7. Note for The Advent Sequence

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7. Note for The Advent Sequence

from: The Towneley Plays  2017

The sequence of Nativity-related plays in the Towneley manuscript is famously disordered: the incomplete Prophets pageant is followed not only by a blank leaf (see the final note to 7.a) but also by the Pharaoh play, which should precede it; there are two Shepherds plays, but no Nativity itself. Moreover, the works that immediately precede those two Shepherds plays, including the Prophets but excluding the Pharaoh play, appear to constitute a separate, cohesive sequence. These works are written mostly in variations of the same tailrhyme stanza form (rhymed aabaab or aabccb), probably by a single author; prior to the compilation of the manuscript, they likely formed a single play, divided into short pageants or scenes, possibly for processional performance. However, the sequence as a whole could easily have been performed by five actors taking multiple roles, including four men, one of whom would play the role of Elizabeth (who is twice said to have conceived “in elde” — see lines 7.c.135 and 7.d.11), and a boy who would play Sibyl, Mary, and the messenger. The original sequence could conceivably have concluded with a now-lost Nativity pageant, but might well have been performed as an Advent play, as is, with an ending that looks forward to the ecclesiastical celebrations of Christmas rather than dramatizing that central event.

Reconstituting the sequence, however, requires more than removal of the misplaced Pharaoh play. According to the text as it stands in the manuscript, Elizabeth would have to be more than nine months’ pregnant by the time of her visit with Mary (see the final note to 7.c). The Joseph’s Trouble episode, treated in the manuscript as part of the Annunciation play, was likely a separate pageant and intended to follow rather than precede the Salutation. Its misplacement can be explained by the existence of a series of exemplars that were unbound, untitled, and thus easily confused: according to this scenario, the original Prophets pageant, possibly already damaged and incomplete, was accidentally copied prior to the Pharaoh play, while the Joseph’s Trouble pageant was copied as if part of the Annunciation, and followed by the Salutation. The Salutation (rather than the Joseph’s Trouble pageant) might originally have been part of a single pageant along with the Annunciation (as occurs in York); it is perhaps significant that these two pageants together (with a total of 244 lines) are almost exactly the same length as Caesar Augustus (240 lines) and only slightly longer than Joseph’s Trouble (219 lines).

The Caesar Augustus pageant, too, may be misplaced, as Stevens and Cawley argue (SC p. 472): tradition (as recorded in the Golden Legend of Jacob de Voragine 1:40) held that Caesar learned of the birth of Christ on the day of the Nativity; however, the same tradition held that Caesar raised an altar in his honor, whereas this Emperor is conflated with King Herod in seeking to kill Christ as a rival. Moreover, Christ explicitly has not yet been born in this play (see line 7.b.71). The pageant could very effectively be placed between the Salutation and Joseph’s Trouble, filling the time gap between these episodes; however, it remains entirely possible that the pageant should follow The Prophets, and to precede the Annunciation, as it does in this edition.

Go To 7.a. The Prophets