14.09.20, Dell et al., eds., The Chester Cycle in Context

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Theresa Coletti

The Medieval Review 14.09.20

Dell, Jessica, David Klausner, and Helen Ostovich. The Chester Cycle in Context, 1555–1575: Religion, Drama, and the Impact of Change. Studies in Performance and Early Modern Drama. Farnham, UK, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012. Pp. xiv,230. ISBN: 9781409441366 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Theresa Coletti
University of Maryland

In 1572, Protestant reformer and Marian exile Christopher Goodman unsuccessfully petitioned civil and ecclesiastical authorities in the north of England to halt the planned production of the biblical history-of-the-world plays known as the Chester Cycle. When, over the objections of Goodman and some prominent Chester citizens, the show subsequently did go on, Goodman was nonetheless on hand to record what he considered the "absurdities" of the plays' doctrinal content and manner of presentation. [1] Goodman's account of the 1572 event makes clear that the performances he witnessed significantly departed from versions of the plays in the cycle's five extant manuscripts, copied between 1591 and 1607 by various Chester antiquarians. Since David Mills's discovery of the Goodman records in the 1990s, scholars have pondered what these departures mean for our understanding of the Chester cycle and the persistence of medieval traditions of performance into the Elizabethan age. Over three days in May, 2010, the University of Toronto's Poculi Ludique Societas (PLS) provided a unique forum for considering these issues by staging the ostensible 1572 Chester cycle. Contributed by far-flung and local institutional groups, performances of the Chester plays realized a text reconstructed by Alexandra Johnston according to her reading of the Goodman documents. The essays gathered here, many of them presented at the academic conference that accompanied the 2010 performance, collectively take on the challenges afforded by Christopher Goodman's belated intervention in early English drama scholarship.

This collection derives coherence from the 2010 production's privileging of the Goodman documents. Several essays grapple directly with the significance of Goodman's views about and account of the 1572 performance; others invoke Goodman, if only as the attending spirit of the entire reconstructive enterprise. Goodman himself was a translator of the Geneva Bible, and he brought protestant biases to his eyewitness critique of plays that retained their origins in what scholarship has come to understand as traditional, i.e. medieval, religious beliefs and practices. Embracing that fact, these essays take their cues from recent historical scholarship that has established the shifting nature of religious and confessional allegiances in sixteenth-century England, when the most fully documented performances of the Chester cycle occurred. Goodman's observations also provoke analyses that are attentive to influential contexts of recent early English literary history, including the role that drama plays in formulations of the medieval and early modern divide.

Following an editorial introduction that situates Goodman's perspective on Chester's biblical performances in relation to both local recusancy and contemporary sectarian drama, the book comprises four parts. Part I offers two very different approaches to "the Chester script." In "The Text of the Chester Plays in 1572: A Conjectural Re-Construction," Alexandra F. Johnston explains the major issues that informed her creation of the performance text, including Goodman's obvious objections to the papist doctrines he found in the plays and evidence that the 1572 cycle witnessed by Goodman presented the plays in an order that coincides with none of the extant manuscripts. But just as important is Johnston's attention to the early modern collectors and antiquarians, often with Catholic sympathies, who must be credited with preserving virtually the entire corpus of medieval English drama. In the case of the Chester cycle manuscripts, such preservation highlights understandings of the dramatic text as monument and artifact of past cultural heritage rather than as guide to performance. The practical important of the distance between text on the page and in performance is the focus of David Mills's brief contribution, "In the Beginning! A New Look at Chester Play One, Lines 1-51." Reading the opening speeches of Chester's Fall of Lucifer for the complexity of what they do--and do not say--Mills sheds light on "the problems and solutions that might face a director" navigating the page and performance divide (43).

Part II gathers together four essays under the rubric "Faith and Doubt." Focusing on Christopher Goodman's objection to "the sacrament made a stage play" in the 1572 performance, Erin E. Kelly investigates how dramatic form itself crucially engaged medieval and early modern "experiences of faith and doubt" (47). Meta-theatrical capabilities made the sixteenth-century stage an ideal arena for exploring the doctrinal foundations of religious belief; the "polyphonous" (55) possibilities of performance necessarily render drama an unstable yet powerful vehicle for enacting the skepticism that was central to both traditional and reformed religious beliefs. Theatrical resources also give entreé to theological issues in Matthew Sergi's "Dice at Christ's Passion." Sergi observes the anomalous character of the carefully scripted dice game played by the Jews whom the Chester cycle holds responsible for Christ's crucifixion. These anomalies, he argues, call attention to the live performance of the game itself in order to contrast the Jews' expectation of a chance outcome with the "portentous moment in Christian history" that in fact enlists their unwitting play (74). At the same time, the performance of this mock game of chance resonates with Tudor prohibitions of such local traditions of recreation, thereby rendering the theatrical game "simultaneously a reassertion of divine order and a challenge to secular authority" (77). Christopher Goodman's doctrinal critique of the 1572 performance appears once more in John Sebastian's essay on the Chester Ascension. Whereas Goodman seems to have been troubled by the play's position on the relative merits of faith and works as grounds for salvation, Sebastian identifies a dramatic soteriology that focuses on cruor Christi, "the blood of Christ outpoured." According to Sebastian, the Chester Ascension departs from biblical accounts of the event in Luke and Acts in order to emphasize the prophet of Isaias 62, who comes steeped in blood. The play anticipates the scene of the Last Judgment, as it enacts a "salvific [dramatic] timeline that unites the passion and the last judgment in the ascension through the image of fresh streaming blood" (90). Margaret Rogerson's essay on "Affective Piety: A 'Method' for Medieval Actors in the Chester Cycle" concludes Part II, albeit paying greater attention to faith rather than doubt. The connection Rogerson draws between Nicholas Love's imaginative techniques of affective meditation and Constantin Stanislavski's emphasis on the emotions, sensations, and memories of the modern theatrical actor may seems a bit of a stretch. But the juxtaposition of these two figures' psychological methods identifies new contexts for thinking about the craft of the medieval actor, an area about which we still know too little.

