Towneley Cycle

Towneley Cycle
(Wakefield Cycle)
   One of four surviving manuscripts containing collections of MYSTERY PLAYS—short plays or “pageants” relating the salvation history of humankind from the Creation of the world through Doomsday— is the late 15th-century Huntington MS.HM 1, better known as the Towneley manuscript. The manuscript is named for the Towneley family who owned it from the 17th to the 19th centuries, and its history prior to that is unknown. The collection was once called the Wakefield Cycle in the belief that it comprised a cycle of plays performed for the CORPUS CHRISTI festival in the West Riding town of Wakefield in Yorkshire, but there are serious questions that make that connection unlikely: Wakefield was too small to have had a guild structure that would have supported a full-scale Corpus Christi pageant like the nearby YORK CYCLE—a festival in which individual craft guilds supported the production of specific plays each year. One area of scholarly discussion concerning these plays is where and under what circumstances they were performed. There are a few references in the town records of Wakefield from the late 16th century suggesting that plays were regularly performed in Wakefield that were associated with Corpus Christi, but it is not clear that these were the plays in question, or that an entire cycle was performed there. Some scholars completely reject the idea that the Towneley plays were performed as a complete cycle by local townspeople at the feast of Corpus Christi. Others say that there is really not enough evidence to say for sure one way or another. It seems clear that the Towneley plays could not have been performed on pageant wagons of the sort used to stage the plays in the streets of York.Although the manuscript lacks stage directions, some of the plays obviously would have needed a larger acting space, or two or three playing areas, in order to be performed. The Cain and Abel play, for instance, would need a plow and a team to pull it. The SECOND SHEPHERDS’ PLAY would have needed three separate acting areas—the heath for the shepherds, Mak’s house, and the stable of the nativity. Certainly some plays may be associated with Wakefield: The name Wakefield is written at the beginning of two plays in the manuscript, which may in fact indicate that they originated or were intended for an acting troupe from Wakefield. The dialect of the plays indicates specifically that they were performed in West Riding in Yorkshire. But the manuscript lacks the kind of thematic and stylistic unity characteristic of the York Cycle or the CHESTER CYCLE. Five of the plays are direct borrowings from the York Cycle: the play of the Exodus from Egypt, Jesus and the Doctors in the Temple, the Harrowing of Hell, the Resurrection, and the fragmentary Last Judgment play. Two other Towneley plays are revised versions of York pageants. Thus it appears that the plays were collected from various sources rather than composed as a single unit, in a manner more reminiscent of the N-TOWN PLAYS. It has been suggested that the Towneley manuscript is a compilation of “clerks’ plays” from which a troupe might choose individual plays or pageants for production, a practice that is known to have occurred in the Netherlands (Davidson 1994, 433). The chief genius behind the most admired plays in the collection is still generally called the Wakefield Master. Of the 32 pageants contained in the extant manuscript, the Wakefield Master is the author of six, and seems to have had a hand in revising two of the borrowed York pageants, as well as four other plays. The Wakefield Master is known to have been a clergyman because of his in-depth knowledge of religious matters, and he may have written specifically for a skillful troupe of amateur Wakefield actors. He can be identified by his characteristic use of a nine-line stanza rhyming aaaabcccb, in which the first four long lines rhyme, and the fifth line is a “bob” or short three-syllable line leading to a “wheel” of shorter lines at the end. The fact that the long opening lines contain internal rhyme as well leads some modern editors to print the verses as 13-line stanzas, rhyming ababababcdddc. Other characteristics of the Wakefield Master’s style include an extensive and varied vocabulary, an interest in characters as individuals rather than as types, a bent for social criticism, and a sense of comedy that appears particularly in his most famous composition, the Second Shepherds’ Play. This comic tale of the sheep-stealing Mak and the three disgruntled shepherds on the eve of Christ’s nativity is the most popular and anthologized of all medieval mystery plays, and deservedly so. But the Wakefield Master’s other plays are also of interest: He also wrote the Towneley versions of the Mactatio Abel (the Cain and Abel play), Prcessus Noe cum Filiis (the play of Noah and the flood), Prima Pastorum (the first shepherds’ play),Magnus Herodes (Herod the Great and the Slaughter of the Innocents), and Coliphizacio (the buffeting). It may be that the Wakefield Master’s plays formed a core around which a later compiler assembled the group of pageants from a variety of sources. However, since none of the Wakefield Master’s plays have been revised or altered in any way, it may be that he himself made the last revision of the entire cycle. However, the manuscript was definitely marred later by Protestant reformers determined to eradicate aspects of the pageants that most clearly reflected their Roman Catholic origins. Thus a number of leaves are missing from the manuscript, including sections both before and after the Doomsday pageant that it is believed contained plays of the Assumption and the Coronation of the Virgin.Whether those kinds of changes were made in the manuscript after the English Reformation to allow the continued performance of the plays (as certain “corrective” marginal notes suggest), or were made later by a zealot trying to cleanse the manuscript of its doctrinal impurities, is difficult to say. In either case, mystery plays in general disappeared from English town life during Elizabeth’s reign, relics of England’s Catholic past.
   ■ Davidson, Clifford. “Jest and Earnest: Comedy in the Work of the Wakefield Master,” Annuale Mediaevale 22 (1982): 65–83.
   ■ Helterman, Jeffrey. Symbolic Action in the Plays of the Wakefield Master. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1981.
   ■ Johnston, Alexandra F. “Evil in the Towneley Cycle.” In Evil on the Medieval Stage, edited by Meg Twycross, 94–103. Lancaster, U.K.: Medieval English Theatre, 1992.
   ■ Meredith, Peter. “The Towneley Cycle.” In The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre, edited by Richard Beadle, 134–162. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
   ■ Meyers, Walter E. A Figure Given: Typology in the Wakefield Plays. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1968.
   ■ Palmer, Barbara D. “ ‘Towneley Plays’ or ‘Wakefield Cycle’ Revisited,” Comparative Drama 21 (1988): 318–348.
   ■ Rose, Martial, trans. The Wakefield Mystery Plays. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962.
   ■ Stevens, Martin. “The Missing Parts of the Towneley Cycle,” Speculum 45 (1970): 254–265.
   ■ The Wakefield Pageants in the Towneley Cycle. Edited by A.C. Cawley. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1958.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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