York Mystery Plays
Humanity of Christ in “The York Play of the Crucifixion”
In the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, there was an emergence of creativity and imagination. These ideals were portrayed throughout the fields of human inquiry — artwork and entertainment being especially affected. A powerful example of such a newly creative dramatic style is the emergence of “mystery plays,” or plays that depicted the change in portrayal of Christ’s humanity. In earlier times, the Catholic church was very strict as to the interpretation of the Bible, with the pope’s word or interpretation being the only one allowable. Anyone who strayed from this interpretation could be heavily punished. With the emergence of the Renaissance, creativity spread not only into the secular arts but also the spiritual arts. The Catholic church began commissioning a series of mystery plays to enlighten the people regarding the gospel, and to a different kind of Christ than they had previously known — a Christ who was no longer harsh, silent, cold, and nothing like themselves. Mystery plays, such as the “York Play of the Crucifixion,” helped to portray the humanity of Christ through the use of character, comedy, and setting. In “The York Play of the Crucifixion,” the humanity of Christ is, somewhat unexpectedly, also depicted through the character development of the soldiers.
In the play, Christ is being taken by four soldiers to the hill to be crucified. The four soldiers are unnamed, possibly to help make the soldiers more universal and relatable to the audience. With this device, the viewers, or readers, are now able to find more in common with these soldiers, and detect resemblances to the soldiers in their complete disregard of Christ. The soldiers show this disregard with comments such as “Then to this work us must take heed/ So that our working be not wrang/ None other note to neven is need/ But let us haste him for to hang” (25-28). These lines, spoken by soldiers one and two in the beginning of the play, introduce the audience to naivety of the soldiers, in that they have no idea of who they are crucifying. The soldiers, who represent all people, show how we can be blind to Christ and his atonement for us. The focus on Christ’s act of atonement, and our place in remembering his sacrifice, is portrayed in a very different way in the “York Play of the Crucifixion,” as compared to plays from earlier eras. The play is told by everyday soldiers, from mankind’s perspective, to better depict our relationship with Christ. He is seen as just another traitor to be crucified: “Come on, let kill this traitor strong” (32). By having this perspective set before it, the audience is better able to see its relationship with Christ as a blessing, as a gift we should take advantage of, instead of taking in the previous beliefs that centered on our debt and natural sin. Christ himself speaks a few lines in the play, which accentuates his divine mercy.
Through the disregard of the soldiers and the contrast with Christ’s constant passivity, both Christ’s humanity and his divinity are portrayed. “Almighty God, my Father free…Here to dead I oblige me/ For that sin for to save mankind/ And sovereignly beseek I thee/ That they for me may favor find/ And from the Fiend them fend, So that their souls be safe” (51-58). These lines, the first spoken by Christ in the play, show the reader His great humility and forgiveness. The lines, thrown in the mix with the complaints of the soldiers, invoke painful emotions for the audience. Furthermore, Christ’s humanity is show through references to his physical character, focusing on his bodily inflictions. ‘Yea, asunder are both veins and sinews” (147). This line shows the soldier’s focus on Christ’s human nature, on his bodily suffering, reminding the audience of His humanity. The character portrayal of both the soldiers and Christ help to emphasize His relationship with the common man, and His more human side.
