Morality Plays, Mummings, and More: Tracing the Roots of Early English Drama


mummersDevils chasing spectators with firecrackers; shipwrights presenting a pageant about Noah’s Ark. Early English drama could be spectacular and entertaining, as it presented biblical and other themes for a local audience. Mark Chambers introduces the work of the Records of Early English Drama Northeast project, which is delving into the archives to show how dramatic performances from the Medieval to the Early Modern period reflected the character of this region of England.

You’re working on a project called Records of Early English Drama. What – or when – is Early English drama?

‘Early English drama’ is a phrase designed to include all evidence of drama produced in England from the Medieval period through the ‘Renaissance’ and Early Modern period. This doesn’t just mean records of drama in English – that, in fact, would leave out a great deal of the earlier stuff, which was frequently in Latin or even Anglo-Norman French. By ‘Records of Early English drama’, we mean any scrap of evidence of dramatic activity, from the earliest folk-dramas, masks and mummings, to the great ‘mystery’ plays and biblical cycles of the late-Medieval period, to the high drama of Shakespeare and his Renaissance contemporaries. This includes evidence for Latin religious drama performed in and around the churches of the Anglo-Saxon period, evidence for French dramas performed after the Norman Conquest of 1066, evidence for plays and entertainments performed in Middle English (roughly to c.1500 AD) and Early Modern English (that’s Shakespeare’s era), as well as evidence for the scholastic Latin dramas of the English Renaissance.

If I headed along to an Early English play, what sort of thing would I have seen?

That all depends on when – and where – you were. One result of the work of REED is to completely reassess the way we think about the history, nature and ‘evolution’ of Medieval and Early Modern drama. In his highly influential early study, the early 20th-century historian E. K. Chambers posited an ‘evolutionary’ model of dramatic activity in Medieval England, based primarily on his readings of the surviving texts. And it’s this model that’s been taught ever since. However, work on REED has conclusively demonstrated that the history of English drama was neither as limited nor as uniform – and certainly not as ‘evolutionary’ – as the surviving playtexts might suggest.

Each play would be performed high up on a ‘pageant’ wagon or moveable stage, which could be pulled along by hand or else by horses

If you were in a city like York, for example, in the 15th century, you might have an opportunity to go to the annual ‘mystery’ cycle plays. These were usually performed on or around the Christian Feast of Corpus Christi (usually late May or early June). In York and possibly many other cities in the period, each of the city craft guilds would be responsible for performing part of the Bible story on the feast day. Often, the occupation of the guild might relate to the play they put on:  the nail or peg-makers (pinners), for example, might put on the play of Christ’s Crucifixion, or the Shipwrights might be responsible for the play of Noah’s building of the Ark. Each play would be performed high up on a ‘pageant’ wagon or moveable stage, which could be pulled along by hand or else by horses. These pageant wagons would be moved to several preordained stations throughout the city so each play could be performed several times a day before different audiences.

So, in York you would probably wake up early in the morning before sunrise to get a good position on the street near one of the stations. Then the first pageant wagon would probably be wheeled into position as the sun rose – in this case the spectacular play or ‘pageant’ of God’s Creation of heaven and earth and the fall of Lucifer. The actors would perform not only on the multi-story wagon set; they would also run about in the streets, engaging the audience – imagine the devils chasing around spectators and setting off fire crackers. When the first pageant ended, it would be wheeled off to the next station whilst the next pageant wagon was hauled in to view. You could buy refreshments, listen to music, and take part in a community-wide public celebration of the Christian faith and story. And such ‘cycles’ of play pageants often lasted all day – or even over multiple days (York had as many as 48 individual plays) – with the final, dramatic story of the Judgement Day often taking place as the sun went down (to make the most of the fireworks!). And there are records of similar performances all over Britain and Ireland, including surviving playtexts from Chester, Coventry, Norwich and Newcastle, as well as some which are unattributed. REED evidence has turned up evidence of public, biblical drama from dozens of cities and towns around Britain and Ireland, including Durham and the Northeast.

And that’s just one sort of drama. There were also shorter allegorical (or ‘morality’) plays, plays about miracles or saints, folk dramas, mummings and dances, Latin ‘academic’ and doctrinal plays, and smaller dramas played indoors for more sophisticated audiences. It really depended on where you were, when you were, and who you were.

So what is the Records of Early English Drama project looking for?

Originally initiated by the University of Toronto in 1975, the wider REED project seeks to find, and publish, all evidence of communal entertainment and ceremony in England from the Middle Ages until 1642 (that’s the year the Puritans closed all the theatres in London). Evidence found over the last forty years has completely restructured the way we think about the history of early drama – how we read it, how we teach it, and how we perform it.

Your part of the project is looking at records about these plays in North East England. Was there anything particularly special about the performances in this part of the world?

It is clear from the evidence drawn from Durham, for example, that payments were regularly made for an annual ‘Boy Bishop’ performance or festival associated with the medieval priory (now the Cathedral). This would be a day of festivities and general license, where a boy or boys would be made ‘Bishop’ for the day and paraded around with a mitre and bishop’s robes. And besides all kinds of evidence for religious drama played in the community, we have also found records of folk drama, including the earliest known Plough Ceremony (first recorded in 1378); a folk-play man/woman figure (1433-34); a stag ceremony, suppressed in 1315, which the priory regarded as pre-Christian; and the Durham Cantata, a 16th-century musical fragment which describes celebrations on the Feast of St. Cuthbert, including a Robin Hood play and a ‘young maids’ procession. From Durham there are records of musicians, waits, fools, a dwarf, a man with a performing dog, a wrestler, an Italian exhibitor of what was claimed to be a dragon, and companies with royal or noble patronage.

Further afield, it is possible that the earliest piece of Latin biblical drama from England may have come from Holy Island off the Northumberland coast (the so-called ‘Lindisfarne Harrowing of Hell’’, dated c.740 A.D.). We will be performing this fascinating play at our Durham Summer Festival in 2016. North Yorkshire has produced a good deal of evidence of anti-protestant professional companies performing political or religious works long after the Reformation.

In short, evidence of early drama from the Northeast is varied, multitudinous, and absolutely fascinating.

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