Chester Cycle

Chester Cycle
   The Chester Cycle was a collection of 25 MYSTERY PLAYS performed in the city of Chester in the late medieval and early Tudor periods. Like other mystery play cycles, the Chester plays were first performed at the festival of CORPUS CHRISTI in late May or June, and indeed the first recorded mention of the plays is in a civic document of 1422 in which they are referred to as the “Play of Corpus Christi.”
   The 1422 reference implies that the plays were even then a long-standing tradition. Celebration of Corpus Christi, which became widespread in England after 1311, consisted of a long procession involving the entire city. Eventually it seems that the city guilds became concerned with staging plays as part of the celebration—plays that told the story of God’s divine plan for humankind from Creation to Doomsday. It appears that in Chester, the original procession traveled from the church of St.Mary on the Hill to the Church of St. John’s outside the city walls, and it is likely that the plays were put on at St. John’s originally. However, eventually the plays themselves were performed in procession, being mounted on movable stages called pageant wagons and performed at various sites around the city. With this development, costs seem to have soared, since each play needed a separate wagon, actors, props, and sets. But the plays involved the entire community and were a source of pride for the guilds. If the expense was too great for one guild, several might join together to fund a production. With the Protestant Reformation, the mystery plays came under fire because of their traditionally Catholic theology and their association with the Roman Catholic festival of Corpus Christi, established to celebrate the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist. By 1521 the plays were being performed on Whitsunday (Pentecost) and took three days (Monday through Wednesday of Whitsunday week) to perform. It appears that the first nine plays, from the Creation and the Fall of Lucifer through the Gifts of the Magi, were performed on the first day; the next eight plays, from the Massacre of the Innocents through the HARROWING OF HELL, were performed on the second day; and the last six plays, from the Resurrection through Judgment Day, were performed the final day.
   Despite strong governmental and ecclesiastical disapproval, the plays continued into the reign of Elizabeth. Civic pride and tradition often outweighed official disapproval. During this time, legends grew that the plays were originally written by the Chester monk Henry Francis around 1380, or even by the well-known monk Ranulph HIGDEN (1299–1364), and were established under Chester’s first mayor, but these stories probably were intended to justify the performance of the plays as a vital part of Chester’s history. In 1575, despite the disapproval of the archbishop of York, the city corporation approved the performance of the cycle, though Sir John Savage, the mayor, was afterwards brought before the Privy Council to explain himself. That was the last time the plays were performed, until they were revived in 1951.
   The continued popularity of the plays is evident from the fact that eight manuscripts have survived, five of them containing the full cycle. Each of these copies was produced between 1591 and 1607— long after the plays had ceased to be performed. Whether there was a single original author for the plays is impossible to know, and, in any case, it was certainly not likely to be Higden or Francis. Certainly the cycle has been revised significantly over the years, but a number of aspects of the plays give them a kind of unity and suggest a single mind—writer, reviser, producer—behind the text we now have. For example, some 80 percent of the total lines in the plays are written in what has come to be called the Chester stanza—an eight-line stanza rhyming aaabaaab or aaabcccb, where the a and c lines have four metrical feet and the b lines have three, as in this stanza from the first play:
   I, God, most of majesty,
   in whom beginning none may be;
   endless, also, most of posty [power]
   I am and have ever been.
   now Heaven and Earth is made through me
   the earth is void only, I see;
   therefore light for more lee [greater happiness]
   through my might I will kever [secure]
   (Mills 1992, 26–27, ll. 1–8)
   There is also a symmetry to the entire production, which begins with a long speech by God addressed to the audience, and ends with set speeches from the four Evangelists, also to the audience. Further, many plays have an “Expositor” character, who comments on the action and interprets it for the viewers.
   Other aspects of the Chester cycle that make it unique are the plays of Abraham and Melchizadek and the play of the Coming of Antichrist, neither of which has a counterpart in the other extant cycles. Further, the Chester plays seem to have used a good deal of music, including an angel choir and a sung “Magnificat,” probably performed by a chorister soloist.
   ■ Beadle, Richard, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
   ■ Kolve, V. A. The Play Called Corpus Christi. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1966.
   ■ Mills, David. The Chester Mystery Cycle: A New Edition with Modernised Spelling. East Lansing,Mich.: Colleagues Press, 1992.
   ■ Salter, Frederick Millet. Medieval Drama in Chester. 2nd ed. New York: Russell and Russell, 1968.
   ■ Travis, Peter. Dramatic Design in the Chester Cycle. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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