Cheshire Including Chester. Records of Early English Drama

Article excerpt

ELIZABETH BALDWIN, LAWRENCE M. CLOPPER, and DAVID MILLS, eds., Cheshire including Chester. Records of Early English Drama. 2 vols. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007. Pp. ccxxv, 1231. ISBN: 978-0-7123-0935. $400.

This latest publication by the Records of English Drama (REED) project expands on and revises one of the first offerings in the series, Chester, which was edited by Lawrence M. Clopper in 1979. The product of years of painstaking archival research, the present volume incorporates an updated version of that early Chester volume, while broadening the scope to include new material on the whole county of Cheshire. The volume also takes advantage of clearer guidelines, adopted by REED in the 1980s, for assigning dates and deciding on what forms of entertainment to include and incorporates discoveries of new documentary records such as guild accounts from Chester and the letters of the Puritan preacher Christopher Goodman, who in the early 1570s sought to prevent the performance of the Chester Whitsun plays. Additionally, the editors have examined county and diocesan archives-the quarter session and ecclesiastical court records-now known to be important sources of information for early performances.

The result is a comprehensive and detailed collection of documentary evidence for dramatic performance, minstrelsy, and civic ceremony in Cheshire to 1642. Among the most useful features are extensive introductions to the historical background and significance of the documents printed in the two volumes. We learn about the topography of the region, its roads, patterns of settlement, government, schools, towns, prominent families, and religious institutions-notably the Cistercian abbey of Vale Royal in Delamere and the Benedictine abbey of St. Werburgh in Chester, whose most famous monk was Ranulf Higden, the author of the Polychronicon. The editors also helpfully discuss what their findings reveal about drama in Cheshire, particularly about Chester's civic biblical play, which can be charted from the first mention in 1422 of a Corpus Christi play up through the sixteenth-century Whitsun plays, whose final performance was in 1575. One of the many strengths of the introductory material is the way it situates Chester's civic play in the context of a broad range of performances, reminding us that despite the impression sometimes conveyed by the preservation of its script it was far from the only show in town. Pageants from the civic play could be extracted for individual performance for a visiting dignitary; there were liturgical 'representations,' civic triumphs, and popular entertainments such as rush-bearing, cockfights, and bear-baitings; and performances by traveling players, including royal companies, supplemented home-grown entertainments. …