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The Audience-Interactive Games of the Middle English Religious Drama

From: Comparative Drama
Volume 47, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 55-83 | 10.1353/cdr.2013.0007

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One of the surprises for students first encountering the Middle English religious drama is the free and unself-conscious manner in which the dramatic characters speak directly to the audience. In the four major extant cycles of this drama—the York, Towneley, N-Town, and Chester collections—the dramatis personae candidly confront the audience members, turning to preach to, implore, mock, and even threaten those watching the play. The ever-growing body of scholarship on medieval festive culture helps contextualize these staged interactions within a spectrum of ludic activities and seasonal customs, from mummings and group dances to the more formal civic processions. Such "games," as these festive activities are commonly called in the period, tend to blur the line between spectator and participant. As Richard Axton points out in a discussion of medieval dancing games, these "games may be watched; but that seems accidental, not essential. The important thing is to enter the game and take part."

Axton's comment could apply equally to the interactive address within the religious drama, and in this essay I use the concept supplied by the Middle English term game as framework for interpreting these instances of staged interplay, moments in which it is precisely the audience's task to "enter the game and take part." For the audience-participants, these games operate as open-ended contestations of social and spiritual affiliation as a diverse assortment of dramatis personae compete for the audience's attention, affection, and collusion. As they are subjected to such an array of pressures and appeals, the audience members' unscripted reactions serve as a means of investigating their own identifications and values. Viewed in terms of an audience-interactive game, the real suspense in the religious drama revolves around the question of audience response; the plays themselves are less interesting for what they portray than for the range of potential reactions they may provoke.

The term game—along with pleye and ludus—is commonly used in late medieval English texts to refer to dramatic productions, and earlier scholarship on the religious plays made use of this terminology to formulate a theory of medieval drama, proposing that game and pleye would allow for the performance of sacred subject matter without sacrilege. Yet in this earlier work game was not understood as an activity involving the audience. The line of argument posited here is that this dramatic game is not one the audience merely watches; it is a game the audience plays. In so doing this perspective views the audience as the imaginative and affective center of the Middle English religious drama as a whole. While the subject of audience roles and responses is a burgeoning critical category, the present approach utilizes game to move in a different, if complementary, direction from most other recent readings, stimulated in part by current studies of electronic game design and "the aesthetics of interactive systems."

Overall, "game" provides a valuable conceptual framework for appreciating the audience-directed and interactive work of this drama. Etymologically, "game" implies participation rather than observation (whereas "theater," for example, is rooted in the idea of "seeing," from θεȜσθαι, "to behold"). Like its near synonyms pleye and ludus, in Middle English usage, game encompasses far more than dramatic activities, and can refer to amusing pastimes of any stripe, most often involving partakers rather than spectators. Of course, the medieval English term could also signify, as it does in present-day English, a structured contest carried out for fun. As it will be used in the sections below for the various types of audience address, game refers to a staged and rule-governed encounter between two or more groups or individuals, operating around a basic conflict or confrontation, and working toward an undetermined outcome. Since the medieval concept of game includes a range of cultural customs and festivities, my definition reflects this broader sense and builds on Tom Pettitt and Leif Søndergaard's definition of medieval custom and ceremonies as an "encounter"—"a deliberate and traditionally structured interaction between two distinct groups," usually one more passive and the other more active, in which one group works upon the other through blessings, extraction of money or drink, or even physical interception and...

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