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AUTHORSHIP OF THE ENGLISH CYCLES

ABOUT the authors of the English Cycles we know little. After the miracles had reached cyclic proportions and passed under guild control, the playwrights were sometimes clerks in secular orders, sometimes fellows of colleges, sometimes country schoolmasters, sometimes impromptu poets or poet-actors of the city, company, or craft. The name even of the jolly clerk of Wakefield, the master-playwright of that cycle, has vanished from memory. Concerning the authorship of the Chester plays, dispute still exists; but the evidence for Randall, or Randulf Higden, a monk of St. Werburgh's, and for the year 1328, has recently gained weight. The probabilities are that his contribution was largely of adaptation and translation; the latter from Latin sources, and early French mysteries. At Beverley we come across an entry of payment in 1423 to one "Master Thomas Bynham, a friar preacher, for making and composing the banns" (banes, announcements) which were proclaimed before the Corpus Christi plays of that year. But he did not write the plays. Lydgate, who lived about the same time in the Benedictine Abbey of Bury in Suffolk, is said to have written miracle plays; but we have no proof. At Lincoln the Chapter of the Cathedral makes provision in 1488 for a certain Robert Clarke because "he is so ingenious in the show and play called the Ascension, given every year on St. Anne's day." And in 1517 Sir Robert Denyar is appointed priest of the Guild of St. Anne "he promising yearly to help in bringing forth and preparing the pagents in the guild." Marriott, quoting Warton, tells us of a payment for a Miracle Play, in 1511, to a brotherhood priest, called John Hobarde, by the churchwardens of Basingstoke. Basingstoke turns out, however, to be Basingbourne, and the miracle play to be the playbook, which Hobarde may merely have kept for them, or loaned to them, or copied for them. We can only hope that he wrote it. In 1521, as Mr. Leach again tells us, a Grammar School Master of Lincoln suggests to the mayor that a foundation be made of a chantry priest in St. Michael-on-Hill to be appointed by the mayor and commonalty after Dighton's death with a proviso that the appointee "shall yearly be ready to help to the preparing and bringing forth the procession of St. Anne's day." This looks as if Dighton were the recognised playwright and stage-manager in 1521. Still later, in the same century, another schoolmaster, Ralph Radcliffe of Hitchin, was writing miracle plays and presenting them in a theatre contrived by himself; but neither his plays, since they were probably in Latin, nor the Jeptha of one John Christopherson, in Latin and Greek, can be regarded as within the scope of our discussion. While the polemic Bale was Bishop of Ossory he wheedled some "protestant Irishmen"--more probably young clerks and students of his own importing--into presenting two of his insufferables, God's Promises and John the Baptist, at Kilkenny, at the Market Cross--on the day of the accession of Queen Mary. The bishop had, wittingly or not, seized his last chance for that kind of thing; but the Irish--the real ones--in the audience didn't think much of the performance. In 1567 another schoolmaster, Thomas Ashton, presented his own version of the Passion of Christ in the quarry at Shrewsbury; and in 1584 John Smythe, a Coventry lad who had been a Scholar at St. John's, Oxford, since 1577, wrote a play, The Destruction of Jerusalem, for the crafts of Coventry. The latter was to take the place of the scriptural miracles, against which protestant reaction had, by that time, set in. It was based upon Josephus, and was played with great spectacle and repeated as late as 1591. That was the last craft-performance of Coventry and one of the last in England. The William Jordan who wrote the Creation of the World, in 1611, was merely a compiler of the older Origo Mundi, and can therefore in no sense be regarded as a creator of this kind of drama.

This article was originally published in Plays of Our Forefathers. Charles Mills Gayley. New York: Duffield & Co., 1907. pp. 108-10.

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