York Cycle

York Cycle
   The cycle of MYSTERY plays performed at York is one of only four extant cycles from the late Middle Ages, out of at least 12 that are known to have existed. (Others are the CHESTER and TOWNELEY CYCLES, and N-TOWN, or Ludus Coventriae, PLAYS). Performed at the festival of CORPUS CHRISTI in early summer, these cycles were made up of a series of short plays drawn from the Bible and from legend, depicting Christian salvation history from the Creation of the world until Doomsday. The York Cycle may be the oldest of the four surviving collections, with records mentioning performances as early as 1376. York is also the largest cycle, with 48 plays in the single 15th-century manuscript that contains the text of the cycle (British library Additional MS 35290). That manuscript, discovered only in the 19th century, was produced for the corporation of the city of York sometime in the 1460s or 1470s as the master copy, or register, of the texts of the plays. Production of the individual Corpus Christi plays was in the hands of the city’s craft guilds. Plays were sometimes assigned to guilds on the basis of some logical connection with the subject matter—as, for instance, the Shipwrights’ guild was assigned the play on The Building of the Ark: Apparently the actors actually constructed a scaleddown version of Noah’s ship on stage during the performance of the play, to the astonishment of the assembled audience. But in general the guild assignment appears to have been random. Producing a play was an expensive project—money must be spent on costumes and props, as well as the storage and maintenance of a pageant wagon—the elaborate wagons that served as movable stages for the productions, sometimes with mechanical devices for raising or lowering supernatural characters, or for other special effects. But the guilds seem to have born the expense gladly, as a matter of civic pride. Professional actors were hired for major roles, but other parts were played by guild members themselves. Since no actor could appear in more than one play, some 700 actors must have been involved in a single Corpus Christi pageant, in addition to hundreds of other costume designers, stagehands, and other production helpers. The festival created an atmosphere of celebration that was one of the highlights of the city’s year.
   Some scholars have expressed doubt that an entire cycle of 48 plays could be produced on a single day, yet contemporary documents attest that it is so. In 1415, records show that 54 plays were performed in York on the day observing Corpus Christi. Plays were short—no play is much over 500 lines. In York, the pageant wagons progressed single-file through the city streets following a route with 12 individual stations at which each wagon stopped to perform. Thus each particular guild produced its play 12 times during the long day. To ensure time for the entire cycle, the first play was performed at 4:30 in the morning, and the last production took place after midnight. It was a grueling schedule, but an audience watching the complete cycle would be treated to a good deal of entertainment as well as a coherent Christian history of the world.
   In addition to the special effects made possible by the pageant wagons, part of the entertainment included the costumes, which apparently could be quite ornate.While ordinary characters might be dressed in contemporary fashion, chief characters were dressed, it may be assumed, like the characters pictured in stained-glass windows of the time. Women’s parts were played by men with wigs and costumes. Supernatural beings, like God, Satan, or angels, would wear masks and particularly lavish costumes. Comic lines and characters were written into the plays as well—as, for example, Noah’s shrewish wife, who refuses to get on board the ark. Such comic relief provided a break from the overwhelmingly serious salvation history of the rest of the plays.
   The Christian history of the plays provided the audience with a spiritual lesson as well. The York pageant includes a particular emphasis on the Nativity of Christ (with seven plays, from the Annunciation to the Magi and the Slaughter of the Innocents), and on the Passion of Christ (with nine plays depicting Christ’s last hours in great specificity). The Old Testament plays chosen for inclusion in the cycle are all stories that a medieval audience would have recognized as allegorically prefiguring events of the New Testament, so that, for example,Noah’s flood prefigures the Last Judgment, as Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac prefigures God’s ultimate sacrifice of his own son for human salvation. That such an interpretation was intended is clear from the words of the York Cycle’s Noah, who predicts that God will not destroy the world by water again, but that he will ultimately bring the world to a close by fire.While scholars doubt that the entire cycle could have been written by a single author, and point to the continual revision of individual plays, deleting of old plays, and adding of new plays that must have taken place over the 200-year life of the York cycle (it is known, for example, that specific plays concerning the Virgin Mary were added at the end of the 15th century), still nothing is known with any certainty about the plays’ authorship, and there are patterns of imagery that extend throughout the cycle, as well as an overall unity of conception that gives the cycle a kind of coherence: An audience watching the plays would experience Lucifer’s enmity with God and his fall, and the Fall of Adam and Eve, Christ’s birth and suffering and ultimate defeat of Satan, his HARROWING OF HELL and his Resurrection. Finally, having seen Christ’s sacrifice for their sake, the audience would be forced to consider how they fit into God’s overall plan for the world, by contemplating their own individual destiny during the play of the Last Judgment. The last recorded performance of the York Cycle took place in 1569, after which it was suppressed, along with the other Corpus Christi cycles, by the Protestant ecclesiasts under Elizabeth’s reign. The festival of Corpus Christi, established to celebrate the “real presence” of the body of Christ in the Eucharist, was suppressed in Protestant England, and the doctrine of many of the other plays—particularly the later additions dealing with the Virgin Mary—was clearly Catholic. In recent decades, however, beginning in 1951, the plays have been restored, and are performed once again in York every few years, reviving the sense of community pride they brought to the city in late medieval times.
   ■ Beadle, Richard. “The York Cycle: Texts, Performances, and the Bases for Critical Enquiry.” In Medieval Literature: Texts and Interpretation, edited by Tim W. MacHan, 105–119. Binghamton, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1991.
   ■ Collier, Richard J. Poetry and Drama in the York Corpus Christi Play. Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1978.
   ■ Davidson, Clifford. From Creations to Doom: The York Cycle of Mystery Plays. New York: AMS Press, 1984.
   ■ Johnston, Alexandra F. “The York Cycle and the Chester Cycle:What Do the Records Tells Us?” In Editing Early English Drama: Special Problems and New Directions, edited by A. F. Johnson, 121–143. New York: AMS Press, 1987.
   ■ Kolve, V. A. The Play Called Corpus Christi. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1966.
   ■ Stevens, Martin. “The York Cycle: City as Stage.” In Four Middle English Mystery Cycles: Textual, Contextual, and Critical Interpretations, edited by Martin Stevens, 17–87. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987.
   ■ Willis, Paul. “The Weight of Sin in the York Crucifixio,” Leeds Studies in English 15 (1984): 109–116. The York Plays. Edited by Richard Beadle. London: Arnold, 1982.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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