Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Lay Performances of Work and Salvation in the York Cycle

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Lay Performances of Work and Salvation in the York Cycle

Article excerpt

That notions of work and its cultural value have captivated the attention of medievalists for quite some time is exemplified by James Simpson's recent claim that cycle plays "mounted a theology of labor at whose centre stands the practice of mercy in the active life." (1) This theology of labor becomes further nuanced and particularized when one examines the plays' contribution to what Nicola Masciandaro has called the "polysemy of werk," (2) which "attests ... to a cultural habit of perceiving relations between work and life, between occupational and personal agency." (3) The York plays emphasize the complexity and urgency of these relations by bringing them to bear upon salvation--a medieval Christian's ultimate goal. In this essay, I draw upon the many ways in which laypeople give meaning to work during theatrical performances to show how physical labor is transformed onstage for salvific purposes. Work emerges as the highest civic priority, and salvation is mediated through performances of work and its metaphorical applications, that is, the understanding of good work in a spiritual sense and good works in the sense of community welfare. These performances help lay drama negotiate the cultural relationship between individuals and their community. Surprisingly, however, community is understood in a fairly broad Christian sense rather than restricted to guilds and their families. Significantly, too, performances of work address larger issues, in particular the spiritual interdependence, in this broader Christian community, not merely between the rich and the poor but among all members of the community. (4)

Explicit or implicit references to werk, craft, and travail appear prominently in the plays, and perhaps that stands to reason since of work-related words, werk and craft are most closely associated with guilds- and craftsmen. (5) The semantic plasticity of both words, in fact, makes them especially well suited for onstage transformation. Werk's pliability is such that it accommodates binary oppositions (it means both good and evil deeds) (6) and it encompasses both literal and metaphorical uses (since it refers to both work and good works). (7) As Masciandaro points out, "the special value of werk within the Middle English work vocabulary lies in its being a holistic and versatile term that places relatively balanced emphasis on the subjective and objective dimensions of work". (8) Werk's various semantic possibilities can only be particularized through performance. Similarly, craft combines literal with metaphorical uses, referring to both physical and moral strength. (9) According to Masciandaro, craft emphasizes work's "intellective, technical component and the tangibility of its product," (10) thus differentiating itself from travail, which stresses instead the effort, striving, and exertion of work. (11) Of course, travail is also a gendered term because of its specific association with the pains of childbirth. (12) But, generally, travail refers to the harrowing of both body and spirit as illustrated in the following example from John of Trevisa: "There is double manet trauaile, of spirit and of wittis and bodely trauaile," and he gives the instances of "studiynge, wakyng, wreththe, sorewe, and busines." (13) Spiritual and/or emotional travail thus become a metaphorical extension of the physical. Further inquiry into the association of werk, craft, and travail with guild- and craftsmen helps tease out the complex relationship between work and salvation as it emerges onstage in four mystery plays from the York Cycle. Yet why is such an inquiry necessary, and why choose these four plays from this particular cycle?

While the emergence of mystery plays is still shrouded in mystery, (14) the work that craft guilds invested in staging and performing the York cycle is well documented. A look at the records shows us that guilds occasionally grumbled under its demands. In an entry from 31 January 1422 from the A/Y Memorandum Book, the Painters and Stainers, for example, deplore the fragmentation of the Corpus Christi play in too many pageants and point out that "unless a better and more speedy device be provided, it is to be feared that it [the play] will be impeded much further in a very brief passage of time. …

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