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.
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