Article Title

The Audience-Interactive Games of the Middle English Religious Drama


Peter Ramey


The interaction between dramatic characters and audience is a defining feature of the Middle English religious drama, one that sets it apart from medieval liturgical drama as well as from theatrical productions from later periods. Although several studies have investigated this phenomenon, this essay draws upon the medieval vocabulary used for dramatic productions, ME game (from OE gamen), to conceptualize this interactive aspect in terms of open-ended social contestation. Utilizing recent theories of game design which define games as dynamic “systems of uncertainty,” the framework of game is applied to three distinct forms of audience interplay in the religious drama. The first type is represented by Herod in the Wakefield pageant Herod the Great, who threatens and insults the audience in order to provoke a response and initiate a “coercion game” with the crowd, forcing audience members to play the part of his court. The second type is conducted by the impudent boy-servant, exemplified here by Garcio in the Wakefield Mactatio Abel. This figure tempts the crowd to join him in destructive merrymaking through a “subversion game,” inviting audience members to affiliate with him through laughter and other forms of identification, while at the same time implying that their participation reveals their own diabolical associations. The final type of interaction is the “conversion game” instigated by Christ, who uses his suffering physicality to engender an emotional response. Approaching these moments of interplay through the perspective of game helps to elucidate the multivalent, open-ended, audience-directed work of the Middle English religious drama as a whole, while also revealing the limitations of conceiving this drama in terms of “theater”—a framework that remains common in medieval drama scholarship.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.