Monday, January 9, 2006

On the new Norton Anthology and medieval drama

This is actually not my post on the pleasures and problems of surveys and anthologies, but a smaller, related but more specific bit that I thought I should separate out of the more general post I’m working on (which I'll finish tonight, I think).

So I finally looked more closely at the medieval drama selections and headnotes in the new 8th edition of the Norton Anthology of English Literature and I have to say I less to complain about where the cycle/mystery plays are concerned (except, perhaps, missing the Chester Noah play, as Lecturess also lamented in the comments to the last post) than I used to. In fact, all in all, I’m actually really pleased with the updates to those selections. Until this new edition, the headnotes for “Mystery Plays” in the Norton were hideously out of date (by about 50 years!) and factually wrong. Finally they’ve been updated by medievalists who know what they’re talking about and, in fact, I think I now prefer them to the ones in the Longman Anthology of British Literature. Best of all, the new Norton headnotes correct the old chestnut – which was overtuned half a century ago but which stubbornly persists – that the vernacular Biblical drama developed out of Latin liturgical drama. (It didn’t.) This medievalist says “Yay! Finally!” Now if only we can get it out of the ‘world drama’ anthologies. There are a few little bits to nitpick – for instance, Simpson and/or David (whoever wrote this particular headnote) seem to think that N-Town and Wakefield were also guild-sponsored like York and Chester, when actually there’s no external evidence for that in either case, and only very questionable manuscript evidence in the case of Wakefield. But that’s a tiny nit. All in all, I think the headnotes for both the York “Crucifixion” (a new edition) and the Wakefield “Second Shepherd’s Play” are very good.

As for the missing Chester “Noah” play and the addition of the York “Crucifixion” (copying Longman, it seems), I think I can guess their reasoning. When the “Second Shepherd’s Play” and “Noah” were the representatives of cycle drama, it made it seem as if it were all slapstick and failed to demonstrate that the vast majority of plays in the cycles are about the trials, passion, and resurrection of Christ, or that there’s a plethora of tones and moods. The replacement of Noah with the Crucifixion not only shows the variety of tones the plays strike – and the weird ways they can combine “gallows humor,” everyday realism, purposeful anachronism, and piety – but shifts the emphasis back onto the central Christian narrative (although I personally would have kept Noah or put in a different Old Testament narrative so one could show how they work in the cycles, too). I like, too, that they put the Crucifixion play right after Margery Kempe, making connections thematic rather than simply generic (again, seemingly copying the Longman).

But why, oh why, must Everyman be the example of a “medieval morality play.” (Never mind the problems with the term “morality play” – or heck, “mystery” play, for that matter. Too big an issue for this blog post.) I remember a Kalamazoo paper title (I should find it online, but I’m rushed now – I’ll find it later) along the lines of “Everyman: Quintessential? English? Medieval? Morality? Play?” and that’s the way I teach it. Everyman is an anomaly and a vexed one at that. Much more representative would be The Castle of Perseverance or Mankind (if they wanted to copy Longman once more). Seriously, no wonder students think medieval drama is stiff and boring if Everyman is all they read (which may be the case in some courses, where there isn’t time for the mystery play selections). And gosh, it sets up the “renaissance” of Elizabethan theater quite nicely, doesn’t it? (I know early modernists who teach it in just that way, as a foil for the greatness of the Elizabethan theater. Of course I know not all would do that, but many Shakespeareans of a certain generation are prone to that sort of reading.) Oh well, stuff to work on for the 9th edition.

OK, so that’s my bit about the medieval drama selections in the Norton. I haven’t had a chance to really plumb the depths of other changes to the medieval selections, but I did notice this: they added “Cheverfoil” to the Marie de France selections. Oh for pete’s sake, why “Chevrefoil” when just about any of the other Lais is more interesting?! I mean, come on – “Bisclavret” is a werewolf tale!


Karl Steel said...

I was TAing for an ENG Lit to 1500 course this last semester and my prof was frankly sort of flailing away at Everyman. She asked me what I thought of it, and I blurted out that: a) I couldn't stand the play; b) I wasn't convinced that it had ever been performed, and that so far as I was concerned, it should count as a devotional tract rather than drama (keeping in mind the falseness of these generic boundaries blah blah blah). I strongly suggested the Castle of P in its place. I'm happy to say that the prof says I freed her from the burden of ever teaching Everyman again.

If I were to teach Everyman, I'd teach it, if I had to, in a grad seminar maybe with pedagogic dialogues like Odo of Tournai (Cambrai?)'s On Original Sin and A Disputation with the Jew to start, and then things like the Prick of Conscience or some John Mirk, and then finally alongside Thomas Chaundler's Liber Apologeticus de Omni Statu Humanae Naturae.

Do any of the medieval drama anthologies post-Bevington include the French drama? Or include the Cornish drama?

Do these anthologies have the two best English plays, the Croxton Play of (insert appropriate title here) and the Digby Magdelene?

Anonymous said...

I'm de-lurking here. A great post on anthologies and teaching. I haven't taught with an anthology since I had TA duties years ago; in my current doctoral program, there have been no opportunities to do this kind of survey course teaching. While I cannot divine the rationale of the editors of the Norton, one of the reasons for leaving Chester's "Noah" play out of "Medieval Drama" is the late date of the manuscript-it is a 1605 MS, if I remember correctly. Of course, such a rationale buys into the strict division between periods, which I personally have no investment in. In fact, I think the drama is a great example of a form that does not conform nicely to the great period divide of "medieval" and "early modern."

