Academic journal article Early Theatre

The Towneley 'First Shepherds' Play': Its 'Grotesque' Feast Revisited

Academic journal article Early Theatre

The Towneley 'First Shepherds' Play': Its 'Grotesque' Feast Revisited

Article excerpt

Before an angel announces the birth of Christ to them, the three shepherds of the Towneley 'First Shepherds' Play' share a meal and drink together. The shepherds--Gyb, John Horne, and Slawpase--order their servant, Jak Garcio, to set a table at which they can eat the generous and eclectic feast they then produce, seemingly from thin air. Gyb shares a cow's foot, ground pork, sausages, and mutton, while John Horne contributes brawn of a boar, braised oxtail, a meat pie, a hare (without the loin), and two swine snouts. Not to be outdone, Slawpase offers a goose leg, a tart, pork, roast chickens, a partridge, and, finally, grilled calf-liver served with verjuice. For good measure, the shepherds wash these dishes down with 'good ayll of Hely', and then, after singing a drinking song, they gather up the feast's leftovers to give to 'Ye hungre begers freyrs' (352, 412). (1) The three fall asleep content, only to wake to the angel's song and announcement of Christ's birth.

Critical readings of this scene tend to follow A.C. Cawley's influential argument, made in his 1955 essay 'The "Grotesque" Feast in the Prima Pastorum, that the shepherds' feast must have been imaginary in nature: 'The playwright's mixing of high-class and low-class table delicacies makes a ludicrous gallimaufry that can never have existed except in his imagination'. (2) In these readings, the imaginary feast--'a magical midnight supper... quite beyond the wildest hopes of any shepherd living in the workaday world'--complements the imaginary sheep at the heart of the quarrel between the Gyb and John Horne. (3) Martin Stevens, for example, identifies the shepherds' imaginative supplement of absence as the play's governing theme:

It is not the physical presence of sheep but the idea of sheep that
causes the territorial dispute between Shepherds One and Two. It is not
a full sack of meal but rather an empty one, and not a real feast but
an imaginary one which provides the sustenance of the shepherds and the
substance of their games. The emphasis throughout this early scene
seems to be deliberately on the unseeable perhaps to prepare
emotionally for the Incarnation which occurs at the end. (4)

The absent sheep and food serve as counterpoint to the visual and real revelation of divinity at the play's end. The imaginative feast the shepherds stage through their mimed satiation of their hunger draws attention to the spiritual hunger that the birth of the Christ-child, the true spiritual food, will satisfy. (5) Miming the acts of eating renders the shepherds' material concerns grotesquely humorous, and critics maintain that the play achieves a structural unity by formally contrasting the shepherds' experiences of dearth with the spiritual plenitude the unimagined and very real Christ-child offers. In other words, critical consensus holds that the shepherds' feast must be imaginary so that it can signify better: the absence of material food contrasts the spiritual food Christ will offer the shepherds and their audience at the play's conclusion. (6)

As compelling as these readings are, they accept Cawley's assertion that the shepherds' feast 'can never have existed', a claim that is at odds with much of the evidence of traditional Christmas feasting practices. (7) Cawley's claim, moreover, relies upon at least three assumptions that warrant critical attention. First, criticism assumes that the play was part of a summer cycle play and that, in the context of such performance, the shepherds' feast could only signify a displaced Christmas festivity. Second, the assertion that the feast was beyond the means of the shepherds extended to those staging the play, and, indeed, the practical and financial considerations of staging such an elaborate feast several times during a summer cycle performance rendered the feast impractical unless it was mimed. Third, and consequently, understanding the shepherds' description of their feast as referring to absent items assumes that this part of the play-text works differently than its other parts. …

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