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Staging the York Plays: Ground Rules

StagingScholarly Debate [ Length | RulesAnalysis [ Stations | Plays | ObservationsResults  |  Conclusion

1-2: Ground Rules

In his own computer-aided study of the York cycle, Alan Nelson challenged the widely-held belief that each play in the York cycle was performed in full at each of the stations (a performance method he termed the "true-processional") on the grounds that even if it began "promptly at five o'clock in the morning . . the last play cannot possibly finish at the last station before quarter past two the following morning." (Nelson, "Principles" 115). He republished his mathematical study in a slightly modified form in 1974, when he added, "even with the most efficient system for governing advances, the production, at least at York, is beyond endurance" (Nelson, MES 33). [2] [Stevens also seems to have misread Rogerson's chart. Referring to her numerical study, he writes, "she posits a performance time from 4.30 a.m. of one day to 12.52 a.m. the next" (Stevens 113); however, Rogerson's published table clearly indicates a finish time of 12:29 a.m. (Rogerson, "Two Studies" 107).]

In summarizing the development of York staging theories, Nelson points out that the term "processional" is rather vague. He gives his definition of the characteristics of the "true processional:"

He then suggests three staging techniques that would meet those qualifications: Nelson rejects his first two suggestions. The "uniform advance" method is probably the easiest to visualize, but the suggestion that the advance rate of the first plays, which happen to be relatively short, be governed by the performance length of the longest play, which might not be staged for several hours, makes little sense. The idea that the performers, whom the records clearly indicate were subject to penalties resulting from delays or tarrying, would sit idly for a fixed length of time does not withstand scrutiny.

The "synchronized advance" method makes more sense, but is far from simple to visualize, as Nelson must have been aware when he made reference to couriers (whose presence does not appear in the records). The need for such couriers, and the inevitable time-lag involved, would be completely obviated if each troupe simply brought their wagon on to the next station as soon as their play was finished, so that the actors could be poised on the wagons ready to be wheeled in place as soon as the station is clear. The narrow streets of York would have been a tight squeeze for the wagons (many of them with elaborate built-up sets), waiting in line between the stations, most of which were probably within hearing distance of one another. Nevertheless, we must reject, as Nelson does, the suggestion that no wagon moves until all stations are finished, because it leads to the image of troupes of actors, all of them finished with their plays and standing idle at every station along the route, forced to wait where they are until the longest play finishes performing at the final station.

Nelson's "free advance" method definitely is the fastest of his three options, but his condition 3 (b) is not as relevant as he supposes. His ambiguous grammar seems to suggest that one play does not even begin to move at all until the play ahead of it has cleared the next station, which would mean that any station thus vacated would remain empty for as long as it takes for the wagon to arrive from the previous station. Common sense tells us that a play would clear its station and move on as soon as it had finished playing, and if necessary wait in the street near the next station for the preceding play to clear. The ensuing local traffic jams and the disruption of the crowds jostled by moving wagons must have been massive, but the overall procession would have proceeded more efficiently than under either of the other plans. We must accept, then, that if too many wagons tried to occupy too small a space, the result would be chaos.

Nelson's time study concluded with the following challenge:

Previous challenges to the traditional view (which Gaede chronicles in detail) had prepared Nelson to conclude that spectators at the stations throughout the city saw only dumb shows, which may have included brief speeches, and that the full stage performance took place only once, at the end of the route. Martin Stevens also argues for a single performance on the pavement at the end of the route (see Stevens, "From Procession to Play"). Rogerson and Alexandra Johnston were among those scholars who returned to the primary sources to construct a well-documented case for preserving the true-processional model (see Rogerson, "Two Studies," and Johnston's review of Nelson's MES).

A strong argument against dumb-shows was the large number of references to the plays being not only seen, but also heard. Unwilling to accept the traditional view, but unable to ignore some evidence in favor of it, Stanley Kahrl aimed for a compromise of sorts. He rejected the idea that each station saw each play in full, but thought that all along the route, every audience would be able to see some plays. His reason was his interpretation of the following 1476 order:

Traditionally, this order had been interpreted as a prohibition against any single actor playing more than two different roles in the whole production: Kahrl uses the 1476 order to support his claim that each play was not performed in full at every station. He, like Nelson, thinks of the pageants as "what we now call a 'float' an elaborate set containing a tableau vivant" (Kahrl 32). For him, the phrase, "thay so plaing plaje not ouere twise þe saide day" meant that only twice during the day did the actors actually perform the whole play. All audiences along the route would see the sets, recognize the iconographic scenes, and perhaps hear brief speeches from each float; and everyone would be able to hear at least some plays.

