Audience and Meaning in Two Medieval Dramatic Realisms


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

Although it has been more common recently to stress religious doctrine than realism in English mystery plays, J. M. Manly's judgment in 1897 has probably not been superseded: "The Towneley Secunda Pastorum has so long been recognized as the best extant example of individualization of typical characters and of rapid transition from the farcical to the sublime that it is expected in every book of selections."1 There is a modern bias here in the interest in a realism involving individualization of dramatic character, an interest which searches out a play which is justly celebrated though hardly characteristic of medieval drama in this respect. Most modems, on the other hand, have regarded with less ease the "napid transition from the farcical to the sublime" which is common in medieval drama, often minimizing it and treating it as needing justification in a religious play. Low comedy involves ,a "realism" usually of a different sort from a psychological character realism: it is the realism of "English shepherds" making references to. contemporary life and also making low jest of high things. This is the kind of realism the Wakefield shepherds' plays share with other mystery plays; it is what makes them most traditional, least extraordinary. I should like here to elabonate the interpretive implications of two realisms--a less traditional one involving some individualization of character and some stage illusion, the other more traditional and involving character stereotypes and a nonillusionistic topicality-primarily by example of some English adoration plays.

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