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“You Have Begun a Parlous Pleye”: The Nature and Limits of Dramatic Mimesis as a Theme in Four Middle English ‘Fall of Lucifer’ Cycle Plays R. W. Hanning This essay can perhaps best be characterized as an extended footnote to V. A. Kolve’s brilliant and epoch-making study of the Middle English cycle plays, The Play Called Corpus Christi.1 In the second chapter, “The Drama as Play and Game” (pp. 831 ), Kolve considers the implications of the designation of these cycles by those who created them as plays, games, or pageants. As distinct from the Latin liturgical drama, for which the usual nomenclature was representation the popular, vernac­ ular cycles were clearly identified by means of a terminology which stressed the play-element of the drama—the creation of a self-contained world with its own rules, intended to entertain and instruct, but not able to be confused with or taken for “reali­ ty.’^ The reason, in part, for this definition of the drama as play and game was, according to Kolve, the desire to avoid the danger of blasphemy inherent in any attempt by men to imper­ sonate God—i.e., to imitate the Inimitable and thereby confuse the created with the Creator.4 One way to eliminate this danger was to stress the “game” as opposed to the “earnest” nature of the dramatic representation.5 That the danger existed Kolve documents by referring to the Wycliffite attacks, in late four­ teenth-century religious tracts, on the popular Corpus Christi drama as blasphemous, and to attempts made to avoid the diffi­ culty by various means in liturgical drama.6 In urging that the problem of the mimesis of God was a real one for the dramatists of the Corpus Christi cycles, Kolve 22 R. W. Hanning 23 points out that “Lucifer, [medievals] believed, fell because he imitated God. By sitting on God’s throne and demanding the forms of adoration due to God alone, he sinned in pride and was condemned to hell” (p. 9). Kolve adds that “the Chester cycle stages this very action,” and asks, “Might it not be analogous to the Corpus Christi dramatic endeavor?” It is the purpose of this essay to urge that Kolve’s question be answered with a de­ cided affirmative. The playwrights of the Corpus Christi cycles perceived the analogy between Satan’s mimesis of God and their own mimetic art, and they addressed themselves in the opening plays of several cycles (not only the Chester cycle) to offering a self-conscious explanation of the significance, and the limits, of the analogy. The plays in question have as their historical matter (in Christian terms) the creation of the angels and the fall of Lucifer, the brightest angel, who became the Devil when God banished him to hell for his sin. But they are also plays about the origin and nature of drama as a peculiar feature of the fallen universe. By placing the mimetic-dramatic impulse within a hierarchy of responses to the divine providence—a hierarchy which includes as well impulses to praise God and to declare his power—the cycle dramatists indicate that they know the limits of their art, and thus differentiate the intent of their mimesis, which is to glorify God by showing his dealings with men, especially through his Son, from the subversive and de­ lusory intent of Lucifer’s imitation of his Maker. I will examine the “Fall of Lucifer” plays of the N. Town, Wakefield, Chester, and York cycles, to see how they raise the problem of the dangerous imitation of God by his creatures—and how they set it to rest. I As a necessary prelude to analyzing the “Fall of Lucifer” plays, I must say a few words about the significance of the action they represent. The Corpus Christi Cycles begin with the crea­ tion of the universe since, as Kolve indicates, the sacrifice of Christ, and its recreation in the eucharist which the feast of Corpus Christi celebrates, are only comprehensible by Chris­ tians within the context of the entire history of salvation.7 The canonic story (or more precisely stories) of the Creation in Gen­ esis comprises two...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 22-50
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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