Plays

Sponsor

Institute of Historical Research

Publication

Author

Eneas Mackenzie

Year published

1827

Pages

707-709

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'Plays', Historical Account of Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Including the Borough of Gateshead (1827), pp. 707-709. URL: http://british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=43405 Date accessed: 24 September 2014.


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PLAYS

ANCIENTLY PERFORMED BY THE INCORPORATED COMPANIES OF NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE.

The religious dramas called Corpus Christi plays were long a favourite amusement in England. Gregory Nazianzen, Patriarch of Constantinople, in the fourth century composed plays from the Scriptures, one of which, called Christ's Passion, is extant. Menestries thinks that the Mysteries were introduced among us by the pilgrims who went to the Holy Land. Warton adds that the clergy presented them, in order to displace the profane mummeries exhibited at fairs by buffoons; and that monks were the first performers. (fn. 1) Spelman observes that the play of St. Catherine, made in 1100, is among the first known. The first trace of theatrical representation in England is recorded by Matthew Paris, who says that, in 1110, Geoffrey, a learned Norman, master of the school of the abbey of Dunstable, and author of the above play, had it acted by his scholars. Fitz-Stephen, writing in 1174, says, that "London, for its theatrical exhibitions, has religious plays, either the representations of miracles wrought by holy confessors, or the sufferings of martyrs." The earliest notices, however, which we meet with of the performance of Mysteries by trading societies, are those concerning the religious guild or fraternity of Corpus Christi at York, which was obliged annually to perform a Corpus Christi play. These religious entertainments were, according to Drake, instituted about the year 1250; though, as Hone observes, English interludes were at least contemporaneous with the ceremony of the Boy Bishop, which was exhibited at Heaton near Newcastle, on December 7, 1229.

The Chester plays, ascribed to Ranulph Higden, a Benedictine monk, appear to have been first performed there in the year 1328, at the expense of the incorporated trades of that city, with a thousand days of pardon from the Pope, and forty days of pardon from the Bishop of Chester, to all who attended the representation. The society of parish clerks of London were peculiarly eminent in this species of performance. On the 18th, 19th, and 20th of July, 1390, they played interludes at the Skinner's Well, before King Richard II. his queen, and their court; and at the same place, in 1490, they played the Creation of the World, and subjects of the like kind, for eight successive days, to splendid audiences of the nobility and gentry from all parts of England. The Coventry Mysteries appear to have been written in the year 1416, concerning which, Dugdale relates, in his History of Warwickshire, published in 1656, that, "Before the suppression of the monasteries, this city was very famous for the pageants that were play'd therein, upon Corpus Christi day (one of their ancient faires), which occasioning very great confluence of people thither from far and near, was of no small benefit thereto: which pageants (were) acted with mighty state and reverence by the Grey Friers."

The earliest mention of the religious ceremony of Corpus Christi play and procession in Newcastle upon Tyne, occurs in the ordinary of the Coopers' Company, dated January 20, 1426; though the great popularity of these exhibitions, at York and other places, must have induced the clergy, merchants, and incorporated trades of that town, to adopt them long before this time. There can be little doubt but that the several trades strove to outvie each other in the splendour of their exhibitions. The company of Merchant Adventurers were concerned in the representation of five plays, (fn. 2) The Hoastmen, Drapers, Mercers, and Boothmen, had probably each one. "Hoggmaygowyk" was the title of one of their plays, the representing of which, in 1554, cost £4, 2s. This company, in 1480, made an act for settling the order of their procession on Corpus Christi day. About the year 1578, the Corpus Christi plays seem to have been on the decline; for the ordinary of the Millers, dated that year, says, "Whensoever the generall plaies of the town shall be commanded by the mayor," &c, they are to play "the antient playe of," &c. Similar expressions are used in the ordinary of the House-Carpenters in 1579, in that of the Masons in 1581, and also in that of the Joiners in 1589. (fn. 3) Weaver, in his Funeral Monuments, says, that these plays were finally suppressed, in all towns of the kingdom, about the beginning of the reign of James I.

The only vestige that remains of the Newcastle Mysteries was preserved by Bourne. It is entitled, "Noah's Ark, or the Shipwrights' ancient Play, or Dirge," wherein God, an angel, Noah and his wife, and the devil, are the characters. Brand says he sought in vain in all the archives of the several societies in that town for another; and observes that, after the Reformation, they were probably destroyed as reliques of popish superstition.

