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Staging the York Plays: Estimated Run Times

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1-1: Estimated Run Times

The most important estimation with which to begin is the estimated run time of each play within the York cycle. The York manuscript, known as the Register, preserves 48 plays in unusually good condition. Some leaves are missing, the line lengths vary from play to play, and there are textual references to songs that have not survived; nevertheless, line counts (when adjusted to account for the above details) can give us a good relative idea of how long each individual play might have lasted. Before the first major restagings of the York plays (at Leeds in 1975, Toronto in 1977), line counts were the only way of extrapolating the length of the overall performance event. Table 1 below gives the early estimations which the following paragraphs discuss. Two important times to investigate are the time it would take for each play to perform in sequence at the first station (what I shall call a "single performance") and the time it would take for the last play to finish at the last station (a "total performance," involving the twelve standard stations unless otherwise noted).

Martial Rose rejected stop-to-stop performance of every episode within the York cycle on the grounds that his own estimate of 15 hours for a single performance and 19 hours 35 minutes for a total performance was impossibly long (Rose 25-26). Rose was more interested in building a case for the staging of the Wakefield plays in the round than he was in accurately exploring the York staging; he simplified the case for York, basing his calculations on an average play length of 273 lines, which he said would take fifteen minutes to perform (Rose 26), at a rate of 1092 lines per hour.

Nelson modified Rose's work in several important ways. He pointed out that the procession was much more complex and lengthy than Rose had estimated. Because the plays are not of a uniform length, performances would result in inefficient gaps and backups. Nelson estimated that a single performance would last approximately 14,215 lines (based on Toulmin-Smith's line counts), or, using the convenient figure of 1000 lines per hour, 14.215 hours (14 hours, 13 minutes); and that a full performance at 12 stations would last for 21,321 lines (21 hours 19 minutes). Note that Nelson's single performance was shorter than Rose's (due in large part to Nelson's shorter "lines per hour" estimate), but his total performance was longer (due to Nelson's more complex and more accurate representation of a processional performance). Nelson stressed that his own figures, based on Toulmin-Smith's line counts, represented conservative estimates -- varying line forms, missing leaves, incidental songs, pantomimes, and processional entrances and exits would undoubtedly add to the performance time.

In an unpublished dissertation, Ruth Brant Gaede independently made some of the same modifications to Rose's work; however, she did not account for backups. She also used a much slower "lines per hour" figure (870 lines per hour) (Gaede 51, n 59). Her overcompensation for Rose's conservative estimates results in a single performance time of 18 hours, a total performance time of 33 hours 52 minutes for the usual 12 stations, and a whopping 38 hours 8 minutes for 16 stations (Gaede 85). Such figures led her to reject the traditional model.

Margaret Rogerson (then Margaret Dorrell) modified Nelson's work for her own time study. She ironed out minor kinks in Nelson's estimates (such as pacing out the travel times between the 12 official stations, which turned out for the most part to be smaller than Nelson had estimated), thereby reducing the estimated single performance time to 13 hours 18 minutes and the total performance time to just under 20 hours.
Table 1: 
Estimated Duration of a
48-Play York Cycle
1 Station
 12 Stations
Rose 15:00 19:35
Gaede 18:00 33:52
Nelson 14:13 21:19
Rogerson 13:18 19:59
Rogerson's massive time-table, which records her calculations for when each of 48 pageants arrives at, begins performing at, and finishes performing at each of 12 stations (Dorrell 102-107) has long stood as the last word concerning the study of the procession as it has traditionally been understood. Rogerson reports that there have been no published challenges to her runtime estimates. [1] However, her table is limited for several reasons, chief among them being that it does not allow for productions with more than 12 stations. In addition, the columns of numbers may intimidate literary scholars unused to working with figures; Martin Stevens, arguing against the traditional performance theory, further complained that "one glance at her Table (Performance in Progression) should convince even the faithful that the performance of the York cycle as conventionally described is a logistician's nightmare" (Stevens 114). PSim's graphic display is designed to alleviate such negative reactions.