Date of this Version
Published in Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council Vol. 12, No.1 (Spring/Summer 2011). ISSN 1559-0151
In May of 2010 a group of students from the Kent State University Honors College participated in a rare undertaking: presenting a medieval play as part of an international production of the whole play-cycle from which it originates. The students were five hundred years removed from the original context of that play and cycle. The earliest mention of The Chester Cycle comes from a 1422 legal dispute regarding the responsibilities of the guilds that were producing one of the plays in it, the language of which makes clear that the play-cycle was already well-established by that time. This historical remove was a significant challenge as students from 2010 prepared for this ambitious enterprise, one that required them to work with unfamiliar material and little hard evidence in the creation of the episode they were to produce.
The first challenge for student participants was to acquaint themselves with the unique subject matter they would tackle over the next nine months. Naturally, before getting to work, the students needed to learn what early English cycle plays were and when and why they were first performed. The three primary types of popular theatre in early and early modern England can be differentiated by performance venue: parish plays, which depicted the lives of saints and were produced by churches in rural communities; theatre performed by strolling players, whose repertoire would have consisted mainly of Robin Hood plays; and urban theatre, such as the cycle plays discussed here. The play-cycles are called by the name of the cities in which they were performed, and the full texts of only four of the English cycles survive: the York Cycle, the Wakefield or Towneley Cycle, the N-Town Cycle, and The Chester Cycle out of which came the play that Kent State University Honors College students would produce.
These play-cycles were sometimes called “mystery cycles” because the guilds (or “mysteries”) in the city were responsible for producing the individual episodes making up the entire cycle. They were likely derived from liturgical drama and were intended to teach the scriptures and reinforce faith in the sacraments. The earliest records we have of liturgical drama come from the late tenth century. This liturgical drama is the Queum quaeritis (Whom do you seek?), referred to by Alexandra Johnston as a “dialogue,” and although it is not a theatrical performance as such, it is likely that it lead to what we might consider more “traditional” theatrical performances (CCMET, 3–4; Wasson, 28). By the mid-sixteenth century, the English Reformation was underway, and, as England separated from its Catholic roots, changes in religious and state law resulted in the cessation of such productions. The plays lay dormant and largely untouched for two hundred years. Then in the early nineteenth century, a scholar by the name of Thomas Sharp rediscovered episodes from what may have been a cycle performed at Coventry. His work, A dissertation on the pageants or dramatic mysteries anciently performed at Coventry, opened a rich and largely uncharted realm of scholarly research. As scholars engaged the subject of early English theatre and cycle plays in particular, the citizens of York and Chester began to mount performances of their eponymous cycles, which were no longer a thing of the past.