Footnotes

1 In the Corpus Christi plays, there were theatres for the several scenes large and high, placed upon wheels, and drawn to all the eminent parts of the town, or some convenient field, for the better advantage of the spectators. Strutt says, that the ancient stage (by the way like that of the Greeks) consisted of three several platforms raised one above another. In the uppermost sat God, surrounded by his angels. In the second appeared the holy saints; and in the last and lowest mere mortals. On one side of this lowest platform was the resemblance of a dark pitchy cavern, from whence issued appearances of fire and flames; and, when it was necessary, the audience was treated with hideous yellings and noises, as imitative of the howls and cries of the wretched souls tormented by the restless demons. From this yawning cave the devils themselves constantly ascended to delight and instruct the spectators. In the more improved state of the theatre, when regular plays were introduced, all these mummeries were abolished; and the whole cavern and devils, together with the highest platform, were taken away. Two floors only then remained, and continued for a long time in use; the upper stage serving them for chambers, or any elevated situations, as when some of the actors should, from the walls of cities or the like, discourse with those who were standing under them in the lower platform. Instead of scenes, there were tapestry hangings, with which also the walls of the theatre were hung. These hangings or curtains were divided by columns, and actors made their exits and entries through these spaces.
2 There can be no doubt that, in the performance of some of the Coventry Mysteries, Adam and Eve appeared on the stage in a state of nudity. "In the second pageant of the Coventry MS. at the British Museum," says Hone, "Eve, on being seduced by the serpent, induces Adam to taste the forbidden fruit. He immediately perceives their nakedness, and says to her, Se us naked be for & be hynde, Woman ley this leff on thi pryvyte And with this leff I shall hyde me."
Warton observes (vol. i. p. 244), "That this extraordinary spectacle was beheld by a numerous company of both sexes with great composure: they had the authority of scripture for such a representation, and they gave matters just as they found them in the third chapter of Genesis." But notwithstanding their indelicacy and obscenity, Brand thinks they were not without their use, "not only in impressing on the rude minds of an unlettered people the chief histories of their religion, but also in softening their manners, at that time very gross and impure; creating insensibly a regard for other arts than those of bodily strength and savage valour."
3 Warton smiles at the idea of the Blacksmiths handling the "Purification." In the old book of the Slaters' Company, the following entry occurs:—" A. D. 1568. The plaers for thear dennares 3s.; wyne 8d.; rede clothe 2s.; the care 20d. four stoopes 6d.; dreanke 6d.; bearers of the care and baneres 18d.; drencke 3d. to them that bare the care 1d. to the plaeres in drencke and 2d. the horse mete, 6d.; the pyper 8d.; for detten of the swearde 2d.; charcole 2d.; for the detten of the croones 2d.; Bertram Sadler for plaers whan they came home from the playe in meto and drenk had 6d." Their play was "The Offering of Isaac by Abraham."
In the old books of the Fullers and Dyers,—"1561. The charggs of the play this yere. The play lettine to Sir Robert Hert, Sir William Hert, George Walles, Robert Murton, 9s. First for the rehersall of the play before ye crafft 10s.; to a mynstrell yt nyght 3d. For paynting the geyre 10s. For a salmone trout 15d. The mawndy loves and caks 2s. 8d. Wyn 3s. 6d. 3 yerds and a d. lyn cloth for God's coot 3s. 2d. ob. Ye hoysse and cot makyng 6d. A payr of gloves 3d. The care and banner berryng 20d. The carynge of the trowt and wyn about the towne 12d. The mynstrell 12d. 2 spares for stanges 6d. Drynk and thayr suppers that wated of the paient 5s. Tentor howks 3d. Summa totalis 50s. ob. To the clerk this yere because of the play 2s."
The old book of the Goldsmiths, Plumbers, Glaziers, Pewterers, and Painters, contains the following:— "XPS Jesus salvat nos. March day 5, anno salutis 1598. An invoic of all the players apperell pertainyng to the Goldsmyths, Plumers, Puderers, Glacieres, and Paynters. Bye beards to the kynges three and for the messonger one with theyr head hayres. Three cappes and thre septers and thre crownes. One sterre and twey crownes. Box with our ordinarie and oure playe book."
The following entry is in the Merchants' books, under date 1552:—"Item paide of this revenus abovesaid for the fyve playes whereof the towne must pay for the ostmen playe £4, and so theis playes paid for with the fees and ordynarie charg's as aperes by perticulers wrytten in the stewards booke of this yere ys £31, 1s. 11d."