Alexandra F. Johnston

The Scholarly Context
The Early Days

The Scholarly Context

In 1954, a magisterial volume was published by Oxford University Press that was to be the summation of all that was known or needed to be known about the drama before Shakespeare. This was English Religious Drama by Hardin Craig. That same year an equally senior scholar, F.M.Salter of the University of Alberta delivered the Alexander Lectures at University College, University of Toronto, and launched a revolution in the scholarship of early drama that continues to gather momentum more than forty years later.

Central to this revolution has been the recreation of early drama on the stage. The unofficial ban on presenting the godhead on stage in Great Britain was lifted only in 1951 with the revival of a condensed version the York Cycle in York for the Festival of Britain. Once the ban had been lifted, however, interest grew in the performance of this material. Productions of many kinds sprang up all over England spurring more and more interest in the stage-worthiness and power of a long neglected art form. The interest among North American academics was high and in 1961 Professor Arnold Williams convened a session at the Modern Language Association meeting in New York to allow those who had seen this drama in modern performance an opportunity to discuss what they had learned. That seminar/discussion session became a fixture of the MLA meetings and was, for many years, the most important forum for the exchange of ideas and information in the field.

Professor John Leyerle, whose own scholarly interests were in fifteenth-century drama, attended those early sessions at the MLA. When he joined the graduate department of English at the U of T in 1964, he offered a course in early drama (the first such ever given at Toronto). Influenced by the MLA seminar discussions, he encouraged his students to perform a play as well as study it. From the experience of that class, PLS was born.

The Early Days

The group made its mark very early in scholarly circles. The 1966 production of Rafe Roister Doister was performed for the Medieval Academy of America meeting in Toronto that year. The next year the Towneley Cain and Noah was performed for the MLA seminar meeting in Chicago. In 1968 the group took Like Will to Like to a medieval conference in McGill and a group of plays from N-Town to the Third Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies in Binghamton, New York.

During the first decade of its life, the group concentrated on performing in Middle English. The language of the plays and the verse form released from the confining limits of the page were central to the experimentation. Stage conventions were less carefully considered since the conventional wisdom, at that time, was that nothing could really be known about the stage practices and therefore it was perfectly legitimate to perform the plays, for example, as “studio” productions with modern lighting, make-up and music.

However, from the late 1960’s on there was an increasing interest in attempting to recreate the original staging conditions. One of the first such attempts was made by a local group in Grantham, England who performed an abridged N-Town Cycle in 1966 outside using the parish church as the backdrop. However, the most important staging reconstruction was that of the late Neville Denny of Bristol University who staged much of the Cornish Ordinalia in an authentic Cornish Round. Denny’s production was significant because he deliberately made the plays as big as they must have been under the original performance conditions and, because his text was in Cornish, he used a good translation that made the production accessible to the public. Here, for the first time, scholarly reconstruction was joined with popular appeal. Denny’s untimely death cut off what might have been a long standing series of historically-based productions using the splendid resources of the Bristol Drama Department with its strong ties to the BBC.

Central to this interest in reconstructing the original staging was the renewed archival research into the external evidence for medieval and renaissance staging practice. In 1969, Alan Nelson of Berkeley read a paper at the MLA session in which he refuted, on the basis of a computer analysis, that the York Cycle could have been performed on separate wagons in procession. Professor Arthur Cawley, one of the senior British scholars in the field, heard the paper and went home to Leeds disturbed by the speculative basis of the argument to find a new research student from Australia on his doorstep eager to work with him. He sent her to York to work on the civic records where I met her in the fall of 1971 over the discovery of the single most important document in English medieval stage history, the description of the Mercers’ Judgment wagon from 1433. We were only two of a number of scholars who were working in archives all over Britain discovering new evidence of performance practice. From this group of scholars came Records of Early English Drama.

When REED was founded in 1975, PLS was at a transition point. The first generation of graduate students had passed through the system and the second was well on its way towards establishing careers elsewhere. Professor Leyerle, though still Director of the Medieval Centre, was becoming more and more involved in the wider life of the university and his role in the group was greatly diminished. He taught his last seminar in early drama during the academic year 1974-75. That was the year I became a member of the graduate school and the academic leadership of the group fell to me.

