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2005 November - The Wakefield (Towneley) Mystery Plays at St Clement Eastcheap


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The English medieval cycle plays probably had their origin in the very early dramatisation of sacred moments such as the Journey of the Magi and the Resurrection of Christ within church services. The popularity of such dramatic presentation of Bible episodes increased apace with the development of whole pageants organised and presented by the town and city guilds as street theatre in each town in England for the Corpus Christi festival. The characters were taken to people’s hearts as they were presented by their neighbours and fellow guildsmen using local dialect and portraying the concerns of the medieval English communities while retelling the biblical stories.

The one surviving manuscript that contains the Wakefield pageants is dated to the mid-fifteenth century and has a number of significant sections missing. This creates interesting challenges for modern performance. The Fall of Lucifer breaks off at his flight of triumph and the Fall of Man play is incomplete – which is why in the latter case I have set a mimed scene using narrated words from the opening of another play in the cycle, taking advantage of the textual repetitions intrinsic to street drama.

The fact that Wakefield has no Birth of Christ play puts an emphasis on the reaction to Christ of characters in the plays which do exist. With this in mind, we use and enjoy all the dialect words we can referring to the Child – from Caesar’s contemptuous “snookhorn” to the shepherds’ “little tyné mop” – even Gill’s “dillydown”. We have noticed in rehearsal how many times characters refer to sayings and proverbs, often reflecting local industries – “Ill-spun weft... aye comes foul out”; “I am as true as steel”; “He learns early to steal who cannot say nay”. Such sayings bridge the gap across the centuries.

It is a notable feature of the Wakefield text that many of the plays appear to be precursors of the English pantomime tradition, involving as they do knockabout comedy, interaction with the audience, calls for attention and the obvious popularity of demons, rogues and tyrants, comic servants and appealing animals. We have sought to exploit these elements in the plays I have selected this year. Notable examples of this tradition are Cain and his Boy from The Killing of Abel play, and the sheepstealer, his wife and the sheep from the famous Second Shepherds’ Play. All this highlights the faith and morality issues which are the basic rationale for the plays, as violent characters get their come-uppance and generous-spirited souls – such as the shepherds, Mary, Elizabeth and Symeon – are rewarded with their hearts’ desire.

The shepherds are portrayed as medieval men from the cold Yorkshire moors near Horbury rather than biblical characters from the hillsides above Bethlehem, and so are susceptible to the vagaries of floods and frost as well as being at the mercy of unscrupulous nobles and social-climbers, identified by their southern English accent (which Mak imitates). Honest yeomen, they discover the truth of Mak's sheep-theft but deal generously with him as a neighbour for whom they appear to have a soft spot – as people do for likeable rogues. Their reward is to be invited to see Christ.

Other routes to God include Abel fulfilling his duty of tithing; Sybilla the wise prophetess giving her hellfire sermon (a character mentioned by Augustine in the fifth century); the three pilgrim Magi who follow the star across the known world; and Symeon following a life of prayer and hope. The sensitive Wakefield Mary welcomes all as she matures from a pious girl to queenly status with the succeeding scenes.