Of People and Places: Urban Gendering in the English Plays

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

The paper examines interconnections between gender and the civic landscape in the flood pageants in the English mystery plays (York, Towneley, N-Town and Chester). The marital conflict between Noah and his wife is discussed in the context of the urban physical and spiritual world that provides a double backdrop for the play. The geometry of human sin and divine insight is analysed and textile references are investigated to reveal the spatial and professional affiliation of the characters. The silent potential of the urban setting that enriches the theatrical power of the plays and transforms the events presented on stage into a medieval interactive game between the actors and the audience is discussed.

********** Medieval mystery plays are perhaps some of the most impressive products of the collective civic effort. Not only were they inscribed in the spirit of city life thus making the medieval metropolis the background of events but the progress of action also mapped the topography of the place of performance, thereby elevating the urban backdrop to the role of one of the characters. Firmly grounded in the traditions and practices of medieval city life, the cycles owed much to pageantry which fondly exploited the potential contained in the visual and verbal dialogue between ordinary citizens and figures of authority. On the other hand, the tragic as well as the comic power of the mysteries often relied on the nuances of everyday life, internal workings of contemporaneous hierarchies and the contrasts between what lay within the city walls and the expanse beyond them.

It is the context of the city, either directly invoked or latently acknowledged in the cycles, and its relationship with the construction of gendered organisation as presented in the English mystery plays (York, Towneley, N-Town and Chester) that will be examined in this paper. The story of Noah and his wife will be used to discuss gender roles and the mechanism of control projected onto the urban landscape. Finally, it will be argued that gendering of the characters is also conditioned by medieval staging conventions where female roles were performed by male actors.

The story of the flood survives in four English mysteries, York, Towneley, Chester and N-Town. (1) The pageant dramatises the scriptural event recounted in the book of Genesis, chapters 6-9. Noah's wife is mentioned only in passing in chapter 7 as one of the persons who board the ark together with other creation:

In articulo diei illius ingressus est Noe, et Sem, et Cham, et Japheth filii ejus; uxor illius, et tres uxores filiorum ejus cum eis in arcam (Genesis 7: 13) (2)

[In the selfsame day Noe, and Sem, and Cham, and Japheth, his sons: his wife, and the three wives of his sons with them, went into the ark]. (3)

However, this brief and casual reference to the patriarch's wife is reshaped and developed into a full-length story in the cycles. The York, Towneley and Chester plays seem to have followed a popular medieval tradition, both oral and visual, of a ferocious and aggressive woman who rebels against her usually quiet and acquiescent husband only to be brought back into the fold upon learning a proper moral and spiritual lesson. The N-Town cycle, on the other hand, adheres to its typically more hieratic representation of women and avoids the issue of both individual disobedience and social control by leaving out the scene of marital discord altogether.

The eruption of the conflict between the spouses is in the cycles invariably triggered off by the wife's reluctance to board the ark that Noah has just erected on God's orders and according to his instructions. In the Chester plays, for instance, after the initial pledge to contribute towards its construction when she offers to bring some timber:

   And wee shall bringe tymber to,
   for wee mon nothinge ells doe
   (3.65-66), (4)

Mrs Noah suddenly changes her mind and refuses to obey her husband:

   In fayth, Noe, I had as leeve thou slepte. …