The York Cycle of Mystery Plays: A Complete Version

By J. S. Purvis | Go to book overview

FOREWORD

UNTIL recently, the York Cycle of Mystery Plays was almost unknown except to a comparatively small number of students of Middle English, many of whom showed themselves strangely unresponsive to any kind of merit in the Plays. Some American scholars, certainly, had been more appreciative of their qualities as drama, but in England the almost universal tendency was to dismiss them as crude and immature efforts of the very childhood of literature, possessing little but a certain artless and archaic curiosity, but without much of the force or attraction of primitive art, and on the whole, if not dead, then undoubtedly dull. It was not, in fact, until the Festival of Britain in 1951 that there was any general renaissance of appreciation of the qualities latent in the Cycle. The City of York decided to revive, as part of its share in that Festival, the performance of the Cycle, which had last been presented there in 1572. A version was prepared, by the present writer, which might give a fair idea of the theme of the whole Cycle, while contracting it into a form which might be acted in something under three hours. For a modern and mixed audience it was necessary to translate the original language into its nearest equivalent in modern English, so far as this might be done without sacrificing the form and the verse-systems of the originals, or in any way misrepresenting or over-modernizing them. This version was offered with grave misgivings as to its possible success; the first performance showed how unnecessary those misgivings had been. The performance was hailed by the critics as a quite startling revelation of the power and beauty of the medieval Plays. This was no scientific study by the often patronizing pundits who had regarded the Cycle as a collection of literary fossils, but a plain representation, standing on its own merits as drama. It was not only the critics who were impressed; the effect on the great audiences made up of all sorts of people was truly remarkable in its depth of impact. They saw, not a Passion Play, but something on a plan far more majestic, yet never treated with remote detachment -- the whole story of mankind, sub specie ætemitatis. The actual performance was, indeed, a real revelation, of something fresh, direct, and powerful, and of a greatness hitherto unrecognized. A treasure of English literature had been rediscovered, and the rediscovery was to all who experienced it, in their many various ways and degrees, deeply moving both aesthetically and spiritually.

Far from appearing in general archaic, the Plays sounded often astonishingly modern. The mind or minds which composed the Cycle did so

-7-

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