Just In Time: Medieval Drama, Time, and Mysteries

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After reading Lucy Allen’s lovely piece “Time Present and Time Past: Winter Reading for St Lucy’s Day”, I ended up reflecting on the way drama both represents and embodies time.  Well, I ended up watching the TV version of Masefield’s The Box Of Delights on a loop – which was perhaps more apt than I realized, and then I reflected on drama and time.  Specifically the Second Shepherds’ Play and medieval mystery drama, which brings a lot of different forms of time together in ways which aren’t immediately apparent just from the text.  I’ve lectured on this subject in the past, and it keeps intruding unexpectedly on my thinking about drama.

medieval season

Firstly there’s the seasons of the year, as the plays are performed at around the same time.  The seasons are much more powerful for a society like medieval Britain, which still grows the vast majority of its food, and whose towns are surrounded by arable land.  The market squares where some of these plays were performed would also have been where the seasonal crops appeared on market days.  So there’s the cycle of the seasons.  Overlaid onto that is the liturgical year of the church, which celebrates or remembers particular events during the life of Jesus and the early church at set dates.  Most famously Christmas, but also at Easter, Pentecost, saints’ days and so on.  It’s a simplistic point, but the church calendar gathers lots of events which happened widely spaced apart and assigns each of them a particular day.  After all, Jesus was in his early thirties when he died, but we don’t celebrate Christmas once every thirtyish years, and then Easter once, and then start again.  The events are all crushed up into one year.  So the seasons have this other timeline wrapped up into them.

Then, within the particular festival of Corpus Christi, at which the mystery cycles were produced, we have narratives being performed which cover the entirety of history as they imagined it.  Creation, a few – maybe twenty or so – hours later Nativity, a few hours on the Last Judgement. The entire linear progression of the universe’s history – and we might want to reflect on the fact that history here doesn’t mean just things that have happened in the past, but things that are going to happen in the future, like said Last Judgement – is being represented within this cycle of plays, which fall on one particular festival within the church calendar, and a place in the seasons.

Cyclical time meets linear time meets cosmological time.  Every year, presumably, the plays are taking place at a historical point which is one year further from the beginning of time, the Creation play, and one year closer towards the end of time, the Last Judgement play.  But no-one knows where in that sequence they are at any given moment.  And the time-sequences keep breaking in on each other, so that characters swear “by Him who did us save” before Christ has been born in the narrative, or they talk about clothes or household objects which wouldn’t have been worn or used by people at that point in history.

This combination of times – when different ways of understanding time itself burst through each other – means that the medieval mystery plays happen in a different kind of fictional time to other theatrical performances we might be used to thinking about.  Greek drama, as we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks, usually happens in a mythic mode.  Way back in the mists of time, with no precise chronology and only the events of this particular story to work out what happened when.  Indeed Greek drama can be thought of as a tension between mythic time and civic time.  But this is all going on in some mythical past of the Just So Stories.

Nineteenth century realistic or naturalistic drama tends to happen in discrete chunks of time elsewhere.  It might be set in the present day, in which case we accept that somewhere else a discrete chunk of time has been torn off and we’re scrutinising it.  It might be set in the past, in which case we’re looking into a bubble of time which has been artistically separated from the main flow of history.  The events all cohere into a narrative which may last two hours or two decades, but it’s an enclosed way of dealing with time.  Indeed, the more tightly the events cohere, the more closely-plotted the story is, the more carefully everything is interconnected, the more praise the playwright is likely to get.  So these times are elsewhere from the audience – either in a little realist bubble or way back in the mythic past.

But this is not the case for a medieval mystery play.  Here people are acting out the great arc of historical events within which they are themselves moving.  In order to see what’s going on, we have to flick between seeing the whole over-arching narrative of history, and the events of this particular day.  The plays themselves, with their intrusions of one kind of time into another, encourage us to see these timeschemes working alongside each other.  Just as the physical action of the plays pushes its way into the spaces of everyday life, into the marketplaces and streets, these narratives appear within the space of particular “everyday”.  And crucially, of course, the audience are also caught up in this flow of time.  They are seeing acted out in front of them the architecture of history – and it is being shown via little isolated events such as the Nativity or Noah’s Flood, a day or so’s action, representing moments when the whole weight of eternity came crashing through the fabric of reality and made one day’s action vital to the history of the world.

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