The use of comedy in “The York Play of the Crucifixion” also serves to emphasize the humanity of Christ. The soldiers, common, everyday men, are preoccupied with their task, which is seen by them as menial and even annoying. There are comedic lines in the play, as well as an underlying current of humour throughout. Specific line examples can be found in a soldier’s complaining of the craftsmanship of the cross and nailings: “It fails a foot and more/ The sinews are so gone in/ I hope that mark amiss be bored/ Then must he bide in bitter bale/ In faith, it was over-scantly scored” (107-112). These lines can be seen as operating on several levels. In one way, they offer comedic relief to such an emotional theme. In another, they serve to engage the audience. Offering a contrast with earlier interpretations of Christ’s suffering, a comedic feel helps to draw in people to then hear a greater message. However, the comedy also operates as a contrast between the humility and submissiveness of Christ. A more painful example of their humor arises when the first soldier tells the second to continue beating Christ: “Strike on then hard, for him thee bought” (101). With the jokes and complete disregard of respect that the soldiers have, emphasis is put on the quietness of Christ, further calling attention to the theme of his humanity and of our relationship with Him. The comedy offers a realistic setting, allowing us to further relate to the soldiers. Furthermore, the actual setting of the play offers emphasis on the humanity of Christ. The play takes place in one, static setting, allowing the characters and message to appear timeless. By putting the soldiers in such a setting, the audience is further able to relate to their experience. The lifting of the cross is also significant, in that, from an audience’s standpoint, their focus has been primarily on the soldiers, but now is on Christ. It is an appropriate ending as it reminds again the audience of our duty in remembering Him, and how his humanity allows us to be able to have a divine relationship with Him.
“The York Play of the Crucifixion” is a prime example of the emerging creativity of the Renaissance. With previous depictions of Christ, in art as well as literature, as harsh and cold, the new portrayal of his humanity through mystery plays helped the people to hear the gospel and feel Christ’s love in a new, more engaging, and more interpretive way. In “The York Play of the Crucifixion,” various elements of character, humour, and plot work together to emphasize our relationship with Christ through his humanity.
Reidhead, Julia, ed. “Christ’s Humanity.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. A. New York City: Norton, 2012. 440-47. Print.
The Fall of Man, York Mystery Cycle (Play 5)
3rd April 2014
© Visalini S.
Do not re-print without express permission from the author.
The Fall of Man
York Mystery Cycle (Play 5)
Medieval Theatre Conventions
Language and Staging
The Fall of Man was traditionally performed as part of a larger series of plays known as The York Mystery Cycle. The Mystery Plays were a great medieval tradition and they were primarily used to bring religious messages to the commonfolk of York in the form of a religious festival. These plays were written in vernacular, usually having been translated from Latin, to allow for the easy understanding of illiterate audiences of the time. The most unique feature of these plays was the way they were staged. All the 47 plays in the York Cycle would have been performed on their own individual, moveable pageant wagons. These wagons would move processionally to each designated stop of the cycle (for example, in front of churches or marketplaces) and the plays would be performed. In short, the play would move toward the audience, unlike many of the stationary fixed-set morality plays of the time.
John Wesley Harris, author of Medieval Theatre in Context: An Introduction, introduces the structure of the pageant wagons as something the audience would have to look up to (Harris 1992: 126). The wagons would have two levels, the stage itself and the lower level where the actors would change costumes and store their props. Thus, when parked at street level, the audience would have to look up to these actors who are imparting religious lessons to them, almost as though receiving a divine message from God. Moreover, Harris states that actors would hang cloths around the wagon so that the audience could only view the play from the front, closing off the rest of the world and drawing the audience into the tight space where the play was being acted out.
The York Cycle plays arose as an expensive display of craftsmanship manned by the various guilds in the city. The guilds were enthusiastic about the pageants but over their heads was the threat of a hefty fine if they did not contribute or perform. (Davidson 2011) The pageant wagons were maintained by the city guilds. Each wagon would be given to a guild that best suited the play they were representing and thus they would be able to show off their wares in their plays. For example, according to Harris, the Goldsmiths of the city would be in charge of The Magi to show off their goldsmithing skills. The York Mystery Cycle, despite being part of a religious festival, would also be a showcase of the city’s wealth and craftsmanship.
