The Middle English Resurrection Play and Its Dramatic Antecedents


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

The representation of the resurrection in medieval drama is the focal point of contemporary scholarly efforts to reassess long-established views concerning the origin, development, and critical evaluation of the earliest religious theater in the West. For early historians of the theater, the dramatization of the resurrection in the Latin church drama was regarded as the kernel or nucleus out of which evolved a vernacular drama that encompassed the whole of Christian redemptive history. The earliest Latin plays of the resurrection were said to be not only different from, but dramatically inferior to the vernacular plays which purportedly refined them by supplying more elaborate dialogue, characterization, and spectacle; indeed, the Latin plays could hardly be distinguished from the liturgical rites that supposedly ga"e birth to them and within which they were originally incorporated. Contemporary scholars have reversed this notion of the evolution of religious drama and the judgment implicit in it. 0. B. Hardison, V. A. Kolve, and, most recently, Rosemary Woolf have, in their extended treatments of the subject, denied that there is any organic connection between the Latin drama of the church and the Corpus Christi plays or their vernacular antecedents, the Anglo-Norman plays of the twelfth century. Arguing that the Latin and vernacular plays belong to two distinct theatrical traditions, they have provided a basis for evaluating each type of drama according to criteria proper to it. Distinctions between the Latin and cycle plays are not only quantitative-the scope of the latter is immeasurably greater but, even more significantly, qualitative: the original liturgical plays are decorous and formal in their iconic quality of representation, processionally stylized mode of performance, and use of sung dialogue borrowed from Scripture and the liturgy; the cycle plays, more fully representational in their development of naturalistic dialogue, character, and circumstantial detail. Accordingly, any attempt at a comparative evaluation of their art must acknowledge such differences.1

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