- The Civic Cycles: Artisan Drama and Identity in Premodern England by Nicole R. Rice and Margaret Aziza Pappano
In this stunning comparative study of civic drama—a form of premodern theatre sponsored by craft guilds—Nicole Rice and Margaret Pappano argue that the York and Chester play cycles perform "artisan identity." The pageants in York and Chester become, for their artisan producers, actors, and "authors," a means of political engagement and self-representation. The plays affirm the status of artisans as a group that is distinct from both a mercantile elite and a lower rung of unenfranchised people, including foreigners, day laborers, women, and the poor.
While the York and Chester play cycles are united by the promotion of an artisan identity, this construct nonetheless has "distinct valences in each town" (4). As a site of resistance to a mercantile ruling elite, "the York pageants highlight individual craft distinction while representing the civic body as continually produced, defended and made whole by artisan contributions" (33). In Chester, however, the plays function less as an "economic mechanism," serving instead as "the artisans' tool for social distinction . . . in collaboration with the city government and in opposition to . . . others beneath them in the social hierarchy" (34–35).
The authors initially trace a series of fascinating connections between the occupation of the craftsman and the mode of dramatic representation. Artisan production and dramatic production are both forms of work that require collaboration and a "cooperative mentality" (25). The artisan's work and the actor's craft are aligned in being forms of "bodily discipline" that generate knowledge through experience rather than through text-based forms of learning (26). And the spheres of artisan and dramatic production are also connected by a shared understanding of "innovation through practice" (26–27).
In addition to highlighting these connections, the book's introduction lays out its argument in clear and compelling terms. It also offers a wealth of material that not only provides an overview of English cycle drama, but also outlines the distinctive guild systems, political structures, and theatrical enterprises of York and Chester. In chapter 1, Rice and Pappano examine the first pageant of each cycle, The Fall of the Angels (York) and The Fall of Lucifer (Chester), both performed by the Tanners. Highlighting the interrelations between Corpus Christi procession and drama, the authors intriguingly link the angels' competitive struggle for brightness with conflicts among torch-bearing guilds seeking to secure prominent placement in the procession.
In the second chapter, they read the York cycle's Herod and the Magi pageant in concert with the histories of the Goldsmiths and Masons, who co-produced the play from 1432 to 1477. Rice and Pappano link the discourse of "seeking" in the pageant with the custom of searching—the practice of inspecting artisan goods for quality assurance or trade infringement. Challenging traditional scholarly assessments, they show how the "ambiguous practice [of searching] [End Page 240] may be fundamental to creating 'peace' between members of the same craft and among members of the wider artisan body" (95). The chapter's pioneering argument is bolstered by an innovative account showing how the Masons and other building trades continued to claim searching as an artisan-oriented practice in their revival of The Purification of the Virgin pageant during the period 1477 to 1561.
In chapter 3, Rice and Pappano identify changes in the way that craftsmen in York sought to distinguish themselves from unenfranchised servants and wage laborers. Through readings of the "Judas plays," they argue that in the fifteenth century, artisans sought both to affirm their social status and to control servant labor by promoting an ideal of unity aimed at drawing mobile workers into the stable civic body that they claimed as their particular domain. During the sixteenth century, however, the Glovers' Cain and Abel pageant showed greater concern for the potential socioeconomic downfall of the master, and it ultimately advocated a program of social exclusion aimed at circumscribing civic...