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THE DRAMATIC DEVELOPMENT OF THE ENGLISH CYCLES (continued...)

Part 1 | Part 2

I HAVE elsewhere attempted to show that the later dramatists did not invent their art; they worked with what they found, and they found a dramatic medium of expression to which centuries and countless influences had contributed. An extended study of the history of English drama should therefore determine, so far as possible, the relative priority, not only of the cycles, but of dramatic stages within the cycles; what each has contributed to the enfranchisement of the artistic spirit and the development of the technical factors of the art,--to what extent each has expressed or modified the realistic, satirical, pathetic, romantic, or humorous view of life, and in what ways each has reflected the temper of its time, the manners and the mind of the people that wrote, acted, and witnessed these early dramas. If I arrange the plays that bear upon the development of popular drama according to my conclusions regarding priority of composition, the order, broadly stated for our present rapid survey, would seem to be: First, the Cornish and the Old Testament portions of the Chester and N-Town, then the productions of the second and third periods of the York, and closely following these the crowning efforts of the Wakefield or Towneley, then the New Testament plays of the Chester and N-Town, and finally the surviving portions of the collections of Digby and Newcastle. This order, which is roughly historical, has the advantage, as I perceive after testing it, of presenting a not unnatural sequence of the aesthetic valies or interests essential to a kind of drama which is rather comic than tragic:--first the humour of the incidental, then of the essential or real, and gradually of the satirical; afterwards the accession of the romantic, pathetic, and sublime; the wonderful, the allegorical, and the mock-ideal; and finally of the scenic and sensational. Of course beneath this roof of cumulative art and colour there is the warp of the original intention: the mystery, the sacrifice, the lesson. The presence of the serious and supernal goes without saying; but it is in the increment of other qualities that the transmutation of the spectacle from liturgy to popular drama is most readily to be observed.

Of the Old Testament, that is, the earlier Chester and N-town plays, the most useful for our present purpose are The Death of Abel and Noah's Flood. With them may be considered the Cornish version. The Cornish miracles present us with dramatic situations in the liturgical-epical germ, and characters in the undifferentiated "rough." The Cain, for instance, is but boor and niggard; his possibilities for comedy are undeveloped, but it is impossible that they should long be repressed. The devils, indeed, who come forward like a chorus at the end of each important scene, were probably pressed into the service of merriment; but the dramatic motive for which they exist is serious, and the part assigned to them is more consistent than in any of the other cycles. The Chester play of Cain, a conglomerate running from the Creation to the death of Abel, is not only one of the crudest of the cycle (much more so, for instance, than the sacrifice of Isaac based upon the Brome Play), but one of the most naïve on the subject. The character of the potential fratricide, with his canny offering of the earless corn that grew next the way, and his defiant "God, thou gotteste noe better of me, Be thou never so gryme," is manifestly nearer the primitive conception than the Cayme of York or Wakefield. He is not yet wit, wag, and dare-devil. The episode in the Chester is didactic, but still realistic; less imaginative than in the York or Wakefield, but creative. Evidently more modern than the Chester play, which it somewhat resembles, is the Cain and Abel of the Ludus Coventriæ or N-Town. The villain is well-conceived, and elaborated with pith and humour. He discusses the Almighty with a worldly wisdom that remotely approaches that of the Wakefield, and he expresses his opinion of Abel--

"Among all fools that go on ground
I hold that thou be one of the most:
To tithe [give to God] the best that is most sound,
And keep the worst that is near lost--

with somewhat the same vivid and natural use of the vernacular. The action between the brothers is more elaborate than in Chester, but the dramatic quality depends rather upon dialogue than development of the situation. Its versification is certainly not that of the earliest stage of the cycle to which it belongs, and its lyrical quality might even indicate a later period of composition than the corresponding plays in the York and Wakefield; but it is not derived from either of them.

The development of a situation from the serious to the humorous is admirably illustrated by still another play of this earlier group. In the dramatisation of the Flood, the Cornish cycle presents the serious aspect of the naïve conception. Noah and his wife are on affectionate terms; she is obedient and helpful. It has not occurred to the writer to introduce an extraneous interest, as, for instance, that of conjugal strife. The play is interesting, however, because it displays some slight ability to discriminate characters. Likewise unconscious of comic possibilities is the N-Town play of the Flood. Though probably of latter composition than the corresponding plays in other cycles, it is, in its greatest part, one of the earlier, though not of the earliest plays of its own cycle. The characters (the sons' wives now begin to play a part), pious, prosaic, and un-interesting, are perfunctorily portrayed, but the construction of the play is ingenious, especially in its manipulation of the episode of Lamech, not as an extraneous action, but as a factor in the organic development of the motive; a hint of a sub-plot. In the Chester play, on the other hand, the characters are distinct and consistently developed. The comic episodes are natural and justifiable, for they serve to display, not to distort, character, and they grow out of the dramatic action. They are, moreover, varied, and, to some extent, cumulative. This play is indeed a vast dramatic advance upon the N-Town. It is approximately on the same plane of dramatic development as the York play of The Flood, and should be considered with reference to it, although in spite of one or two unique resemblances in language and conception, neither pageant can be reguarded as dependent upon the other.

It is noteworthy that the York play on the building of the Ark, one of the earliest of that cycle, is serious. The play of the Flood, however, which is in a somewhat later stanza, indulges in an altercation between Noah and his wife. The humour of this in turn is surpassed by that of the Chester, so also the technique. While in the York the amusing episode is sudden and of one sequence, in the Chester the clouds upon the domestic horizon gather with artistic reluctance, and, when they burst, refresh the soil in more than one spot. Noah is not yet the henpecked husband of later comedy, though prophetic thereof. Peaceably inclined, but capable of a temper, he serves God and apostrophises the perversity of women. The possibilities of his wife's character are cunningly unfolded. At first apparently amenable to reason, her progress toward "curstness" is a study in the development of character. Few situations in our early drama are better conceived than her refusal at the critical moment to enter the Ark unless her gossips are also taken aboard. Cam's "Shall we all feche her in?" the drinking song, --a rollicking song, too, with the lilt, "Back and side, go bare, go bare,"--Noah's collapse of temper and the alapam auri, all these are good fooling, and must have left our ancestors thirsty for more. The "business" is of course enhanced by the multiplication of participants, by the solicitude of the children, and the apathy of the gossips. The song, I am afraid, is a later addition; but even without the appropriateness of diction to the naïve (not vague or poetic) statement of details marks an essential advance in realism.

This article was originally published in Plays of Our Forefathers. Charles Mills Gayley. New York: Duffield & Co., 1907. pp. 144-52.

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