Academic journal article Early Theatre

'We Pray You All ... to Drink Ere Ye Pass': Bann Criers, Parish Players, and the Henrician Reformation in England's Southeast

Academic journal article Early Theatre

'We Pray You All ... to Drink Ere Ye Pass': Bann Criers, Parish Players, and the Henrician Reformation in England's Southeast

Article excerpt

Recent years have seen a critical reevaluation of the playing practices in medieval and early modern England. To claim that our understanding of early English drama has changed since E.K. Chambers published his monumental studies, The Mediaeval Stage and The Elizabethan Stage understates the case. While Chambers noted and recorded evidence of 'a vigorous and widespread dramatic activity throughout the length and breadth of the land', he understood this extensive activity as an aberration. (1) Commenting that 'it is curious to observe in what insignificant villages it was from time to time found possible to organize plays', Chambers nevertheless assumed that the large cycle plays of York and Chester were exemplary of medieval drama throughout England and lamented that 'there were several important towns in which ... the normal type of municipal drama failed to establish itself'. (2) This 'normal type of municipal drama' now appears to have been the aberration rather than the norm. As Alexandra Johnston argues, 'the major locus for the performance of religious drama in England before 1550' is now understood to have been 'not the cities but smaller towns and parishes'. (3)

Alongside this identification of the parish and small town as the 'locus' of religious drama, a reevaluation of the early Reformation's effects on these activities has emerged. The adaptations of the Chester cycle and the Digby Conversion of St Paul to a protestant context as well as the adaptations of biblical drama by evangelical writers such as John Bale and Lewis Wager testify to what Paul Whitfield White has identified as early reformers' 'more complicated, and often positive, interaction with civic biblical drama ... prior to 1580'. (4) Indeed, evangelicals decided quite early to put drama to their own use. Richard Morison advised the substitution of Robin Hood 'plaies' with new 'others ... dyvysed to set forthe and declare lyuely before the peoples eies, the abhomynation and wickednes of the bysshop of Rome, monkes, Freres, Nonnes, and suche like'. (5) Yet Morison's advice extended beyond the writing of new 'plaies' as he also advised the adaptation of local festivities to celebrate Henry VIII's victory over Rome: yearly feasts should be held, annual triumphs and bonfires should be made, a yearly holiday ritual modeled on the Coventry Hocktide festivities should be instituted, and on at least one day each year the evils of Rome should be preached. (6) As Robert Hornback argues, early reformers took up Morison's advice and set to work adapting local celebrations of misrule to their purposes. (7) Early evangelicals thus had a broad sense of the 'plaies' they hoped to adapt, a sense that included processions, pageants, and games. Very often small towns and parishes were the location for the performance of such 'plaies,' and in 1539 the French ambassador Marillac commented on widespread expression of anti-papal sentiment in England, noting that 'there is not a village feast nor pastime anywhere in which there is not something inserted in derision of the Holy Father'. (8)

Despite Marillac's claim, not all pastimes were adapted to include antipapal sentiment or evangelical misrule, and some, particularly the more elaborate or spectacular 'plaies', disappeared. In the Thames Valley, for example, the last recorded Easter play at St Laurence, Reading play took place in 1538 while the last at Thame was performed in 1539. (9) Throughout the diocese of Canterbury, a tradition of parish and borough 'plaies' that had thrived since the early fifteenth century came to an abrupt halt in the mid-1530s, as did, albeit at a slightly slower pace, similar traditions throughout England. (10)

While the growing critical significance of religious drama's performance in small towns and parishes compels critical study of the geographical, material, and cultural specificity of such performance, the critical study of evangelical adaptations of religious drama demands an account of the apparent failure of many small towns and parishes to adapt their performance of religious drama or 'plaie' to the context of the Henrician Reformation. …

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