Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Calling all Medievalists

OK Medievalist folks (Dr. V?), here's your chance to save my week. I'm teaching 2nd Shepherd's Play on Friday and Monday--I've read all my textbook materials, done a little theatre history research, brushed up on a couple of the other cycle plays to compare. But still, I'm feeling a little out of my element.

What do I need to remember to tell them that their textbook won't? What are some good ways to teach the play in interactive ways?

And finally: How did they stage the sheep?


Dr. Virago said...

Ask and you shall receive...

I'll start with the simplest question first: we don't know how they staged the sheep. There isn't any real record of that. You could ask students how *they* would stage it if they were doing a production of this.

And now things get complicated.

We don't have *any* records regarding the staging of the Towneley plays, and, in fact, it's even possible that the manuscript is actually an anthology for *reading* rather than a script for performance. (It is relatively fancy and not very practical.) [If you want, do an MLA search for work by Barbara D. Palmer -- it's her article -- something like "Wakefield cycle, Towneley Plays, revisted" -- that I'm drawing on most here in what I'm saying, I think.]

In fact, this particular medievalist would very much like it if you *didn't* refer to Towneley/Wakefield (more on those names in a moment) as a "cycle" at all. Towneley/Wakefield isn't actually the same creature as York or Chester. Those two cycles we *know* were staged as civic/religious celebrations and produced by the guilds that made up the backbone of civic structure in those cities (some of the guildsmen more franchised than others, but never mind that now). Critics *used* to think Towneley/Wakefield was the same thing, but further scholarship has raised the very distinct possibility that the Towneley MS is a readerly *imitation* of something like York (indeed, some of its plays are borrowed from York). There is, in fact, no external evidence that the Towneley plays were performed, or, if they were, by whom.

Now, about those names. The MS is the "Towneley MS" because it was once owned by a family with that name. The plays were once thought to be a cycle associated with the town of Wakefield -- and that area is still considered the provenance of the MS -- but the preferred term is now "Towneley plays" or "Towneley manuscript plays."

I'm guessing that if you're using an anthology of drama, just about everything in the intro is wrong/out of date, unless they got a medieval drama specialist to write it. So tell your students that -- tell them that scholarship about even the oldest stuff is constantly uncovering new information all the time. It's kind of exciting when you think about it!

And whatever you do, please don't say that medieval drama started in the church and then moved to the street. Liturgical, Latin drama and lay, vernacular drama are two separate phenomenon, which may have borrowed from each other, but don't have an "evolutionary" or "developmental" relationship.

So if I were you, here's what I'd do: I'd focus on the rich symbolic "punning" of the play (the lamb/lamb of God stuff, for instance), the odd-for-us combination of raucous humor and devotional narrative, and the adaptation of the Biblical story to the contemporary 15th century world of Yorkshire in all the anachronism that creates. Tell students to assume that all of that has some purpose and ask them if they can come up with theories/ideas of what that purpose is (e.g., thematically speaking, the anachronism works to illustrate the continuing and continuous presence of God in the world).

There's also lots of great social commentary going on. And I know that would fit into the larger themes of your course and your interest in the social role of drama. Why not talk about whether or not the social ills that the shepherds experience and talk about in the beginning are resolved or ameliorated by the end, and how that complicates the theological message of Christ's/Mercy's arrival in the world. (Btw, I always read the relatively light punishment of Mak as being merciful.) Is the play presenting a symbolic panacea for the world's ills? Or, by addressing some of them, is it raising the possibility of real material change?

As for staging and interactive elements, we did one of the bits where Mak and Gill are still trying to pass off the lamb as their infant and the shepherds are only just starting to get that it's their stolen lamb. It's a wonderful example of dramatic irony, and works for students better when staged, as we see the well-meaning shepherds wanting to believe Mak and Gill, even as they're suspicious that they shouldn't. They're simultaneously naive and also representatives of the Good that has entered the world at about the same moment.

Oh, and you could talk about how the language changes throughout and how that has symbolic weight as well as adding "local color" -- Mak fakes a posh, Southern accent; the shepherds sound erudite in the presences of Christ, etc.

And finally, there's always gender and gendered labor -- is Gill a counterpart to Mak, or, in her laboring body (in all senses) is she more kin to the shepherds. Why, for instance, isn't she punished, as Mak is (though neither get to visit the Christ child).

E-mail me if you want to know more or want elaborations.

Horace said...

You've got to be kidding me. You totally completely rock, Dr. Virago. You are my hero of the week.

I'm just gonna read your comment for the first five minutes of class, and tell them to discuss! Kidding, at least about the last half. I am going to read chunks of your comment, though, just to show how the scholarship evolves about performances 500 years old. I am eternally grateful.

Sisyphus said...

And I was just going to make baa-ing noises (you know I'd do it in your class, too --- I was always the smartass undergrad.)