To the symbiotic relationship between REED and PLS has been added essential insights derived from detailed analyses of the manuscripts of the plays. The editorial work on the manuscripts has been done by British and American scholars in close co-operation with REED and with a conviction that the plays must be allowed to be played in as close to historical conditions as can be provided. David Parry came to Toronto in 1974 and soon was attracted both to PLS and to the idea of writing his doctoral thesis based on a production. The historical reconstruction of the Castle of Perseverance mounted in 1979 became the basis of the acting edition of the Castle of Perseverance that was his dissertation. Other students have used their experience in PLS in their graduate work for the Centre for Medieval Studies, the Drama Centre and the English Department.

David Parry was made the artistic director of the company in 1975. Under his dynamic leadership, PLS became the major company for the exploration of the texts in performance in the world. Although colleagues in Britain and the United States have mounted important productions, only PLS has managed to continue producing significant productions over a sustained period of time. Our major productions of the York Cycle (1977 and 1998), Castle (1979), the N-Town Passion Play (1981), the Chester Cycle (1983), the Towneley Cycle (1985), the N-Town Pageants (1988), the Anniversary Play Festival (1992) and the festival of plays associated with the meeting of the Société pour l’Étude du Théâtre Mediéval in 1995 have all had major impacts on scholarship. An important academic colloquium was convened in conjunction with the 1998 York production. Many of the papers delivered at that time along with a selected number of “Directors’ Notes” comprised an enlarged third volume of Early Theatre, an academic journal associated with REED. Of the production, the first mounted in a single day since 1569, Robert Potter of UC Santa Barbara wrote, “The magnitude of Toronto’s achievement in finally realizing a full multi-station pageant wagon production of the the entire York Cycle can scarcely be overestimated. After centuries of neglect, and decades of scholarly speculation over whether such a performance was feasible or ever had been, the full glory of the York plays as a theatrical and theological extravaganza has now begun to dawn on us. … Only when the last actor’s voice fell silent, deep into the Toronto night, did any of us truly realize what had been accomplished. Before, in their totality, the York plays only existed in theory. Now the word had become flesh and dwelt among us.”

Our academic influence has also been felt outside Toronto. We have toured in Canada, the US and Europe. We have also mounted important single productions that have been part of major academic conferences — an Easter Matins for the Medieval Academy of America in 1987, Wisdom for the Kalamazoo Conference in 1991 and the N-Town Assumption of the Virgin complete with a medieval hoisting device for the Medieval Academy in 1992. No other group in the world has what we have in terms of expertise, stage properties, costumes or scholarly resources.

PLS can also be proud of the way it has fostered other groups in North America and Europe. Of the nine major productions, only two — Castle and the N-Town Passion were exclusively PLS shows. For all the others, we invited groups from the community and other universities to perform with us. Several European troupes were part of the 1995 SITM festival. The 1998 York production had three pageants presented by groups from Britain as well many from the US and as far away in Canada as the University of Alberta. Colleagues have said how much they have appreciated the opportunity to travel to Toronto to perform in a major production. For many of their students, it has been the outstanding event of their undergraduate careers.

However, PLS has not been exclusively an academic enterprise. The shift in scholarly emphasis from exploring the historical language to exploring the historical stage conventions that came about with the production of the York Cycle in modern English in 1977 made the work of PLS more accessible to the general public. The large crowds that attend the performances are drawn from the general public as well as the academic community. Also, as the research of REED has been discovering more and more evidence of folk drama, PLS has undertaken folk performances such as Robin Hood and the Friar that have broad popular appeal. The festival atmosphere of the large outdoor productions has drawn a loyal non-academic following. In this way the group also has acted as a bridge between the university and the Toronto public without compromising its scholarly standards. In recent years we have taken our place in the theatre community of Toronto and performed several times in the Fringe Festival. From almost the beginning, our productions attracted individuals in the professional theatre and we number many of Canada’s outstanding actors and designers among PLS “graduates.”