Essays by Paul Whitfield White and Kurt Schreyer in Part III, "Elizabethan Religion(s)," provide historiographical and theoretical anchors for this entire collection. White's contribution examines "religion on the ground in early Elizabethan Chester" (112), with the goal of explaining how the Chester cycle managed not only to hang on but to thrive with broad local support for nearly two decades into Elizabeth's reign. The plays endured, White argues, through a complex constellation of circumstances: sympathies of the Chester mayoralty; lax enforcement of the Elizabethan religious settlement; local persistence of popular customs and pastimes rooted in traditions of the medieval past; and the capacity of the plays themselves to speak simultaneously to a range of religious confessions. Schreyer's contribution to Part III takes up related concerns about the Chester plays in historical and historiographic perspective. Situating Goodman's 1572 commentary in literary history's dominant narratives of periodization, Schreyer excavates the Late Banns of the cycle as a historiographic resource. He argues that the Banns articulate a double consciousness: on one hand, they "preserve synchronic contact" with the past by highlighting treasured and idiosyncratic theatrical objects and practices; on the other, the Banns "record and perform diachronic historical change" (136).

The essays in Part IV broadly construe "Space and Place in Chester." Sheila Christi examines the presence of Chester's Roman heritage in the city's dramatic cycle and charts changing valences of Rome as signifier over the plays' long performance life. As Christi points out, for centuries Chester's monastic historians--Lucian, Ranulph Higden, Henry Bradshaw--extol the city's material and ethical ties to Rome, a point of view that is realized in the cycle's favorable portrayals of its Roman characters. Once the reformation inscribed new meanings of Rome as the seat of corruption and falsehood, Chester dramatists, Christie suggests, may have revised the cycle to comport with changing views of the city's once revered historical forebear. Mark Faulkner's "Exegesis in the City" expands Christi's point about the importance of Chester's monastic historians through his detailed account of Lucian's De Laude Cestrie, a late-twelfth century "urban encomium" (162) that maps God's divine purpose onto the city's topography. Lucian's sacred spatial hermeneutics, as Faulkner notes, do not easily carry over to the topography of late medieval and early modern Chester's civic spaces; but the monastic history and the cycle plays share an interest in exegesis, represented in the latter by the expositor figures who appear in five plays. Faulkner analyzes their speeches with an eye to departures from or endorsements of authorized protestant biblical interpretation. Besides introducing Lucian's work to scholars of the Chester cycle (it was new to me), this essay draws from the valuable Mapping Medieval Chester Project, with which Faulkner was affiliated. Heather Mitchell-Buck's "Maintaining the Realm: City, Commonwealth, and Crown in Chester's Midsummer Plays" understands the city space of Chester as a locus of regional meanings, customs, and privileges. Within this space, the movement of the Chester cycle's final, 1575 performance from Whitsun week to the secular festivities at Midsummer signal civic determination to resist emerging protestant, nationalist understandings of community. Buck's careful reading of the documents surrounding the controversy about the 1575 performance yields yet another perspective on the persistence of the Chester plays through the early decades of Elizabeth's reign; like the arguments advanced by White and Schreyer, it helps current scholars of the Chester plays understand why and how they could, as late as 1572, so disturb Christopher Goodman.

This collection concludes with Joanna Dutka's informative and moving tribute to F. M. Salter, the Canadian scholar whose pioneering work on the Chester plays intersected with major twentieth-century developments in philology, editorial practices, and literary history. But perhaps Salter most deserves commemoration for his prescient recognition of the important role that dramatic records could play in the study of the Chester cycle and his prescient appreciation for the theatricality of what he understood as Medieval Drama in Chester. [2] It was Salter's foundational scholarship on early drama that in the middle of the twentieth century motivated and enabled the investigations that would eventually bear fruit in the Records of Early English Drama and in new editions of the major cycles and plays. F. M. Salter taught scholars of the Chester plays to attend to the likes of Christopher Goodman and the documentary record that his several letters synecdotally underscore. As I write this review mindful of the recent passing of another of the Chester cycle's scholarly giants, it seems appropriate here also to recognize how much the impact of the work of Lawrence (Larry) Clopper explicitly or implicitly informs virtually every contribution to this excellent set of reflections on "the Chester Cycle in context, 1555-1575." To note just one of his major, disruptive insights, it was Clopper's magisterial reading and interpretation of sixteenth-century records of the Chester cycle's Tudor performances that taught us the importance of the plays' move from Whitsun to Midsummer. [3] For its original investigations of the archival record and its commitment to opening up the Chester cycle to new scholars and audiences, this collection is a silent tribute to and fulfillment of Clopper's inestimable contributions to early English drama studies.



1. The Chester documents discussed in this review appear in Elizabeth Baldwin, David Mills, and Lawrence Clopper (eds.), REED: Cheshire, including Chester, 2 vols. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007).

2. F. M. Salter, Mediaeval Drama in Chester (Toronto and London: University of Toronto Press, 1955).

3. Lawrence M. Clopper,"The History and Development of the Chester Cycle," Modern Philology 75.3 (1978): 219-246.

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Author Biography

Theresa Coletti

University of Maryland