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Signifying God: Social Relation and Symbolic Act in the York Corpus Christi Plays

Signifying God: Social Relation and Symbolic Act in the York Corpus Christi Plays

by Sarah Beckwith

In Signifying God, Sarah Beckwith explores the most lavish, long-lasting, and complex form of collective theatrical enterprise in English history: the York Corpus Christi plays. First staged as early as 1376, the plays were performed annually until the late 1500s and involved as much as a tenth of the city in multiple performances at a dozen or more


In Signifying God, Sarah Beckwith explores the most lavish, long-lasting, and complex form of collective theatrical enterprise in English history: the York Corpus Christi plays. First staged as early as 1376, the plays were performed annually until the late 1500s and involved as much as a tenth of the city in multiple performances at a dozen or more locations.

Introducing a radical new understanding of these plays as "sacramental theater," Beckwith shows how organizing the plays served as a political mechanism for regulating labor, and how theater and sacrament combined in them to do important theological work. She argues, for instance, that the theology of Corpus Christi in the resurrection plays can only be understood as a theatrical exploration of eucharistic absence and presence. Beckwith frames her study with discussions of twentieth-century manifestations of sacramental theater in Barry Unsworth's novel Morality Play and Denys Arcand's film Jesus of Montreal, and the connections between contemporary revivals of the York Corpus Christi plays and England's heritage culture.

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University of Chicago Press
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5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.00(d)

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Signifying God

By Sarah Beckwith
Copyright © 2001 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-04134-6

Chapter One
The Present of Past Things


Let us make noble use / Of this great ruin. -John Webster, Duchess of Malfi, 5.5.110-11

The York Corpus Christi plays in their past and present productions have always argued over how and what to remember. Through the resources of theater, ritual, and liturgy, they narrate the Christian myth, and in this most fundamental of senses, they remember the life of Christ and the eucharistic imperative, the invitation celebrated in the Feast of Corpus Christi: "Do this in remembrance of me." But the very form of this remembering became profoundly alarming when it embarrassed and betrayed reformed understandings of representation: Corpus Christi theater became idolatrous when it was regarded as confining the limitless and potent God to the body of an actor, to his mortal gestures and banalizing mimicry, and when the actor's act was understood to be scandalously imitating rather than gestically signifying God. Religious theater, in a long struggle in which it was the vehicle as well as the object of argument, became profaning by definition, a betrayal and not a revelation of the mysteries of the faith, as those mysteries and that faith were themselves radically imagined anew. In a profound shift in the mnemonic landscape of the sacred, England's Blasphemy Laws rendered performance of religious materials both practically impossible and conceptually unthinkable.

But the plays also remember and argue over memory, in the most tangible of ways, as they embody and transform the very shape of Corpus Christi in the plastic medium of the city of York. As the plays process through different stations, different places, different bodies, the shape and texture of Corpus Christi, the sacrament that is the church and all of Christian society, is twisted this way and that, transformed through its mediums of articulation. It is a ritual of remembrance orchestrated through a language of festivity that uses physical procession not just to display a social order but to fight over how it should be made up, how it wanted to be seen and hence remembered.

Technologies of remembrance are also part of the history of these dramas. Their confinement to a civic manuscript, made from copies of the "originals" owned by the trade guilds that produced and paid for the plays, is undoubtedly part of an attempt at control and censorship over extemporizing and unpredictable performances. Once the manuscript was in existence-about a hundred years after these plays began to be performed-the performances were checked against the scripted version by a clerk, who recorded and monitored changes for the civic corporation that kept the document. The memory of Corpus Christi, then, is argued over through the very forms and histories of its remembering.

Insofar as the York Corpus Christi plays are memorialized in English literary history, their northernness, their provinciality, their Catholicism, have often appeared to render them opaque, if not inexplicable to the literary histories that write the tradition of English literature in an Englishness that is unabashedly metropolitan, southern-dominated, and deeply Anglican. To walk around York as a southerner today is still to experience the sheer difference of a history written from rather than about the north of England.

It is precisely the ruptures, the profound discontinuities of the history of these plays, and the forms of cultural memory they inhabit that render them resonant for me as their historian. Their suppression, itself a massive attempt to reconstitute popular memory, is testimony to their spark and promise, and not just to their crudity and obsolescence, the danger of what and how they remembered. Their awkward, yet astonishingly successful resurrection after the Festival of Britain in 1951 indicates how densely and significantly they work in the very grains and arguments not just of English historiography, but of a necessarily expanded sense of the past as both fully contemporary and resolutely vernacular.

