Source of book: I own this.
This is the second installment of plays from Chief Pre-Shakespearean Dramas, edited by Joseph Quincy Adams. Since many of the plays are in Middle English, and the entire rather long book has small print, I decided not to attempt a straight read-through. Instead, I have tackled it piecemeal. In the first installment, from about three years ago, which you can read here, I read the early Medieval liturgical plays (translated from the original Latin), the first plays in the vernacular, and the Craft Cycle plays.
This time, I read the four “Non-Cycle” plays contained in this collection:
The Conversion of Saint Paul
The Play of the Sacrament
Each of these plays has its own flavor, and its own intended instructional purpose. They were written in the 14th and 15th Centuries, and were intended to be performed at more permanent locations than the traveling Craft Cycle plays. It is believed they were popular at celebrations and other great events, and a wealthy nobleman could enhance his reputation by his sponsorship of a production. Some things never change.
One of the indications that these plays would be less suited to the wagon-based traveling shows is the increased use of special effects. Even today, staging these properly can be a significant undertaking. Saint Paul, for example, calls for pyrotechnics, thunder and lightning, and two fantastic devils. Mary Magdalene calls for a ship to “sail” around between the stations. The Play of the Sacrament calls for an oven that leaks blood before bursting, and a talking face of Jesus appearing in the oven. One wonders how this was pulled off in those days. The record shows, however, that the effects were part of the attraction, and the Non-Cycle plays were wildly popular. In many ways, the drama of the age of Shakespeare was rather constrained and small scale in comparison. It would not be until the grand operatic spectacles of the 19th Century that the sheer scale and sumptuousness would be surpassed.
These four plays fall into two categories: Miracle Plays, and Saint Plays. The non-Cycle Morality plays are treated separately in this collection, so those will wait until next time.
The Saint plays tell of the lives - and gruesome deaths in some cases - of the saints. The two here have little blood, however.
Like the Cycle plays, these plays have multiple “stations,” with the action moving from station to station as the setting changes.
This play is a bit of a heavy-handed tale of lurid sin, a miracle, and conversion. The titular duke engages in incest with his adult daughter, they conspire to murder his wife (her mother), and generally live a debauched life thereafter. She becomes pregnant by him and gives birth. Fearful of discovery, he convinces her to kill it. (The child doesn’t even get the dignity of a gender…) Later on, a miracle of some sort occurs (parts of the manuscript are lost), and he repents.
The surviving fragment of this play is pretty short, so there is not that much to say about it, other than that even after Moraud repents, he still seems to blame his daughter for the whole thing. “The woman you gave to me…” remains a popular sentiment.
The Conversion of Saint Paul
This play closely follows the biblical account in plot, but fleshes out the conversations between Paul and his servants, the encounters with Ananias, and the theological change in Paul’s heart. While the theological parts are clearly influenced by Medieval Catholicism, including the popular conception of demons, most of it is pretty straightforward. A modern version as acted out in churches across the world today wouldn’t look substantially different.
Unlike The Conversion of Saint Paul, this play deviates substantially from the text of the Bible. Included are many scenes from the mythology that sprang up around her centuries after the fact.
Primary in these myths is an obvious mistake: Mary Magdalene was not the same person as Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Likewise, she is not the same person as the unnamed “sinner” who anointed Christ’s feet. I suppose this confusion stemmed from the fact that Mary was a popular female name, with no fewer than five individuals in the Gospels with that name.
Around the 4th Century CE, these three somehow became merged into one character, representative of fallen womanhood. Any guess which sin was associated with her? Why, sexual sin, of course! That is the primary female failing, after all. Traditionally, she is depicted with red clothing, in contrast to Mary, Christ’s mother. The scarlet A wasn’t entirely an invention of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
The Penitent Magdalene by Dominico Tintoretto (1598)
A fairly typical picture with a combination of penitence and sexiness.
In the Bible, Magdalene is said to have been cured of seven demons, and to have been one of the women who supported Christ’s ministry out of her own funds. So, more likely than not - if one were to take the ancient view of the world and update it to reflect modern knowledge - one could say that she probably was a wealthy woman, who was cured of a mental illness.
Magdalene was also notable for being the first “apostle.” As Saint Augustine put it, she was the “apostle to the apostles,” the messenger chosen by God to reveal the resurrection to the (male) disciples. This was extraordinary at the time, because women were not permitted to testify in court. As in other cases, Christ turned the patriarchal gender roles on their heads.
