Medieval Drama: Diversity and Theatricality


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

"Medieval drama" is our term for a phenomenon that appeared in diverse forms over a period of several hundred years in widely separated areas in Europe. The difficulty of studying such a drama with thoroughness must be recognized, yet these forms have come to hold a curious fascination in recent years. It has not been, of course, very long since scholars were studying these early plays solely for the light that thereby would be thrown on Marlowe, Shakespeare, or Jonson. The cycle plays performed under the auspices of the city corporation in such places as Coventry, York, Wakefield, and Chester, for example, could be regarded (with the possible exception of the Secunda Pastorum) as hopelessly crude in form and primitive in dramatic effect. Katharine Lee Bates' opinion, stated in 1893, that the language of these dramatists was "halting, tedious, underdeveloped"1 has too often been tacitly accepted even among the most eminent scholars. Today it is recognized, however, that something is radically wrong with this former assessment. While indeed all the dramatists who contributed to the English cycle plays were not great poets, neither were all the Elizabethan playwrights firmly in control of their art. The fact is that two dramatists who contributed to the cycle plays-the Wakefield Master and the York Realist-were exceptionally fine dramatists, while certain other contributors (but, naturally, not all of them) were quite competent.

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