Note for Passion Play 1 (Plays 26-28)

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Note for Passion Play 1 (Plays 26-28)

by: Douglas Sugano (Editor)
from: The N-Town Plays  2007

The previous editors Block, Meredith, and Spector have already described the Passion Plays’ interpolation into the existing manuscript of plays. The evidence is overwhelming: 1) As with the Mary Play, the play descriptions and the numbering of these plays in the Banns do not accurately reflect the Passion Plays. The fact that there are fewer inconsistencies with the Passion Plays (compared with the Mary Play) may indicate that the Passion Plays were incorporated into the manuscript before the Mary Play and that there is additional older cycle material that has been interpolated into the Passion Plays. 2) Since Passion Play 1 is self-contained in quires P and R and Passion Play 2 in quires S and T, it is likely that these were independent playbooks that the scribe integrated into the manuscript. Passion Play 2 is on paper with a watermark that is unique in the manuscript. In addition, the first leaf of Passion Play 1 is worn and soiled, indicating that it was once a cover or an outside leaf. 3) The main scribe and Meredith’s “Reviser B” (Spector’s “Scribe C”) made changes to the Passion Plays that suggest that they were performed independently (of the other plays in the manuscript) after the Passion Plays had been included in the manuscript (Passion Play, pp. 7–9; S 1:xviii–xxiv, 1:xxxix–xl, 2:538–43). 4) As with the Mary Play, the Passion Plays display a variety of stanzaic forms: long- and short-lined octaves, quatrains, couplets, five-line stanzas, and thirteeners. It is likely that the main scribe was working from different exemplars. (For clarity’s sake, I will use Meredith’s designations of “Main Scribe” for the writer and compiler of most of the N-Town Manuscript [c. 1486] and “Reviser B” to denote the scribe who made several alterations and prompt notes in PP2 [c. 1500–25]; for more on the dating of the handwriting, see Spectror, The N-Town Plays, 1:xxiii.)

Theatrically speaking, the Passion Plays are radically different from all other plays in the manuscript. Most noticeable are the comparatively detailed and voluminous stage directions that describe costumes, sets, and small stage movements unknown to the other portions of the manuscript. The stage itself is also detailed and elaborate. In addition to the heavenly machinery and the hellmouth that are in other plays in the collection, Annas, Caiaphas, Pilate, and Herod have their own scaffolds, and there is a large council (moot) hall in the center of the playing area. In addition, the cast for the Passion Plays is much larger than any other play cast in the manuscript. The arrest scene in Passion 1, for example, calls for at least fifteen actors, probably more. Finally, as mentioned before, there are marginal notations, prompt notes, and added lines that indicate that both plays were produced after their inclusion into the manuscript. (For a discussion and a proposed staging diagram see Bevington, Medieval Drama, pp. 477–80; see also Weimann, “Mystery Cycles.”)

There are two noteworthy features of the Passion Plays which are not characteristic of the other parts of the N-Town Manuscript or other contemporary English dramas. Martin Stevens notes: “Passion Play I could easily stand as a complete play. In effect, the plot takes in the major events from the Conspiracy to the Arrest, and thus includes among its major episodes the Entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper (which is here conflated with Jesus’ visit to Simon of Bethany), the Betrayal, and the Agony in the Garden. It is noteworthy that the play interweaves without break the action of the conspirators and of Jesus and his disciples. . . . It is therefore impossible to separate the action of either the Last Supper or the Conspiracy into one distinct episode” (Mystery Cycles, p. 203). First of all, this Passion playwright attempted to stage simultaneous action in two scenes (one in Passion 1; one in Passion 2), the split Last Supper discourse that is “interrupted” by Judas’ contract with the high priests. The second scene is the split Harrowing of Hell scene that is divided by Pilate’s guards’ reactions to the earthquake and foul weather. The second feature that opens Passion 1 is actually a theatrical induction, a dramatic feature that most scholars consider an early modern innovation. The dialogue here between Satan and John the Baptist is a true induction because it: 1) introduces the characters and their motivations; 2) gives the plot; and 3) frames the action of Passion 1 and parts of Passion 2 referring to contemporary issues. As with the Mary Play, I have used a double numbering scheme which maintains the integrity of Meredith’s play division and also the incorporation theory. The latter is numbered in italics following an asterisk.

The apocryphal sources for the Passion Plays are the Northern Passion, the Meditationes Vita Christi, Love’s Mirrour of the Blessed Lyf of Christ (a translation/expansion of the Meditationes), the Pepsyian Gospel Harmony, and the Gospel of Nicodemus. As noted before in the headnote to the Mary Play, Love’s Mirrour was an anti-Lollard tract, and a clear influence in the N-Town Passion Plays; for Passion 1, particularly in Satan’s and John the Baptist’s prologues, Conspiracy, Entry into Jerusalem, Last Supper, Conspiracy with Judas, and Betrayal. (See Sargent’s edition of Love’s Mirrour, pp. xliv–lxix.) The biblical sources for the Passion Plays are Matthew 23:37–28:20, Mark 14:1–16:11, Luke 22:1–24:12, and John 18:1–20:18. The dramatic material in the N-Town Passion Plays roughly corresponds to these plays in English: Plays 25–39 from York, Plays 20–26 in the Towneley Manuscript, Plays 14–18 from Chester, and Christ’s Burial and Christ’s Resurrection from MS E. Museo 160 (see Late Medieval Religious Plays, ed. Baker, Murphy, and Hall, pp. 141–93).

Go to Play 26, Conspiracy; Entry into Jerusalem