The York plays were performed off and on from 1376 to 1569. After 1951 they were finally revived for the Festival of Britain and have been henceforth performed in York every three or four years. They offer in their medieval enactment, Reformation suppression, and modern revival the most complex and various relations between the past and the present, the most nuanced and difficult versions of memory, that faculty of the soul Augustine called the present of past things. This first chapter deals not with the story of their enactment or suppression (the subject of chapters 2 to 7), but with the revival of the plays in 1951 and with the contemporary past that the Festival of Britain inaugurates in the modern life of the cycle. The strange story of the revival of these plays after an obliteration of nearly four hundred years will show the nature of our memorial and historical investment, as it also newly makes present that paradigmatically "past thing," the York Corpus Christi cycle. John Elliott in Playing God, which charts the modern stage life of the medieval "mysteries," prefaces his book with the following comment: "Ours is an age committed to the conservation of the past, yet few forms of art, dramatic or otherwise, have followed so tricky a path from oblivion to recognition as these fifteenth and sixteenth century biblical dramas." As a rememoration, the contemporary Corpus Christi revivals in York offer us a way of looking at the framing of the medieval past in a contemporary city and at the specific past-present enactions at work there in the vaunted path from "oblivion" to "recognition." As such, it may also provide the means of exploring in a concrete setting the relation between historical loss and cultural reparation, which has recently been located as a vital psychic undergirding of medieval studies itself.


The Official Handbook of the Festival of Britain describes the sense of crisis and recuperation central to the conceptualization and mood of the festival: "Conceived among the untidied ruins of war and fashioned through days of harsh economy, this festival is a challenge to the sloughs of the present and a shaft of confidence cast forth against the future." Held to commemorate the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Festival of Britain was principally located in four national centers-Glasgow, Belfast, Cardiff, and London-and twenty-two provincial centers. Roy Strong describes the festival as a concerted attempt to construct a "new secular mythology" through which to constitute a future. The very centerpiece of the festival was an ambitiously conceived exhibition on the South Bank that told a story about the continuity of Britishness, the unbreakable and profoundly informing link between Britain's landscape, arts, and people. The British people were to be remade through the conjuration of a changeless and immemorial landscape, one that shaped them as indefatigably as they shaped it in an inescapable and fully mutual belonging. On the one hand, then, the British past was of comfortingly long duration, and this history was confirmed in and read through the indelible geography of its landscape. In this familiar but newly poignant relationship between landscape and time, between geography and history, the exhibition tells a story that is the stock in trade of romantic nationalism. Yet on the other hand, the festival staged the past as concertedly anachronistic. "The past was present only in the form of anachronism," remarks Raphael Samuel in his analysis of the festival as part of a contemporary archaeology of the past. Willfully modern, relentlessly futuristic, the festival also sought to celebrate reconstruction. Adrian Forty declared it "a celebration of the achievements of the Labour Government," the architects of the postwar welfare state. It was the Education Act (1944), the Town and Country Planning Act (1947), the National Insurance Act (1948) made manifest, beautiful, and material. The National Health Service was inaugurated on 5 July 1948, and it was the crowning glory of reconstruction, enacting a principle of welfare based not on the degradation of means-testing and selection but on the basis of universality-"flat-rate contributions and an equality of benefit for all as a bonding of a common citizenship." The visionary legislation that inaugurated a historic change in the relation between state and people, and that was to sustain them from cradle to deathbed, has been rightly hailed as "the nearest Britain has ever come to institutionalizing altruism." It was to be celebrated in the new-built environment, and the Festival of Britain, as well as celebrating a naturalized landscape, bodied forth the artificial triumphs of man-made reconstruction in concrete, brick, and glass. It was architecture, then, that was the predominant theme as well as the primary medium of the festival."

The Festival of Britain took place between 3 May and 30 September 1951. In York the festival occupied the fortnight between 3 June and 17 June, and the relation between place and people was a vital understanding of the celebration. The archbishop of York, Dr. Cyril Garbett, opened the festival with a service at York Minster, and in his sermon he tried to thicken the time of the present through the reinvention of memory and the recovery of anticipation. Archbishop Garbett was not unequivocal about the modern, but hoped to celebrate the festival as the witnessing of the triumph of freedom over tyranny. He took as the text of his sermon the line from Psalm 16:6: "Yea, I have a goodly heritage," and located the goodliness of that heritage in York itself. The British love of freedom was ancient, he said. In the Middle Ages it was found in the trade councils and guilds, which protected the freedom and interests of their members. And in a continuation of this theme, as one newspaper reporter put it, "The whole city witnessed those characteristics of national life of which he had been speaking-freedom, authority and religion." The festival strove to make material, to embody the hope of reconstruction, and the success of 1951 in York lay in the tight relationship between event and place that it created. By October of that year, a Conservative government had returned to power, and although this government maintained the consensus about the construction and maintenance of welfare, it was nevertheless very soon possible retrospectively to see 1951 as a marker, an ending of Clement Attlee's Britain.

