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Liturgy and Community in N-Town Passion Play I Victor I. Scherb N-Town Passion Play I telescopes the events of the first half of Holy Week into a powerful dramatic whole. The Holy Week liturgy annually retells the Passion, and in it we find an emotional and devotional parallel to Passion Play I. Eleanor Prosser, Rosemary Woolf, and—most exceptionally—Theresa Coletti have explored the ways in which the playwright (or reviser) deliberately invokes the iconography and ritual of the Eucharist in the Last Supper sequence,1 but other liturgical echoes are also worth our exploration, and many of these work to reinforce the play's Eucharistie and communal emphasis. While the dramatist was not composing a liturgical play, he linked his drama with both the Advent and Holy Week liturgies through verbal echo and structure . By means ofquasi-liturgical moments such as the Prologues, Christ's entry, the lament of the Virgin, and the procession of the apostles, the dramatist could both borrow something of the authority of liturgical ceremonies while at the same time explicating them. In doing this, he gave careful attention to Eucharistie doctrine and ceremonial. The playwright-reviser was able thus to call upon the full evocative and allusive resources of the drama in order that they might point beyond themselves to a higher truth while modeling audience responses and reaffirming some of the central symbols of the medieval community. Liturgical patterns underlie many of the play's scenes, particularly in the sense of repetition which typifies the devotional and meditational nature of many ofPassion Play /'s actions. Like the liturgy itself, the two N-Town Passion plays seem to have been occasional in nature, with one play in the sequence being repeated at yearly intervals.2 The Passion is repeated during Holy Week by the recitation of all four Gospel accounts. Although we find only infrequent verbal echoes, the N-Town dramatist similarly stresses the devotional nature of his material by means oftechniques that it shares with the liturgy: both employ frequent 478 Victor I. Scherb479 pauses, repetitions, significant silences, and variations upon processional movement. These familiar techniques seem to be designed to allow the audience ample time to meditate upon the significance of the action and perhaps also to grasp the mystery that lies behind it. Many of the specific events celebrated in the Holy Week liturgy are enacted in Passion Play I; in fact, the liturgy provides a coherent explanation for the structure of a number of scenes, which differ markedly from those in other English cycles. The liturgy narrates Christ's entry into Jerusalem which it juxtaposes with the Conspiracy on Palm Sunday; it also relates Judas' Betrayal on Monday and Tuesday of Holy Week; the forgiveness of the unnamed woman at Simon the Leper's House on Passion Wednesday and Thursday;3 the washing of the feet and altars on Maundy Thursday; the Feast of the Compassion usually associated with Passion Friday; and the Tenebrae ceremony on Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. All of these—along with other elements from the yearly liturgy—are re-arranged and recalled by the dramatist in a compressed and coherent narrative sequence. The reception of the Eucharist had of course become a key moment in the late medieval layman's perception ofthe liturgical year. Most people communicated only once a year, at Easter,4 though at least some people seem to have gone through a second period of shriving in order to receive the sacrament at Corpus Christi.5 Proper preparation was necessary, for the Eucharist was understood to be a source of awesome power and the symbol of more. As Charles Zika has argued, the Host itself had come to take the place of the relic as a repository for the sacred in the thinking oflate medieval men and women.6 According to Mervyn James, the Eucharist and the processions that were associated with it could act as powerful unifying devices, symbolizing the unity which could exist in spite of evident social fragmentation.7 Liturgical and paraliturgical processions could also function to establish social cohesion and delineate the structures of everyday life.8 John Cox, speaking of rogation processions, has...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 478-492
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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