The Intent of Medieval Theatre
“Medieval drama took many forms, but the most spectacular of all was the civic religious drama of towns such as York…the whole history of the universe from the creation of Heaven and Earth to Doomsday (was presented).” Greg Walker, Medieval Drama: An Anthology. As the quote subtly suggests, the intent of a medieval play like The Fall of Man was simply to educate the masses about Bibilical lessons. The York plays, unlike most morality plays, were written in vernacular to be accessible to the illiterate general public. The sequencial 48 plays condensed all the lessons in the Bible into short acts that the public could ‘digest’ quickly and effectively. The lessons were usually the same: do not give into the seven sins. For example, in The Fall of Man, the original sin is portrayed as Adam and Eve betraying God’s word. The story then continues to show how God punishes any man with a sinful nature. The lesson or moral of this story – God will punish a man if he sins – is then evidenced in the long sequence of plays, including The Last Supper, enabling the audience to cross-reference and corroborate the divine message amongst 46 other biblical stories.
The staging of the play is also crucial to its educational impact on the audience. As aforementioned, the pageant wagon comprises of an elevated platform for the scenes, causing the audience to look upwards, as though in prayer. The biblical messages are then physically delivered to the audience from a higher source, subconsciously creating the illusion that the messages are from God himself. This was another way to ensure the attention of the public so that the message in each play could get across.
Bertolt Brecht’s epic theatre estranges the audience from the play on stage. (Brooker 1994: 191) This estrangement works in the audience’s favor as it enables them to think to take a step back and think critically about the social, political and economic circumstances of the staged narrative and/or their respective realities. In short, the audience becomes a critical observer.
One of the characteristics of epic theatre is the Verfrumdungseffekt or V-effect, a theory that encapsulates Brecht’s idea of audience estrangement. According to Drama Professor Olga Taxidou, the V-effect can be achieved through different avenues such as theatrically explicit narrators, masks and music. These serve to disengage the audience from the play on stage. This disengagement forces the audience to experience an empathetic distance between the spectator and stage, enabling them to judge the characters objectively. The V-effect draws the critical spectator’s attention to the performance’s explicit theatricality, dropping all pretense of realism and training the spectator to approach the play critically.
Epic theatre was traditionally performed indoors with a proscenium stage. This allowed for an element of physical separation between cast and spectators. The V-effect, in my opinion, is most effective within a conventional performance space, such as the proscenium stage in epic theatre productions. This staging allows for the V-effect to defamiliarize the audience from the play at hand, hence creating room for the audience to objectively think and reflect about the issues being raised in the play with reference to their world at large.
The Intent of Epic Theatre
Epic theatre uses the stage as a place for instruction and education. It has an intellectual base and is concerned with treating social or political issues of the time. Epic plays are designed to shock and inspire thought. The ultimate goal of epic theatre is to make the audience aware of their social surroundings and encourage them to act to change their society.
Furthermore, epic theatre employs the V-effect to isolate the audience in order to trigger their critical thinking skills. In the case of The Fall of Man, performed in the epic tradition, the audience is forced to engage critically, examining and questioning the moral of the play. Instead of accepting the biblical tale as an explanation for man’s separation from God, the epic audience would instead question the tale. Why was man punished for falling for Satan’s plan? Why did God not shield man from Satan? How did Satan get into Eden? Where is Eden? These critical questions, though natural for the epic audience, undermines the purpose of the play. The moral of the play is simple: do not question God’s will. Unfortunately, due to the critical nature of the epic audience, God’s will will indeed be questioned.
On the other hand, the medieval audience’s duty is only to listen and be entertained. Morals are handed to the audience who will then accept them without question. As the purpose of a mystery play is to simply impart religious morals and not to question them, the medieval tradition would be better suited to portray a mystery play.
A Comparison of Medieval and Epic Theatre
Perhaps the biggest difference between the medieval and epic theaters is the stage itself. Medieval plays like The Fall of Man were set on small pageant wagons that the audience could crowd around. Epic plays were usually set in a theater where there was a clear line of separation between audience and actors. Surprisingly, I feel that the change from medieval to epic stage makes the theatre experience for the reader much more shallow. While the medieval audience, as a collective of individuals, was shown their place in a great religious order, the epic spectator remains isolated and insulated, tangled in an endless array of questions. Although epic theatre audiences are consequently supposed to later start a social change, their actual engagement with the play is still predicated on individual experience. This individuality of the engagement is what makes the experience seem shallow, compared to the enlightening religious experience that medieval theatre provides.
