Academic journal article Early Theatre

The Donington Cast List: Innovation and Tradition in Parish Guild Drama in Early Elizabethan Lincolnshire

Academic journal article Early Theatre

The Donington Cast List: Innovation and Tradition in Parish Guild Drama in Early Elizabethan Lincolnshire

Article excerpt


Scholars generally agree that the Chantries Act of 1547 dealt one of the severest blows to traditional parish drama during the Reformation because it dissolved the foundations of local religious guilds, one of the chief sponsors of drama in the towns and villages of England. In his Parish Gilds of Mediaeval England H.F. Westlake, going further, argued that the Act simply accelerated the death of organizations that had already 'lost something of their older democratic character' and had begun to exclude 'the poorer classes'. (1) That view would seem to imply that the guilds were a decaying structure simply waiting to be toppled and, by extension, that the drama they produced was also in a parallel state of decline. But to what extent are these two propositions true? As the Records of Early English Drama (reed) volumes emerge, they are gradually providing more information about parish drama in the decades between 1547 and 1570, but at present our understanding of the immediate local effects of the successive reigns of Edward and Mary, and the first decade of Elizabeth, on parish entertainments remains fragmentary.

A document (see Appendix 1) from the parish of Donington in the fenlands of Lincolnshire indicates that parish drama--and the influence of the guilds themselves--may have been much more resilient and perhaps more innovative, at least in this corner of the East Midlands, than traditional histories would suggest. The document is a one-page fragment dating from around 1563 that contains a list of twenty parishioners, together with the roles that many of them were designated to take in Donington's parish play. (2) The list shows that parish-sponsored drama was still being performed in Donington more than fifteen years after the Chantries Act, and that it was produced by a group with many of the characteristics of a local religious guild. Moreover, the Donington cast list seems to provide evidence for the existence of a now lost English play on a unique subject, namely, the Old Testament story of Nebuchadnezzar and the Three Hebrew Children. In short, it appears that in at least some locales, parish guild drama was able to endure well into the early years of Elizabeth's reign.


Perhaps it is best to begin with a preliminary description of the document itself. The Donington cast list is copied on a single sheet of paper measuring 263 mm by 193 mm. Parts of the sheet's right top, right side, and bottom margins are missing, resulting in the loss of a few words at the ends of lines. It has no heading, bears no dates, and is faded and damaged, making it hard to read. Another document from the same collection of parish records, a fragmentary page of a Donington churchwarden's account that also survives, includes dates between 1563 and 1565. (3) It is written in a hand similar to that used in the cast list and includes names of some of the same men on the cast list. On this basis, the list has always been dated c 1563-5. One of the players named in the list (Thomas Watson) died between February and 31 March 1563, when his will was proved. If the man who died and the player were one and the same person, as is almost certainly the case, then the cast list cannot have been written later than early 1563. A note on the cast list indicating that actors would be fined 12d for each missed performance therefore might refer to several performances being planned for some time shortly before or during 1563.

Since its discovery in the 1930s, transcriptions of the document have been published three times (see Appendix 2): a woefully inaccurate transcription by Fredson Bowers in 1939; a more accurate transcription, but one that introduced new errors, by M.W. Barley in 1954; and a much better one by Stanley Kahrl in 1974 that still fails to consider many important features of the text. (4) All three provide very valuable information but also draw some problematic conclusions based on misreadings, which is not surprising given the document's poor condition and the scrawl of the scribal hands. …

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