As to the telling of the tale in this play, Mary is melded with the other Mary, becoming the sister of Martha and Lazarus. They are left wealthy orphans when their father dies. Mary succumbs to the lure of the alehouse, and embarks on a series of sexual escapades. She enjoys her encounters (thus establishing her as a true hussy), but eventually meets with Christ, who brings her to repentance. From there, the Biblical account predominates, again with the story of Martha and Lazarus, rather than the more limited references to Magdalene herself.
There are a few interesting lines in this play. First is one that I noted in my earlier installment of this book:
All the villains worship Mohammed.
This is an amusing anachronism, considering that Mohammed wouldn’t live until 600 years after Christ, and thus would have been unknown to New Testament characters - to say nothing of the Old Testament characters in some of the Cycle plays. But, never mind. It makes a nice shorthand for “heathens,” or in many cases, “Jews.” The irony there is a bit thick.
In this case, it is King Herod who plays the villain early in the play. He rails at his advisors for talking too much:
No noyse, I warne yow, for geveyng of me!
Yff yow do, I xal hovrle of yower hedes, be Mahondes bones,
As I am trew kyng to Mahound so fre.
In another anachronism, Pilate threatens to have any law breaker “hangyd and draw.” That is, hanged and drawn. This punishment wasn’t used by the Romans, who prefered crucifixion. But it was certainly well known to the audience of the play.
While the anachronisms show the change over time, other things have stayed very much the same. While Middle English words often have grown archaic, or mean something entirely different now (“benign” meaning “happy”), but the expletives haven’t changed in 800 years. Neither have certain terms and methods of verbal abuse.
Satan makes an appearance, and he is in a bad mood, as his minions have let Christ redeem Magdalene. In the time honored tradition of villains with incompetent minions, he lets them have it:
A, owt! owt! and harrow! I am hampord with hate!
I hast wyl I set on iugment to se!
With thes betyll-browyd bycheys I am at debate.
How! Belfagour, and Belzabub! com vp here to me!
Take it from the Devil himself: there is no greater insult than to call a man a woman…
The Play of the Sacrament
This is perhaps the best known of the miracle plays. A couple of rich merchants, one Christian and one Jewish, meet, and come to an agreement. The Jewish Jonathan checks all three boxes of the generic Medieval heathen:
He is Jewish. He is a skeptic in that he doesn’t believe in miracles. He worships Mohammed.
Hey wait! If you remove “Jewish,” that sounds an awful lot like the common shorthand for “bad heathen sorts” today. They are either Muslim or Atheist…
Naturally, he is due for a serious comeuppance.
The Christian, Aristorius, does share one negative trait with Jonathan: he too is a merchant, and therefore assumed to be greedy. Not in the same way quite that Jonathan is assumed to be greedy because he is Jewish in addition to being a merchant, but close enough.
So, they meet to discuss some trades they want to do with each other, and Jonathan asks that Aristorius bring him the host from the Eucharist. When the price is raised high enough, Aristorius is overcome with greed enough to agree to steal the host.
This done, Jonathan and his servants nail the bread to a board and attempt to cook it. The bread bleeds, and bursts the oven, and eventually sticks to Jonathan’s hand enough that he cuts the hand off in his panic.
After Christ appears, Jonathan seeks out the priest, who heals the hand and converts Jonathan and his servants. Aristorius is overcome with guilt, and repents as well.
There are some pretty funny sections in this play. My favorite was the digression when the quack doctor appears on the scene. He has his servant out there drumming up business, making ludicrous claims about the curing effect of the doctor’s medicines. He hears through the grapevine that Jonathan has a little problem, and seeks him out in his home. Jonathan tries to shoo them away, but the servant is persistent.
Syr, ye know well yt can nott mysse,
Men that be masters of scyens be profytable.
In a pott yf yt please yow to pysse,
He can tell yf yow be curable.
Now, really. The man has cut off his hand, and the quack wants to examine his urine to see if it can be fixed…
One final reference warrants a mention. Jonathan lists a whole host of spices he has brought up from Asia. Many of these are familiar, a few are in infrequent use these days, but one stood out.
The text refers to “ganyngale.” I had my suspicions about what this was, and I turned out to be correct. This is an archaic word for galana, a relative of ginger. It is commonly used in Thai and other South Asian cuisines, and is just becoming known again in the United States. My favorite restaurant in Thai Town, Los Angeles, makes a superb Tom Yum Gai, which uses fresh slices of the root. There is nothing else quite like galanga. Unlike Jonathan, we can find the fresh root, rather than just dried pieces, in many Asian groceries here in California.
Stay tuned for the next installment. My ability to read these is getting better, but it is still a slog, as I have to say stuff out loud sometimes to “hear” what the word should be. A few more years of this, and I will, I hope, be able to read Chaucer in the original reasonably fluently.