From the late 1530s, when the translation of the Scriptures into English was authorised, there rapidly developed a new book-body of lay Bible-readers with new practices of reading and interpretation of the Bible. While the traditional biblical drama of the late middle ages was gradually suppressed or abandoned, a new generation of plays on scriptural subjects emerged, written by and addressed to these new readers. This paper explores the ways in which mid-sixteenth-century playwrights responded to the lively culture of Bible-reading in the early years of the Reformation. Increased focus on the literal, social and ethical implications of biblical stories guided playwrights towards a greatly expanded body of powerful narratives, which raised challenging human issues, allowing strong theatrical interpretation in relation to contemporary concerns. But the new theatrical strategies do not always sit quite comfortably with the special status accorded by Protestantism to the Bible as the word of God. These Reformation plays begin to suggest crucial tensions between drama and doctrine, inadvertently reinforcing the gradually increasing Protestant unease with the stage as a forum in which to address the Bible.
The present essay asks why this unusual play was written when it was written, and how its remarkable staging devices, including an oven that is riven asunder to reveal the speaking image of Christ, are deployed to convey its homiletic idea. The essay argues that theatre and liturgy coalesce in a way that, while characteristic of other medieval religious plays, is here given a sharpness of focus that may owe its sense of urgency to then-current debate over the Real Presence of Christ in the Mass. We encounter in this play a striking ambiguity as to whether the audience is witnessing a theatrical fiction or a liturgical celebration of the ‘truth’ of the Real Presence. Although liturgy and theatrical mimesis are theoretically incompatible with each other, since liturgy insists on the Real Presence of Christ in the Mass rather than a metaphorical or historical remembrance, The Play of the Sacrament erases the distinction between liturgy and imitatio. The action may conclude in an actual church with a Bishop presiding over a ceremony of conversion and baptism of the Jews.
From the story of the Epiphany in Matthew’s Gospel this chapter offers a brief account of the evolution of Christian attitudes to Herod the Great and how the slaughtered Innocents became subjects of devotional attention, the first martyrs for Christ. Taking then a variety of examples of how the story of the Epiphany captured the imagination of Christian poets and liturgical and religious playmakers the discussion proceeds to an examination of two plays from the Towneley collection, The Offering of the Magi and Magnus Herodes. Focussing on the character of Herod as presented there it is shown how his character can be interpreted as both violently threatening and yet obviously absurd. This ambivalence is brought out most strongly in Magnus Herodes where the Wakefield Master skilfully manages audience reception to see Herod as a character in a play, an entertainment in his own right, as much as a target for Christian vindictiveness. Herod’s envoi in the Towneley play is cheeky since it foregrounds the character’s humanity as against his culpability. In comparison with other examples this playwright seems to have been reluctant to join the almost universal moralising and condemnation of Herod in favour of a perfectly theatrical outcome.
In March 2013, I directed two Passion Pageants from the York Mysteries – The Conspiracy and Christ before Annas and Caiaphas (hereafter Conspiracy and Annas and Caiaphas). Each of them is both sacred and profane, devotional and political, providing an arena for social contestation. I analyse the two pageants through the prism of festive drama and play: the ludic interrogation of society, power and violence in both word and ritual. My interdisciplinary approach ranges from the carnivalesque and anthropology to Christian hermeneutics and art history; and I examine key discourses, rituals and plot developments nourished by both religious and secular sources. I proceed to apply the performance theories of Jerzy Grotowski and Jacques Lecoq, two twentieth-century theatre-makers, to the pageants; their thoughts and observations (alongside Walter Benjamin’s theory of history and anachronism) complement medieval theatre scholarship and further inform how to approach the performance of this drama, in terms of theatricality, performance practice and acting styles. Informed by all the above, I discuss how I approached my own production in terms of staging, performance and interpretation.