to some of the more recent scholarship. There is also a list of reliable Internet resources (necessarily short) and, at the end of the volume, a glossary and further notes on textual variants.

The first part of the volume is entitled "Religious Narrative: The Biblical Plays". Here, an effort has been made to avoid any anachronistic synthesis of the surviving mystery cycles; instead, Walker reproduces key pageants from the York manuscript and fills in the gaps with The Fall of Lucifer, Adam and Eve, and The Shepherds from Chester. Since we know a great deal about the similar performance conditions that pertained in these two urban communities, this arrangement makes sense. But it would hardly have been possible, given Walker's insistence on quality over quantity, to leave out the Towneley Second Shepherds' Play. The Mary Play from the N-Town manuscript is also included. Finally, this section is enriched by the inclusion of several ancillary artifacts: the Ordo paginarum drawn up by the common clerk of York in 1415, which predates the scripts of the plays themselves by at least half a century; the important list of properties and costumes for the mercers' production of The Last Judgement, preserved in an indenture of 1433; and three documents illustrating the historical phenomena that would result in the censorship and eventual eradication of the play called Corpus Christi, namely The Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge (generously excerpted), the new set of banns appended to the Chester cycle in the wake of the Henrician reforms of the 1530's, and Matthew Hutton's letter of 1567 to the mayor and council of York, in which the dean of the cathedral expresses his reservations about city's long-standing theatrical traditions. The fact that the script prompting the last of these does not survive (it was the Creed play that was the initial bone of contention) is itself eloquent testimony to the fragile textual tradition of even the most celebrated specimens of medieval drama.

In the second part of the collection, three well-known moralities are printed under the rubric of "Religion and Conscience: The Moral Plays," yet are introduced by The Play of the Sacrament from Croxton. Again, it is refreshing that Walker is willing to break down generic barriers and to group his materials in such a way as to highlight the circumstances of their production and reception. Given that the Croxton play would have been suitable for performance by traveling players, as were Wisdom, Mankind, and Everyman, this arrangement is suggestive of the diverse subject matter, acting styles, and special effects to which contemporary audiences had access. And, as Walker points out in the introduction to the third section, entitled "Politics and Morality: The Interludes," these sixteenth-century plays--elsewhere touted as "humanist" or "early Renaissance" drama--"share a number of features with the Moralities, not least their venue". Even though the interludes are concerned with the individual and the body politic, rather than with the individual soul and the body, they were performed under similar conditions and relied on devices that were already a staple of another kind of civic theatre, the mystery plays. The differences, too, are noteworthy, in particular the new emphasis placed upon authorship and the enlarged possibilities afforded by the circulation of these plays in printed form (although Everyman must surely owe its primacy among the moralities to the availability of a printed edition). The plays included in this last part of the volume are Henry Medwall's Fulgens and Lucres, John Skelton's Magnyfycence, the anonymous Enterlude of Godly Queen Hester, John Heywood's The Four PP or the "very mery enterlude of a Palmer, a Pardoner, a Potycary, and a Pedlar" with The Play of the Weather, Johan Baptystes Preachynge and The Three Laws by John Bale, and finally the text of Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitisas it was revised by its author, Sir David Lindsay, in the years 1552-1554, prefaced by a contemporary description of the original production in 1540.

The later segments of Medieval Drama benefit specially from Walker's own expertise as a scholar of sixteenth-century political theatre, but the book as a whole is informed at every turn by his evident care, excellent judgment, and editorial restraint. It is to be hoped that the attention paid to the contexts of these plays will awaken a long-overdue interest in their historical value, and that the plays themselves will attract the notice of an expanded audience--perhaps one that will have the opportunity to see more of them staged by professional actors willing to ignore Hamlet's well-meant yet amateur advice. How much more apt to follow the lead of Chaucer's Absolon, showing wit and mastery by out-Heroding Herod on the scaffold high.