Additionally, the move from medieval to epic removes The Fall of Man from the rest of the mystery cycle as the play will be performed in isolation. Hence, the play is de-contextualized, losing its original sense of ritual meaning. Even setting the play within a theatre implies fictionality, which neutralizes its authority as it is no longer being presented as biblical truth, losing the play’s original purpose.
Brooker, Peter. “Key Words in Brecht’s Theory and Practice of Theatre.” The Cambridge Companion to Brecht. Ed. Peter Thomson and Glendyr Sacks. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. 185-200. Print.
Davidson, Clifford. “Introduction.” The York Corpus Christi Plays. Ed. Clifford Davidson. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2011. Web. 3 April 2013.
Gorelik, Mordecai. “An Epic theatre Catechism.” Brecht Sourcebook. London: Routledge, 2000. 31-36. Print.
Harris, John Wesley. Medieval Theatre in Context: An Introduction. London: Routledge, 1992. Print.
McCartney, Nicola. “Medieval Theatre.” Critical Practice: Performance. University of Edinburgh. Edinburgh, 31 January 2013. Lecture Notes.
Taxidou, Olga. “Brecht and Epic Theatre.” Critical Practice: Performance. University of Edinburgh. Edinburgh, 21 March 2013. Lecture Notes.
The Presentation of Death in ‘The Flood’ and ‘The Crucifixion’
The York Mystery Plays were performed at the annual Corpus Christi feast which celebrated the body of Christ. The 48 plays, which represent sacred Christian history from The Creation to Judgement Day, aimed to entertain and educate people on the key events of Christianity. The theme of death is prominent throughout ‘The Flood’ and ‘The Crucifixion’, indeed, the death of Christ is seen as not only the centre of the York cycle, but remains as the most pivotal moment in Christian history to this day. Both pageants depict death as a punishment; something which is either widely occuring, or directed more personally at one victim. In ‘The Flood’ God is disillusioned with the sinful acts of humanity and seeks to cleanse the world of all people who have disappointed him, which demonstrates a wider aspect of death as a punishment. In ‘The Crucifixion’ a more personal level of punishment is looked into, as Christ is nailed and stretched to the cross as a result of his political and social disruption to society. The plays also utilise the presentation of death on stage in order to deter audience members from sinning and receiving the same fate as the supposed perpetrators in the plays. The Corpus Christi feast ensured that folk traditions such as the mystery plays, were performed to entertain, and death is portrayed throughout the plays as somewhat humorous and ironic. Mrs Noah and the soldiers are both utilised in order for the audience, who would have been deeply religious, to mock and marvel at their foolishness.
In both plays, death is presented as a punishment, albeit both for different crimes. In ‘The Flood’, God becomes disillusioned with the humanity he has a made after observing their sinful acts. He reveals to Noah in Latin: ‘dem dixit repentheth me’ (he repenteth that he ever made mankind) which demonstrates his deep dissatisfaction with the world that he has granted life to. He creates a flood to cleanse the world and orders Noah to build an arc and preserve the best of life. Nature is used as a form of destruction, and the power imagery ‘all that has bone or blood/ shall be overflowed with the flood’ demonstrates the sheer mass destruction that God intends to create. This imagery elicits attention, as the element which usually helps growth now works in all of its strength to prevent it, preventing nature as an unbreakably strong form of destruction. Similarly, in ‘The Crucifixion’, Christ’s nailing to the cross is drawn out due to the inability of the soldiers, who make errors in measurements which result in Christs limbs having to be stretched. Soldier three exclaims ‘the foulest death of all/ he shall die for his deeds’ and the repetition of the plosive consonant ‘d’ resonates harsh sounds, which resonate to the painfulness of the death which Christ ensured in. The 14 line stanzaic form and rhyme scheme of ABABABABCDCCCD adds regularity to the structure, but also contributes by prolonging the process of nailing Christ, which presents his punishment as gruesome and painful.
