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On the whole, however, the author of the Towneley Annunciation and Visitation should take as high rank as a poet as the author of the Towneley Shepherds' Plays holds as a dramatist. This implies high praise for both.
The foundation of the Christmas plays of all the cycles has been seen to consist of two simple elements--a translation of the Scriptural narrative, and a transcript of contemporary life. The one appears for the most part in the Annunciation, Visitation and Nativity plays, the other in the Joseph and Shepherd plays. The York cycle shows the two in their simplest and least elaborated form. The York dramatist had practically no original ability (so far as we can judge from these few plays), and very little skill either as translator or transcriber. The Chester and Coventry plays show an attempt to improve on the simple York form by a multiplication of materials, introduction of extraneous matter, and the Chester play by an elaboration of the realistic description. The extraneous matter in the Chester cycle reflects cosmopolitan, secular learning; that in the Coventry plays, Church scholasticism. Neither succeeds in improving the plays to any degree from a literary point of view, although they add much interesting and curious matter. The Towneley Annunciation dramatist, without the introduction of new material, made real poetry out of the simple matter of the York plays. The Towneley Shepherd dramatist, by a synthetic expansion of the realistic matter of the Chester Shepherds' Play, and an addition of allied matter, produced the first real English drama.
NOTE ON TEXT AND VARIANTS
OF THE CHESTER PLAYS
My text of these plays is based on MS. D (see Int. p. 1). Readings of the other manuscripts, when inferior to D., are given in the Variants; when superior they are inserted in parentheses () in the text, and D's reading is given in the Variants. Brackets [ ] indicate my own emendations. When reference to any manuscript is omitted in the Variants, it is, of course, implied that that manuscript follows the reading in the text.
In many cases the reading of MS. W is not certain. The two former editors very often disagree in their readings of W. Wright did not pretend to give a critical text, so it is generally safer to follow Deimling. Deimling, however, often omits reference to W entirely, thus implying that it follows his own text, where Wright gives quite different and often inferior readings. In the latter cases it seems probable that Wright gives a better transcript of the original. When Wright and Deimling agree, I refer to the reading as W; when they disagree, I refer to Wright's reading as Wr., and to Deimling's as Dm. It should be borne in mind that both abbreviations, Wr. and Dm., refer only to MS. W.