As for collections of Medieval Drama, I agree with Trincula--the Blackwell edition is good for selection. It has the Croxton play, but not the Digby Mary M. Coldewey's older anothology has both plays together, along with a few of the cycle plays (and many other theatrical texts). I rely on both of these for the texts themselves, although I prefer the Blackwell. Interesting to hear that the Norton anthology has take so long to update its headnotes on the drama.

Best, Derrick

Dr. Virago said...

I'm happy to say that the prof says I freed her from the burden of ever teaching Everyman again.

Excellent, Karl! :) And I agree, it's more a "treatise" than a play. Of course, I think medieval and early modern texts sometimes had malleable uses/genres (just as we read as well as watch Shakespeare).

And Derrick, thanks for saying exactly what I would've said about the Blackwell drama anthology and Coldewey's old one. I have used the Blackwell and then dig a course pack with the Magdalene plays copied from Bevington, and I have also done a course with Coldewey plus the Beadle and King York plays.

As for the lateness of Chester...well, yes, the manuscripts are late antiquarian copies, but the civic record shows that the plays were fifteenth century plays, so their roots are firmly medieval, as is their general character. Although I agree that drama is probably the *best* single genre/area where the period boundaries break down, and in most interesting ways. (And yet, so many early modernists don't see it this way -- go figure.)

Dr. Virago said...

Er, I *did* a course pack. And I meant "Magdalene play," singular, not plural (though it seems like many plays in one).

Cats & Dogma said...

I teach on the other end of the historical spectrum, but when I teach the drama survey (which I do with some frequency) I skip Everyman altogether, opting for Hrotsvit, Second Shepherd's or Mankind, all of which kick Everyman's boring butt.

Karl Steel said...

Ah, but you should teach part of Castle of P.: if you can make that interesting to undergrads, you've really made them understand the Middle Ages.

Now, doesn't Hrosvit have lack-of-performance problem similar to Everyman?

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I tend to think of Hrosvit as writing texts that imitated the classical dramatists in order to substitute them for these immoral dramatists (a la some of the early medievals efforts to write a Xian epic that would supplant Virgil). If that's the case, these plays probably would no more have been performed in the 10th century than, say, Terrance was.

But I could be wrong! My point here is that since performance context is what makes drama unique as a genre, works that imitate drama w/out performance sort of don't count...

Ancrene Wiseass said...

It really is amazing how much the Norton's been influenced by the Longman, isn't it?

As for the whole "Everyman"-as-an-example-of-all-medieval-drama-had-to-offer-and,-God,-aren't-we-glad-the-Elizabethans-came-along-to-save-us-from-that? approach: yes. That happens a lot. And it's really, really annoying.

I think "Chevrefoil" is utterly fascinating, but I'll agree that it might not be the very best anthology selection.

Dr. Virago said...

Karl -- I think you're right about Hrosvit not really being a performed text. I also happent to share your interest in performance context.

And guess what -- I *did* teach Castle of P. and I *did* manage to make it interesting to undergrads. No, really! Of course, I had a self-selecting audience in an upper-div medieval drama class. But at any rate, it *can* be done.

AW -- But, but, but, but Bisclavret is a *werewolf*! :)

Anonymous said...

It wasn't until I saw a version of Twelfth Night in Regents Park, maybe twenty years ago, that I understood all this fuss about Shakespeare. Since, I've seen innumberable Shakespearean productions -- some terrible and some sublime. I think it would be a mistake to judge any play before you had given it a fair shot on the stage.

I am currently in post production on a film adaptation of Everyman. I spent a year finding amazing actors who bring clarity, humor, and sensitivity to the piece. Rehearsal was extensive and the ten day shoot intense to say the least.

I invite you nay-sayers to not only see this production, but seek out other productions before condemning a fascinating play as stiff an boring. Everyman is meant to be performed. My website is If you're interested in the DVD when it comes out, please feel free to fill out a form on the 'Contact' page of my site.

Also, the term 'Moral Play' comes from the Front Piece of the John Scot printed edition.

Dr. Virago said...

Anon -- Thanks so much for your input. While some of us are/were arguing that Everyman was not "meant to be performed" in its original historical context (and have scholarly reasons for saying so), I don't doubt that it could still perform well. I work on medieval drama in my scholarship and teaching, so I know very well that some plays that seems uninteresting on the page are fabulous on the stage.

And actually, my biggest objection to it as *the* example of medieval morality drama is that actually is not very typical of medieval morality drama at all, especially not English morality plays. It's much more an example of early humanist continental works.

And while I think it does pale in comparison to Mankind, The Castle of Perseverance, and other medieval works, I actually find Everyman interesting and compelling if not compared to them. Undergraduates, on the other hand, are another case entirely and I think true medieval moralities are more appealing to them (they usually love Mankind) and I'd rather see their introduction to medieval drama be appealing (to them) than not, since they tend to get so turned off so easily.

Anyway, I'm very excited by your comment about your production of the play. I am most *definitely* interested in the DVD because that could be a *fabulous* teaching tool and also help to overcome undergraduate distaste for the play! So many thanks! I think I will make a new post so other people see this and also sign up to purchase a DVD when it's out. Certainly medieval/early modern drama teachers would love to have something like that.