In the Flood, the presentation of God’s disappointment in the world is resonated through the acting space, which works in attempt to deter the audience from sinning. For example, the actors board the arc which is wheeled away, symbolic of the cleansing that God put into place. As the audience are left alone, a sudden realisation occurs that they too could be sinners, and to avoid being cleansed, they should ensure that their Faith in God does not falter. In this respect, death is presented through the play as a consequence and warning, and the close proximity between the audience and actors in the York streets helps to convey this. Additionally, the casual conversations of the guards allow for the audience to feel as if they easily could have been the ones nailing Christ to the cross, as at the time, the soldiers had no implication of their actions as crucifying sinners was a tradition that stretched for over 500 years. This conjures emotions of guilt, sadness, and responsibility, which is contributed to by the staging and small and windy streets of York. This sees audience members crowded into small spaces close to the action, which involves them emotionally and creates a sense of intimacy. This is reinforced by Christ’s speech, in which his last moments he exclaims ‘all men that walk by way or street/ behold mine head, mine hands and my feet’. This powerful couplet heightens a sense of guilt from the audience, who are all personally blamed for Christ’s position, demonstrating how death in the York Plays creates a deep sense of audience involvement and acts as a warning to crowds, in this case, to consider the treatment of their fellows.
The York Mystery plays also present death using dramatic irony, which as well as educated the audience, provided them with a humorous refreshment from the sincerity of the topics being presented. The Tudor period often on the comic effect of a sharp-tongued wife in order to provide relief to the audience, and Mrs Noah successfully provides an interference for Noah, who has a time limit on his task set by God. Noah exclaims ‘Oh woman art thou wood?’ when Mrs Noah refuses to get onto the arc, having ‘tools to truss’ instead. Indeed, Mrs Noah appears foolish in her ignorance of Noah’s prophecy, and V.A Kolve proposes her as ‘the root form of the shrewish wife’. The educated audience would be able to parallel her to Eve, who represented those who refused to follow God. Her foolishness, represented in Noah’s exasperation: ‘for to her harms she takes no heed’, is ironic as she appears to have no sense of the peril she could be in, and it is recognisable that if Noah hadn’t earned salvation from God, Mrs Noah would have been amongst those who perished in the flood, adding dramatic irony to the play. The humorous interlude works to entertain, but also elicits attention to the very serious topic of the end of the world, in which only a fragment of the population survived. In the Crucifixion, the soldiers struggle to carry Christ on the cross: ‘the lifting was not light’. As the audience would be deeply educated on the history of Christianity, they would have believed that Christ carried to sins of the world, hence his heavy weight. The naivety of the soldiers is emphasised as the third soldier tells Christ: ‘thou should have mind.. of wicked works that thou has wrought’, implying that Christ should consider his sins. However, in this moment the audience become superior to the soldiers, who realise no implication of what they’re doing, and in fact the audience would view them as the ones who sinned in the eyes of God. Their obliviousness is demonstrated further by their trade of pining, which suggests they’d be skilled in wood, however, their inability to complete the job without difficult perhaps parallels to their naivety that is expressed through their work, and reiterates the York Play’s use of irony and humour in presenting the serious topic of death.
Overall, the York mystery plays treat death within the two plays studied as a serious topic, although lightened up with the addition of humour, which reemphasises that the plays were performed for entertainment purposes, as well as to educate and remind the audience. Simultaneously, the element of audience involvement which is implemented through the staging and presentation of acting, serves as a constant reminder that the audience could be just as guilty in God’s eyes, and that death is never far away from those who sin.