The Festival of Britain in York was merely the beginning of an arts festival that has taken place subsequently every three years to this day, and the celebration of the very specificity of place was a central part of the desire to continue this newly invented tradition. The "Report of the Board of the York Festival Society" ended with the following sentiment as they planned the events of 1954: "There will be nothing in this York Festival which does not have its proper place and justification. The buildings will not be adapted for the event, the event will adapt itself to buildings and grow in greater strength from that marriage of the site with the artistic creation." That interrelationship between building and event, where the event marks the building but is constructed as simply molding itself to the preexisting exigencies of an already implacable site, becomes part of the essential mise-en-scène of the festival in York, but is particularly noticeable in the early years of revival. As the front page of the Yorkshire Gazette put it in June 1954, as the second festival opened, the plays "belong to York in a way that few other works of art belong to their places of origin." The Corpus Christi plays were indispensable to the inextricable relation between place and event in many and various ways. For Archbishop Garbett, they were "like a silver thread" binding together the separate events making up the Festival of Britain.


Canon Purvis translated the plays from the manuscript, abbreviating them drastically so that they could be performed in three hours. They were staged every evening in the Museum Gardens between 3 June and 17 June 1951. Purvis's translation divided the cycle into two parts, massively cutting the Old Testament portions, which lasted a mere half hour. The first part took the narrative of the beginning of the world, to the nativity of Christ and up to the entry into Jerusalem; the second half could then be devoted to a narrative shaped around Judas's conspiracy, giving the greatest time and attention to the Passion, Resurrection, Ascension, and Last judgement sequences. The actors who played God and Christ were to be kept anonymous because Martin Browne, the director, felt that their personalities should not interfere with the object of their representation. But the actor playing Christ, Joseph O'Connor, was publicized because a local paper leaked his name. Browne used many amateur and local actors and kept the largest speaking parts for professionals. Keith Thomson, the director of the Board of Directors of the Festival, laid out some of the aesthetic and representational principles that governed the casting and production of the plays: "The first essential is that the actor should be a Christian. The man chosen must himself believe." Thomson had been secretary of the Planning Committee of the Festival, and he was well connected: his grandfather had been archbishop of York. The then-archbishop of York, Cyril Garbett, had been less than enthusiastic about the production of the plays as religious drama. Thomson arranged an informal meeting between the archbishop of Canterbury and the archbishop of York, and they agreed to the production of the drama on two grounds: first, that the plays be performed on sacred ground and as a religious rather than theatrical event, and, second, that Martin Browne should be the director of the plays. Martin Browne had been responsible for directing T S. Eliot's religious theater and regarded religious theater as itself sacramental. As he said in a publication of 1936: "All religious drama ... should strive to attain participation in a common experience vicariously suffered, whose perfect model is The Eucharist." Browne was Director of Religious Drama for the Diocese of Chichester, an appointment that Bishop Bell had secured for him. Browne, then, as Elliott remarks in Playing God, was "in the unique position as the professional director of an amateur theatre, responsible not to the authorities who had traditionally controlled drama in England but to an enlightened church leader."

Browne used the ruins of St. Mary's Abbey as his stage. St. Mary's was the Benedictine abbey that lay on the northwest side of York just outside its city walls. This had originally been a five-apsed Norman church, rebuilt in the fourteenth century. A fragmentary nave still survives. Browne used the ruined north wall (about 150 feet long) as the backdrop to his production, deploying five of the eight available bays. The upper level of this wall was "heaven," and whenever God appeared, he was framed in the central arch. In the northwest corner, Browne raised a stage six feet above the floor with steps up to it; this corner stage also concealed a sepulcher. The lower floor was used for Pilate, the stable, and the priests; there was also a traditional hell's mouth to stage right. Eventually Browne used a multilevel open stage to facilitate movement, but he later remarks that "the mansions were better suited to the setting, which is powerfully dominated by the beauty of the ruined medieval architecture." The medieval costumes were modeled on quattrocento paintings. Browne strove then for a pictorial effect; the actor playing Christ was praised in the reviews for "wisely relying on an evocative repose of face and figure." The Leeds Guardian reported that the production had "the beauty of an old painting come to life."


Excerpted from Signifying God by Sarah Beckwith Copyright © 2001 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Sarah Beckwith is professor of English at Duke University. She is author of Christ's Body: Identity, Culture and Society in Late Medieval Writings and editor of Catholicism and Catholicity: Eucharistic Communities in Historical and Contemporary Perspectives.

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