Nelson had claimed that the length of the York Cycle, when performed according to the traditional model, would be impossible for the actors and audience members to endure. Rogerson's estimate, however, relieves this particular concern. The actors she traces in her example would have performed for about three and half hours in Play 1, and a little over five hours in Play 16. An actor who performed in these two plays would have eight and a half hours of work. Play 34, being one of the long trial sequence, would take over seven hours of performance time -- surely a feat of stamina for actors who had been performing all morning, but not an impossible task for a fresher set of actors. The longest plays by Rogerson's estimate (the plays on the Jerusalem entry and on Pilate's wife) would each spend a total of about seven and a quarter hours in performance and in transit all along the route.

Among the most telling support for the traditional theory, as collated by Rogerson and Johnston, was the fact that the records include complaints, penalties and fines connected to the fact that the production of the cycle was indeed a highly complicated affair subject to many hazards, delays, and inefficiencies -- to a far greater extent than we could imagine a simplified parade of dumb shows to cause. For instance, the records indicated that the wagons were to be ready "at the mydhowre betwix iiijth[4] and vth[5] of the clocke in the mornyng" (MS A/Y fols. 254-255). The time noted, about 4:30 am, was roughly when the first light would have been appearing in the east. Ideally, the whole production would ideally fit between first light and the fall of darkness, which might have been as late as 11pm at that far northern location. Yet, the records preserve the Mason's unhappiness with the Fergus play (which was located very near the end of the cycle) because it was often if not regularly performed after dark. Until at least 1427, a torch-lit procession including religious and city officials preceded the play wagons along the route. The gaps, which would naturally ensue when faster plays run on ahead of slower plays, created a buffer zone, which would have allowed the religious procession to creep along with the most solemn liturgical dignity. If the procession did delay some of the early wagons, the overall production could make up for the time, since the later gaps would be shorter; the total length of the event, therefore, need not have been affected even by an extended delay during the early plays -- so long as the plays could work smoothly with tighter gaps. The tighter those gaps, the more likely a slight disruption in the cycle's organization might delay all plays following along the route -- especially in the last half of the production, when the gaps disappear.

The key factor in such a discussion is the length of the overall cycle. If we find fault with the idea that Rogerson's estimate of just under 20 hours would leave a large portion of the plays -- not just the Fergus play -- to take place after dark, we could conceivably modify the data to shave some more time off of the full production estimate. For instance, Nelson's study did not account for the fact that the two Herod/Kings plays (The Magi and The Adoration) duplicate about 8 minutes of dialogue. Clearly both plays were never intended to be played together in their entirety. Rogerson also counts that block of text twice, which could mean that her estimate for a single production is eight minutes too long.

However, every "tweak" in one direction can be answered by a datum to be tweaked the opposite way -- for instance, Rogerson accepted Nelson's decision not to try to restore missing lines and leaves from the manuscript. Those missing lines would have added to the length, as would the songs, music, stage business, etc. which are not necessarily reflected in the lines of dialogue. Fiddling further with the estimated performance lengths is probably not a useful method for recreating the performance. I do feel, however, that there is room for manipulating the ground rules. A realistic study would have to allot some time for setting up and breaking down the carts; but perhaps Nelson's addition of stagehand time worth the equivalent of 20 lines was too much. I will return to this question later, when I discuss the production times I took from the videotapes of the Toronto production.

Rogerson dispensed with Nelson's addition for stagehand time, on the assumption that the plays could begin and end simultaneously. Many of the York plays begin with a monologue or a dialogue interchange that involves characters who are journeying towards the place which is most likely represented by the wagon. For instance, in Creation/5 Days (86 lines by Toulmin-Smith's count), God begins by summarizing the events of Creation/Lucifer. Only at the very end of the 14th line "...and more now will I make" does it seem absolutely necessary for the set to be present for the additional creation work God begins in the 15th line. Many other plays have similar "prologues" that last for several minutes. The various trial plays, which clearly begin in court, are among those that would seem to require the full stage at the very outset; yet Rogerson found the presence of enough "prologues" to reject Nelson's 20-line buffer altogether. The presence of these prologues could not only obviate the need for stagehand time, but in certain cases effectively decrease the travel time required between stations, if we imagine that the actors could walk slightly faster than the stagehands pulling the wagons.

Such a "prologue advance" theory might shave a few or even a few dozen minutes off of the production time of the whole cycle, depending on how much time we decide this method will save, but I have not pursued the matter further. An early version of PSim had a data field specifically for the length of the "prologue," but anyone who wishes to simulate this detail in the Windows 3.x version (not presently deliverable over the internet) can make a rough estimate of the results by simply shortening the overall run-time of the play by the estimated amount of time such a method would save the individual production of a play. Bear in mind that if a play is consistently backed up (as the shorter Annunciation play is behind the longer Exodus play), the presence of even an extensive prologue (such as the learned exposition of Jewish prophecy in the Annunciation play) has little effect on the production length.

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