Watching the Watchers: Drama Spectatorship and Counter-Surveillance in Sixteenth-Century Chester

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

The late medieval cycle of 24 plays at Chester was begun in earnest during the fifteenth century and transformed in the sixteenth, forming a long and coherent theatrical tradition. Recent scholarship and criticism have documented the civic and religious cultures behind the performances, including the final bitter struggle surrounding its last performance in 1575. Taken together, the evidence suggests that the town developed an awareness of its reflected image in the plays and that the Town Assembly had an increasingly anxious collective ego stake in the performances.

In this paper I explore the material circumstances surrounding this last performance of the Chester plays to suggest that during the course of the sixteenth century the town's civic identity changed in more drastic ways than have been indicated before. As it fell under the shadow of reformed authority, a zealous and suspicious political culture emerged in Chester. Sponsorship and spectatorship of play performances there now began to take on a darker significance. The productions may have started Out as expressions of relatively benign community boosterism, but within a generation the audience was subjected to a more malignant and controlling oligarchic force, one bent on policing the lives of its citizens. In earlier years the Chester plays had wound through its streets in processional form, stopping at a dozen sites to be viewed. Now the most important performance occurred at the center of town before the Mayor and his Brethren, who sat in the newly built Pentice, or City Hall. From here the ruling oligarchy watched performances with one suspicious eye on the play's embedded Catholic doctrine and the other on the audience, ever alert for signs of religious waywardness. Not only the playtexts but the audience itself thus became subject to further scrutiny and correction in the courts. Like Jeremy Bentham's nineteenth-century Penitentiary Panopticon, the Pentice provides us with a Foucauldian emblem for the godly discipline and punishment available to early modern thought police.

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As Margaret Schlauch pointed out in English medieval literature and its social foundations (1967), the late medieval cycle of twenty-four plays at Chester was begun in earnest during the fifteenth century and transformed in the sixteenth, forming a long and coherent theatrical tradition. Other scholarship and criticism have documented the civic and religious cultures behind the performances, noting that over the course of nearly two centuries the plays functioned as public displays of piety and entertainment until their untimely demise under pressure from reformers in 1575. The best current authority on the Chester plays, David Mills, has recently described in detail, in Recycling the Cycle. The City of Chester and its Whitsun Plays (1998), the shift of venue from Corpus Christi Day to Whitsuntide in the early 1520s, the reshuffling of guild and pageant assignments, the attempted post-reformation substitution of an alternate Midsummer show, and the final bitter struggle surrounding the attempted late revival of the plays. Taken together, the evidence suggests that the town developed an awareness of its reflected image in the plays and an increasingly anxious collective ego stake in the performances.

In this paper I sketch out and to explore further some of those circumstances surrounding the last performance of the Chester plays, proposing that during the course of the late sixteenth century the town's civic identity changed in more drastic ways than have been appreciated before, and that the fate of play performances there represents a story with darker significance, one about social forces bent on policing the lives of citizens. The process, it turns out, is eerily familiar.

I

In summer of 1575, as Midsummer Eve approached in the west-midlands town of Chester, near the Welsh border, a large number of its citizenry busied themselves in preparation for a production of the town's cycle plays. …