Medieval Plays in Modern Performance (2MP)
The religious drama of medieval England languished unperformed for almost three hundred years. One of the legacies of the mid-seventeenth-century Puritan regime that closed all theatres as ungodly, was the much more long-lasting scrupulosity which forbade the impersonation of the deity on stage. Although ‘playing God’ was not, as is commonly believed, prohibited by law, generations of Lords Chamberlain customarily vetoed the performance of subject matter based on the New Testament, with the full backing of Lambeth Palace. The lifting of state censorship from the British theatre in the 1960s finally made possible the reconstruction and re-interpretation of medieval biblical plays for modern audiences. This, however, followed a succession of campaigns, pressure groups, and theatrical experiments with material whose contentiousness seems remarkable to modern sensibilities, spanning all the preceding decades of the twentieth century. “2MP” has been formed as an international collaborative research project under the auspices of the World Universities Network to capture the archives of these early experiments before they are lost with the demise of the early pioneers.
The story begins with William Poel (1852-1934), who played God in an outdoor production of Everyman at the London Charterhouse in July 1901, having had a request to stage the play in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey refused. In the interwar years, members of the Religious Drama Society and the British Drama League - Nugent Monck of the Maddermarket Theatre in Norwich, and E. Martin Browne - represent the growing network of people committed to reviving medieval religious plays, alongside the new works of Dorothy L. Sayers and T.S. Eliot. At the same time, Neville Coghill was involved in experimenting with staging medieval plays at the University of Oxford.
The Festival of Britain in 1951 saw an upsurge in activity with, notably E. Martin Browne’s first production of the York Cycle. In the same period the Department of Drama at Bristol University was founded, and, Glynne Wickham and his colleagues, introduced medieval plays into the study of drama in performance. Interest increased in the atmosphere of theatrical experimentation which characterised the 1960s. The York Festival and Mystery Plays became established as a triennial event, and Martial Rose prepared a text of the Towneley Plays for production by Bernard Miles in the Mermaid Theatre in London. In Toronto the Poculi Ludique Societas was founded, in Oxford Joculatores Oxonienses, and Neville Denny of Bristol University staged the first modern revival of the massive Cornish Ordinalia.
It is impossible to do justice to the activity of the following decades here: it included important work amongst the academics in Leeds, Lancaster, Durham, Bristol, Bretton Hall, and King Alfred’s College Winchester. Then the late 1970s and early 1980s brought Tony Harrison’s large scale productions of The Mysteries to the National Theatre. At the same time, the Medieval Players grew out of a student drama group in Cambridge and took to the road as the only professional touring company dedicated to medieval playing.
All the productions, be they based in the professional theatre, in community drama, or in the universities, contributed to a growing theatrical intelligence about medieval playing. All left traces, from programmes and newspaper reviews, to acting scripts, costume and set designs, and production photographs. Some of this material has been valued and passed into safe keeping, but some of it has been lost. At the beginning of the new century, the time seems right to gather and disseminate knowledge of these archives. That is what 2MP proposes to undertake.
The project aims of Medieval Plays in Modern Performance are as follows:
- to encourage holders of collections in the field to make secure provision for the on-going custody of materials in their care (preferably with organisations that have achieved the observe Registered / Accredited Museum Standard or National Archive’s Standard for Record Repositories), and to consider issues such as conservation of materials, and archival standards in cataloguing
- to undertake a scoping and mapping exercise, determining the location, extent, condition, and ownership/copyright of all materials relating to twentieth-century productions of plays from the British Isles which were written and/or produced in the period prior to the establishment of the professional playhouse
- to make information regarding these materials available online.
In keeping with the 2MP project’s aims of encouraging holders of collections in the field to make secure provision for the on-going custody of materials in their care, selected archives and collections of material have been deposited with the University of Bristol Theatre Collection for the purposes of cataloguing and conservation. These include the E. Martin Browne and Norah Lambourne archives, and the Medieval Players archive.
Click HERE to view the selected projects.
UK Archives & Repositories
In order to simplify the organisation of the material that resides in the United Kingdom, we have used the geographic location of repositories as markers. Alongside each entry you will find a brief description of the subject matter covered by the materials that are listed.
Click HERE to access UK archives and repositories information.
USA & Australia Archives and Repositories
Within the U.S.A. and Australia twentieth century productions of medieval plays have centred on academic institutions - whether with a view to scholarly reconstruction of the drama or an exercise in theatrical exploration.
Consequently, we have organised our reference material around university locations, mentioning the individuals concerned when appropriate to facilitate future investigations.
Click HERE to access these USA & Australia archives and repositories
The Medieval Plays in Modern Performance project was made possible with assistance from the following:
- World Universities Network
- University of Bristol
- University of Bristol Theatre Collection
- including the Glynne Wickham Bequest and Helen and Melvin Percival donation