In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

COMPARATIVE 9Ï9ÎYI* Volume 35 No. 2 Summer 2001 Staging Disorder: Charivari in theN-Town Cycle Richard J. Moll The N-Town cycle's "Trial of Mary and Joseph" has several problematic passages, not the least ofwhich is the lengthy speech delivered by Den the Summoner at the beginning of the play. The general consensus among editors and critics is that the list ofalliterating names called out by the Summoner is a nonsensical joke. Joseph Bryant has argued that "[w]e are not to imagine, ofcourse, that there were thirtyfour supernumeraries present to receive Den's summons. It was simply addressed to the audience of the play."1 However, even if we accept that thirty-four actors is probably too large a crowd for the medieval stage, we need not assume that no one mounted the scaffold in response to Den's summons, or that the names are merely nonsense. Rather, I wish to argue that Den's list is carefully chosen to enumerate the members ofa riding, and that some ofthe names were represented by people on stage. This interpretation ofthe Summoner's speech will also clarify several other problematic passages in the "Trial." 145 146Comparative Drama Before examining the Summoner's speech, we need to place "The Trial ofMary and Joseph" in its textual, literary, and cultural contexts. The play is part ofthe original cycle as listed in the Proclamation, and it lacks the lofty tone of the material related to the life of Mary. As in most medieval drama, the "Trial" is anachronistically set in the contemporary world, and Mary and Joseph are not so much characters living in the holy land as a couple from fifteenth-century England. As such, the play reflects the natural uncertainties that would arise from Mary's pregnancy. As a wife who has vowed chastity with her elderly husband, Mary's pregnancy is doubly suspicious: has she, in the tradition of the fabliau, been unfaithful to her aged husband; or has the couple's vow of chastity been broken, thus confirming fifteenth-century qualms over the unusual custom of chaste marriage? These two accusations are not mutually exclusive, and, as we shall see, they both highlight society's claim to police sexual conduct. It has long been accepted that theN-Town manuscript is a collection ofplays broughttogether from avarietyofsources. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the section that deals with the life of Mary, where the sublime theology of"Mary in the Temple" stands in stark contrast to the sometimes bawdy comedy of "Joseph's Doubt." Still, the sheer volume ofmaterial devoted to the life ofMary has drawn the attention ofmany scholars, even though RosemaryWoolfhas claimed: Consideration of Continental drama written between 1450 and 1500 shows that the early life of the Virgin was included far more often than not, and therefore, whilst the presence ofplays on this subject in the [ NTown cycle] usually arouses a flurry of excited speculation in scholars, it would perhaps be more noteworthy if a mid-fifteenth-century composition excluded this material.2 In 1987, however, Peter Meredith demonstrated that the N-Town cycle did not, in fact, originally include all ofthe plays that focused on the life ofMary. In his edition ofwhat he terms "The Mary Play," Meredith convincingly argues that the theologically loaded plays which deal with the life ofthe Virgin were grafted onto an existing cycle that lacked this material .3 With the absence of the lofty tone of "The Mary Play," the NTown cycle seems, as Eleanor Prosser put it, "unnecessarily crude" and "wholly secular."4 After"The Mary Play" has been removed, what remains is essentially Richard J. Moll147 the cycle that is described in the Proclamation, namely: "The Betrothal of Mary" (with some additions and, undoubtedly, some omissions), "Joseph's Doubt," and "The Trial of Mary and Joseph." In these plays Mary does not overshadow her doddering husband. In fact, Joseph's role is so fully developed that at times he appears more prominently than theVirgin Mother. Throughout these plays Joseph conforms to his stereotypical role as a foolish senex. Joseph and Lorrayne Baird show that "[e]very one of the Joseph plays of medieval drama conforms to...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 145-161
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.