« PreviousContinue »
different, but equally indisputable, genius. This group is composed of Plays 1, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10 (T. I), 11 (T. II), 17, 23, and 28. With the theory proposed by Pollard that this group is part of an original didactic cycle, in so far as it distinguishes it from the rest of the cycle, and implies an earlier date for it, I entirely disagree. The simple structure of the Visitation Play is the only argument in favor of this theory which can be adduced from the plays of this edition, and this is completely outweighed by a consideration of the perfect finish and style of the two plays. A comparison of the workmanship in this play, in the translations of the Canticles for example, with that in the other Visitation plays, should prove not only the great ability of the dramatist, but also the late date of his work.
Although the York cycle, from which several of the Towneley plays were taken direct, had no great influence on any of the plays of this edition, nevertheless the author at times shows even here that he was familiar with the York plays. Hohlfeld (Anglia 11) has pointed out verbal parallels between the York and Towneley Joseph Plays, most of which do not seem very significant, for they can also be paralleled in the other cycles. In the structure of the Towneley Joseph Play, however, and in some of the incidents, we have reminiscences of the York play. Joseph's description of his betrothal to Mary, for example, the Towneley dramatist has evidently borrowed from the York play, and has succeeded in making a true poem out of a few rough and awkward lines. Hohlfeld's verbal parallels may in one or two instances uphold this theory, but not much weight should be laid on their testimony.
It is not safe to draw any conclusions from the Annunciation Play proper, for it is merely an elaborated
version of the account in Luke. The prologue to the Annunciation, however, strangely enough bears considerable resemblance to the Bonaventuran element which introduces the Coventry Annunciation. It may, of course, be argued that such resemblance does not necessarily imply any connection, for the idea of introducing such a play with an explanation of the reasons for the Incarnation is a natural one. The fact remains, however, that the Coventry and Towneley cycles are the only ones which do contain such an introduction, and, moreover, that the Towneley prologue seems to be more or less a digest of parts of the expanded allegorical version in C. I. Notice particularly the opening of both: man has lain years in the pains of Hell because of Adam's sin, the time of redemption has come, but redemption must be made
Both thurgh mercy and thurgh myght,
All wyth reson and with right. These two lines seem to sum up the idea at the basis of the long allegory of Mercy and Truth, Righteousness and Peace, in C. I. The prophet-element is then introduced ; in C., Isaiah and Jeremiah represent the whole array of the prophets from the Augustinian sermon, all of whom appear in T. God then calls Gabriel, and gives him the same instructions in both plays, and the Annunciation Play begins. The resemblances seem to me quite other than fortuitous, and argue a late date for at least the prologue of T. I, 1400 being about the earliest possible (cf. p. xxxvii on date of C. plays).
It seems probable to me that the Annunciation and Visitation Plays, far from being composed earlier than the Shepherds' Plays, are at least as late as they, and perhaps even later. There seems to be no sufficient reason for assuming that they were not written in
collaboration, at about the same time. The whole burden of proof rests upon those who assert that the plays were written at different times; for they all show influence of the other cycles, T. I of C. I and Y. II, and T. III of Ch. II (see notes). All are written in a much more finished style than the other cycles; the language of the supposedly early Annunciation and Visitation, at least, is more modern; the whole tone of the plays lacks the “quaintness' which we find in the other cycles, and the theory that they were written at about the same date (and that comparatively late) by men of very different natures, seems to harmonize with everything that we find in the plays themselves.
C. The Towneley Plays as Literature. The Towneley plays are the flower and consummation of the English Nativity drama. In natural genius and in technique these two dramatists stand high above their predecessors.
The dramatist of the Shepherds' Play has always justly received his full quota of praise. The excellence of the structure of the Mak interlude marks, of course, his greatest triumph, and he has given us the first real plot in English dramatic literature. I have previously (p. xvii) called attention to his ability as a humorist. Professor Gayley has pointed out that even in the Prima Pastorum the author, still feeling his way, has given us a dramatic idyll, a pastoral picture, with comic motive and dialogue, although lacking comic action, which surpasses all that has been done before, and is surpassed in kind only by the addition of a real plot in the Secunda Pastorum.
I do not, however, agree with Professor Gayley in considering the transition from the Mak interlude to the Adoration scene a strong point of the play. To
me the contrast is not effective as it is given; for the dramatist seems to lose interest, and merely from convention adds the last scene, which, although perfect in verse-form ynd technique, lacks the sympathetic feeling of the Prima Pastorum, where practically the same material is used.
The only bit of appreciation of the excellence of the work of the other Towneley dramatist which has hitherto appeared, is praise of one detail (T. I. 269–274) by Pollard, who very appropriately compares this stanza with Rossetti. To me the superiority of these plays on the Annunciation and Visitation over the corresponding' ones in the other cycles is quite as striking as the superiority of the Towneley Shepherds' Plays. The most noticeable improvement is in the versification. The weak and limping line, so common in all the other cycles, almost never appears, and there is no awkward and unnatural arrangement of words for the sake of metre. The thought flows naturally along, aided rather than confined by rime and rhythm. There are a good many run-on lines which add to the naturalness, and in no way detract from the music. A typical example of this excellence of versification is in ll. 89–94:
ffor thou has fonden all thyn oone
ffor Adam plyght.
a chyld of myght. . This dramatist also shows great superiority in technique over his predecessors. His excellence in form and construction is well emphasized by a comparison of his Joseph Play with those of the other dramatists, particularly with the York play. The two methods of introducing the narrative of the betrothal are typical of the difference between the two dramatists. In the York play this element is dragged in without any excuse or connection; in the Towneley play it is one of the most natural and effective parts of the play. The Joseph Play also proves the dramatist's skill in characterization. Joseph is quite as real as in the Coventry play, and is an infinitely more attractive personality. In drawing this character the dramatist seems to give a hint of his own strong gentleness and true, deep devotion.
The only flaw in this man's work is similar to the defect we have noticed in the Secunda Pastorum. It is again a question of transition, this time in the Visitation Play, and it is again the transition from original to conventional work. The first thirty lines of this play are a charming bit of realism—the homely, family gossip of Mary and Elizabeth—then suddenly and without warning the dramatist bursts into a very beautiful translation of the two glorious canticles, the Benedicta tu in mulieribus and the Magnificat. Even if the author had followed this general outline, which contradicts the Scriptural account, where Elizabeth bursts out in prophecy as soon as she sees Mary, the dramatic effectiveness of the scene, which lies in the spontaneity and inevitableness of the salutation, need not have been lost. If, for example, in the middle of a line Elizabeth had interrupted Mary with her prophetic psalm, the play would have been saved, but to have it introduced as an ordinary bit of the dialogue causes a distinctly jarring note. Both elements of the play in themselves are of a high order of excellence. The translations of the canticles in particular should be noticed, for they preserve no little of the beauty of the original; but the method of combining the two elements was unfortunate.