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Chester dramatist shows himself a better translator and versifier than any of our other three dramatists. The Ave Maria in Ch. I retains much of its original beauty, which is quite lost in the limping verse of Y., the rambling style of C., and the elaboration of T. Let me remark in passing that a comparison of these scenes in the four cycles is to my mind strong evidence against, rather than for, the existence of a parent cycle from which all are derived (cf. Davidson, Engl. Mysteries, pp. 157 ff.).
Having granted the Chester dramatist these points of excellence, we can go no farther. He is lacking in most of the essential characteristics of a good dramatist. He has no great interest in his characters except from the outside, no vicarious ability, no power of portraying the feelings and inner natures of his men and women, and no deep feeling of his own. As illustrations of these deficiencies we need only compare the Joseph and Mary dialogues of Ch. and T., or the Nativity scenes of Ch. and Y.
The general impression one obtains of the Chester dramatist is that he was a man of cosmopolitan tastes and learning, interested in both sacred and profane literature, less of a schoolman than he of Coventry, endowed with some literary ability, but that not dramatic, a spectator of life rather than a philosopher, with a mind active but not deep; on the whole, a rather delightfuland interesting, though superficial personality.
7. THE COVENTRY PLAYS
A. The Problem of their Origin. The so-called Coventry plays differ from the other English cycles in the following particulars: (1) there is no credible authority for assigning them to any particular locality; (2) they were apparently not acted by town crafts or guilds, for no guild name is mentioned in connection with any of the plays; (3) they are full of mediæval theology and scholasticism.
The legend concerning these plays, from which they have taken their name, is that they were acted by the Grey Friars of Coventry. At first glance the evidence in favor of this legend seems strong, and one is strongly tempted to accept it, as it fits in so admirably with the nature of the plays, with their ecclesiastical flavor, and with the fact that they form the only extant cycle which is not a craftcycle. Investigation has shown, however, that despite its attractiveness, we are not justified in accepting the evidence, for it seems to have arisen entirely because of its attractiveness.
The first man to ascribe these plays to the friars of Coventry was Dr. Richard James, librarian to Sir Robert Cotton, who bought the manuscript, and probably derived his information, from Robert Hegge of Durham, a C.C.C. Oxford man, and the first recorded owner of the manuscript. Hegge died in 1630, and the manuscript then passed into Cotton's hands (see Chambers, Med. Stage 2. 419). James, however, does not say that the cycle is Ludus Coventriæ, but vulgo dicitur Ludus Coventrice,' and Hegge himself had merely written on the manuscript: The plaie called Corpus Christi. Moreover, James made one serious blunder which alone would weaken his testimony, for he refers to the plays as including merely. Contenta Novi Testamenti.' The process of James' reasoning is easy to trace: it is quite evident both from this and other testimony that the friars of Coventry were accustomed to give mystery plays; James, chancing upon a cycle that bore
the name of no town nor craft, and that was unusually full of theology, decided that this probably was the cycle. Not having the modern scholarly spirit, he asserted that they were the plays he thought they were, not merely that he thought so. In referring to them as plays on the New Testament he showed that he had not read them carefully, and that he had confused with the friars' plays the craft-plays of Coventry, which probably did contain only New Testament material.1
The next piece of evidence, based largely on James, is in Dugdale's History of Warwickshire, 1656, where he says on James' authority that these are the plays played by the Grey Friars of Coventry. He does give us, however, more evidence of the fact that the Grey Friars did give some plays, for he says that old men of the town told him in his youth of the great crowds of people they, in their youth, had seen flocking to the plays given by the friars. This information has been too much doubted. It is true that the monasteries were closed in 1538, and that Dugdale was not born until 1605; it has therefore been asserted that the plays the old men referred to were the craft-plays, which were not discontinued until 1580. I am inclined to believe, however, that Dugdale knew whereof he spake. In the first place there would be nothing particularly remarkable in having seen people that remembered things that happened only twentyfive years before his birth, and he would hardly emphasize the fact that in his youth old men told him about them. In the second place, it is by no means impossible that he is telling the literal truth. Notice that he does not say that the old men described the plays to him or really remembered them at all, but merely
· The extant plays of this cycle, referred to on p. 1, are published by the EETS., Ex. Ser. 87.
that they remembered the crowds and their excitement. I personally recall having had described to me, as a child, by my grandmother, a similar event, which occurred over sixty years before I was born, and of which she was an eye-witness at the age of five. Of course, Dugdale's testimony proves nothing about our plays, but it does to me give satisfactory proof of the fact that the Grey Friars of Coventry gave some plays.
The Coventry Annals for 1492, which unfortunately were written in the 17th century, mention the fact that in that year the Grey Friars played before the king.
In addition to the destructive criticism of the Coventry myth, which has proved entirely that the external evidence is not to be relied on, in so far as it tries to prove that these are the plays written and presented by the friars, there has been also constructive criticism, which supports the destructive. Ten Brink (2.283) has shown that the dialect of these plays is Northeast Midland, and that therefore it is linguistically impossible that they should have come originally from Coventry. : There is one rather ambiguous bit of information contained in the general prologue to the plays, which should be mentioned before we go further. At the close of the Prologue are these lines:
A Sunday next, yf that we may,
That God be youre spede. Amen. From this it has been argued that the plays were given by strolling players, the ‘N.' of 'N. towne' standing for Nomen (as in the church marriage service), to be filled in as the case required.
Chambers suggests that the 'N.' may stand for "Norwich' (or presumably for any other Northrast Midland town beginning with N. whose name would fit the metre), and that this advertisement was merely sent around to the surrounding villages. Hohlfeld (Anglia 11) thinks they may have originally been played by Coventry friars, and then by a company of strolling players, the craft-plays of Coventry having driven the friars' plays out of business. Gayley (Plays of our Forefathers, p. 136) has recently offered a more suggestive theory. He proposes the idea that these are the lost plays of the Lincoln cycle, which we know was similar, in that it contained many plays on the life of the Virgin, and that afterward they were used by a company of strolling players.
I call Gayley's theory suggestive, not that I agree with it in detail, for it seems to share with Chambers' the fault of trying to be altogether too specific, considering the small amount of material they had to work from, but that it recognizes the composite nature of the cycle, and the fact that the Prologue is not entirely in accord with the plays themselves.
My own theory I will state here, and present some of the evidence in detail in the next section. After analyzing the plays and studying the sources, I am led to believe that the original plays did not contain the theological element, but were very similar to the other English plays. They may have been craft-plays which later fell into the hands of strolling players, or more probably they were originally written for a traveling company. The prologue was written for this original cycle; we shall see later that the omissions in the prologue are always of the theological additions, and that in reading the prologue one would not realize that these plays differed markedly from other