Staging Faith: East Anglian Drama in the Later Middle Ages

By Victor I. Scherb | Go to book overview

5
Staging Faith:
The East Anglian Large-Scale Play

EAST ANGLIAN DRAMATISTS HAD A CONSIDERABLE RANGE OF dramatic effects at their disposal, and they were adept at turning apparent production constraints into theatrical assets. Many of the consequences of juxtaposed stages, familiar from the smallerscale stage plays, can also be seen in the surviving large-scale plays, but at times these plays also achieve the topicality and intimacy of Mankind and Wisdom. Their skillful use of iterative structure, processions, emblematic action, and of mnemonic and devotional imagery allows these plays to serve as virtual summas of East Anglian dramatic practice. Their outstanding feature is their comprehensiveness: in plays like The Castle of Perseverance, the Digby Mary Magdalene, or the N-Town Passion Plays, the dramatists employ expansive, sweeping actions in order to convey something of the significance of the narratives they stage. Above all, they exploit the closeness of the audience in the platea and numerous loca to be both spectacular and intimate at the same time, simultaneously presenting eternity and the present moment.

Exactly how were these plays performed? Since the publication of Richard Southern's The Medieval Theatre in the Round, there has been a tendency to see most—if not all—of these plays as intended for production in the round. Richard Axton has argued that the tradition stretches back to at least the twelfth century, and is characteristic of plays from Cornwall as well as of the Castle.1 It is an attractive possibility, and certainly the fact that both the Castle and N-Town Passion Play I contain some sort of central structure suggests it may have been the case. On the other hand, while East Anglia contains many "rounds," only limited evidence remains (other than the dramatic manuscripts themselves) that they were used for the presentation of plays.2

-146-

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Staging Faith: East Anglian Drama in the Later Middle Ages
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 3
  • Contents 7
  • Acknowledgments 9
  • Introduction 11
  • 1: [Si Placet] 21
  • 2: Devotional Images and Stagecraft 41
  • 3: Processional Action and Devotional Imagery in the Simple Place-And-Scaffold Play 66
  • 4: From Soul to Social England 106
  • 5: Staging Faith 146
  • The N-Town Play and Conclusions 191
  • Notes 203
  • Bibliography 244
  • Index 268
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