Note for the Mary Play (Plays 8-11 and 13)

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Note for the Mary Play (Plays 8-11 and 13)

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

The first scholar to notice the independent nature of the Mary Play was E. Martin Browne, who edited it as the Play of the Maid Mary. Since that time, the most noteworthy treatment of the play has been Peter Meredith’s Mary Play. The evidence for a discrete Marian playbook is convincing as there are scribal disruptions in the manuscript (lacuane, changes in the scribal hands to accommodate this new material, various attempts at reconciling old and new play material, etc.). The internal evidence is convincing as well. The N-Town Banns displays two types of disruptions to accommodate the Marian material. First of all, the Banns has been revised to this end, and even with the revisions, fails to describe the full extent of the Mary Play. The main scribe attempted to reconcile the new material, in part, by renumbering the plays. This proved a difficult task, as the corrected numbering in the Banns skips from play 7 (Root of Jesse) to play 10 (the Marriage of Mary and Joseph). The next stanza in the Banns, which should typically describe another play, is again enumerated as play 10. It is clear that the compiler never finished reconciling the old and new material. Secondly, the versification in the Banns changes, indicating a change in source material. Several stanzas in this part of the Banns are written as quatrains, not the usual thirteener stanzas found in the Banns and in the older cycle material. The Banns also neglects to mention the Presentation of Mary in the Temple and the Visit to Elizabeth.

Another noteworthy feature of this group of Mary plays is the figure of Contemplacio, who serves as a kind of wise counselor/narrator with his insightful meditations/mediations that both pace and advance the action of the plot and, at the same time, engage the spirit of Christian culture as it contemplates the events unfolding before the very eyes and ears of the audience. His role in these plays is so pronounced that these Marian plays are sometimes referred to as “The Contemplacio Group” (Rastall, Minstrels Playing, p. 60). Rastall also notes that the English stage directions tend to be longer and more developed in the Marian group, though there is, he argues, a complete lack of musical directives in this section, suggesting that the concern over musical performance, so prominent elsewhere in N-Town, is written into the cycle later, after the Mary plays had been originally assembled (Minstrels Playing, pp. 66–67, 78). Apparently the Ave Maria, in 11.223, 226, was to have been spoken, rather than sung, for instance, as was “the rather unusual saying [in Latin] of the Magnificat” in 13.82 ff. (Minstrels Playing, p. 76). Likewise, the Nunc dimittis, originally written to be spoken (19.146, s.d.), is sung only after the addition of a subsequent marginal stage direction (Minstrels Playing, p. 77). There are, it must be pointed out, several stage directions of music in the surviving manuscript of these plays, though these, Rastall suggests, are all later additions. See the notes to 8.97, s.d., 8.172, s.d., or 8.211–12, below.

The use of eclectic sources is reflected in the play as well. Woolf sees influences in Continental plays (English Mystery Plays, p. 161), and Forrest sees liturgical sources (“Apocryphal Sources of the St. Anne’s Day Plays”). The primary apocryphal sources are: Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend, Meditationes Vitae Christi, Nativity of Mary, The Life of St. Anne, Nicholas Love’s Mirrour of the Blessed Lyf of Christ, Protoevangelium, Pseudo-Matthew, and The Charter of the Abbey of the Holy Ghost. Of particular interest is Love’s Mirrour (a translation and expansion of the Meditationes) because of its specifically anti-Lollard stance. The Mirrour was also an important source for the N-Town Passion Plays (S 1:xliv–xlv, 2:538–41).

Besides the aforementioned disruptions in the manuscript, the narrative functions of Contemplacio, the initial exclusion of music, and the use of eclectic sources, the versification shifts in the Mary Play as well. In general, the thirteeners and the nine-line stanzas are likely remnants of the older cycle material while the octaves and quatrains arise from either the exemplar for the Mary Play or the main scribe’s revisions. It is clear that this play was relatively new to the manuscript, but that it also led a life apart from and prior to its inclusion into the larger N-Town compilation. This can be seen in the main scribe’s alternative ending to the Mary Play. And we may deduce that the different endings may represent different performance contexts. For more complete manuscribal discussions of the Mary Play, see Spector (The N-Town Plays 2:537– 43), Meredith (Mary Play, pp. 1–6), Fletcher, “Layers of Revision,” and Sugano, “From Playbooks to Compilatio” (pp. 103–33). For discussion on the numbering of lines within the Mary Play and other issues of editing, see the headnote to the text, pp. 18–19, above.

Go To Play 8, Joachim and Anne