Popularising God: Problematic Playfulness in England's Medieval Cycle Plays
England’s medieval Cycle Plays found their power in a paradox: away from the sanctity of the pulpit, in the very secular setting of the village streets, common Bible stories became didactic, emotive and popular. William Tydeman attributes this popularisation of the Cycle Plays to “downmarket” literary and dramatic techniques. Certainly the plays’ popularised representations of God and the Bible are potentially problematic – blasphemous, over-simplified to the point of misrepresentation, or irreverent. However, this casual, secular approach to Bible stories through “playfulness” and simplification affords the medieval Cycle Play a purpose beyond the powers of sermonising. “Playfulness” popularises the cyclic collection of Bible stories describing human life from Creation to Domesday so that medieval audiences may understand the means to live a Christian life.
Much of the successful popularisation of medieval Cycle plays can be attributed to their narrative and performative “playfulness”. There existed no separate category for “drama” in medieval thought: rather, drama fell within “play”, a general category of recreation. In the context of the Cycle plays, “playing” utilised the attitude of recreation to make accessible these already well-known tales. Chester’s Noah encourages a form of playful proto-slapstick in its stage cue, Et dat alapan vita – “[Mrs Noah] gives a lively blow.” The slap Noah receives from his stubborn wife demonstrates the humour frequently associated with “play” and its integral role within the Cycles, despite their commonly sober themes.
Playful episodes were also often interwoven with converse solemnity. Tony Harrison’s adaptation of The Nativity captures well the juxtaposition of humour with the more serious message of the play.  At the cradle of baby Jesus, the Shepherds’ humourous offerings of “a bob of cherries” and a ball to “go to the tennis” are offset by the solemn reverence displayed by the three Kings: “I hope without dread today / To see that child and his array.” The humour of “play” establishes the audience’s interest, thus enabling the true solemn message of the scene to permeate the collective audience conscience.
Literary techniques also contribute to the Cycle plays’ performative “playfulness”, including sound devices, rhyme and irony. The Death of Herod frequently uses gruesome and dramatic language to contribute to a popular sense of “playfulness”. The tyrannical Herod of the Ludus Coventriae Cycle speaks in free verse, frequently adopting a metre reminiscent of spell-like chanting:
Chosyn full chyse,
And take youre tolle,
And every page
Of ii. yere age,
Or evyr ye swage,
Sleyth ilke a fool. (41-48)
The drama of the passage manifests foremost in the rhyme scheme – AAABCCCB’ – and the use of assonance and internal rhyme: “Knyghtys wyse”; “every. . . yere. . . evyr. . . Sleyth. . .” The effect of the condensed repetition of sounds and a quick, short metre is not dissimilar to Macbeth’s Witches over two centuries later; Herod’s rhetoric is chillingly reminiscent of a chanted curse.
Humourous language is also a popularising factor in productions of medieval Cycle plays. York’s Crucifixion becomes the surprising platform for humour through the play’s show of irony.  The narrative focuses on four soldiers struggling to affix Jesus to the Cross and their uselessness becomes a source of irony in a scene usually approached with sombre reverence. The soldiers are arguing over their work, having just discovered that the holes for the boring of hands and feet have been drilled in the wrong place. Bickering – “. . . thou commands lightly as a lord” – and snide asides – “. . . full snelly as a snail” – create a sense of relaxed humour at the soldiers’ inadequacy (113-120). The situational irony is also entertaining in its paradox: the soldiers are quarrelling and joking about whilst preparing Jesus for torture and death. As Jesus is raised on the cross, however, the audience realises they have, in their laughter, condoned the act of crucifixion. The sudden, contrasting horror of the moment proves the effectiveness of formerly depreciating the sacred crucifixion of Christ through comedy. The editorial introduction to Noah notes the careful use of the Cycle plays’ humour: “The comedy here is kept under strict control.” Comedy is rarely used flippantly in the Cycle plays; there is always room for sincerity despite moments of entertaining levity.
Characterisation in medieval Cycle plays also tends to adopt a “playful” sensibility. Biblical figures are simplified into two basic lineages: those orientated on God’s will juxtaposed with those orientated on willful self. The simplification of Biblical characters could be interpreted as demeaning – a two-dimensional binary denies character complexity and creates a typecast – however character binaries prove effective in communicating Biblical morality.
The exploration of this dichotomy is notable in the Chester Noah. Noah is the devoted individual – “That righteous man art as I see” (God, 18) – while Noah’s wife fulfills the role of the opposing binary, the self-centred individual. As Noah prepares tirelessly for the coming flood, his wife is stubborn and unhelpful: “. . . For, without any fayle, / I will not out of this towne” (199-200). The humourous tension between the two plays out in an extended argument, and the audience is invited to work through their own perspectives from Mrs Noah’s resistance to her eventual submission. As such, the two-dimensional character binaries, although potentially misrepresentative of more complex figures, allow a simple contention to play out over and over again across the breadth of the Cycle play literature. In this “playfully” engaging conflict between piety and self-absorption Noah and his fellow devotees of Christ eternally champion.
The role of the actor in “play” – that is, the “player” – is also problematic within the sacred context of medieval Cycle plays. Actors must frequently embody characteristically sacred and untouchable figures – God and Jesus – despite the blasphemous connotations of such imitation. A disparity emerges between popularisation through “playfulness” and the potential satanic diversion of worship connoted with “playing” God.
Likewise, the antithesis of “playing God” – “playing bad” – also poses problems for actors. York’s The Fall of the Angels features God, Lucifer, Cherubim, Seraphim, Angels and the Devil, all of which potentially pose problems of embodiment.  God’s opening speech is particularly contentious when considering the character and words must be embodied and delivered by a human actor: “I am gracious and great, God without beginning, / I am maker unmade, all might is in me” (1-2). The use of the first-person, singular pronoun, “I,” traps the actor in the position of imitation: there is no denying that the stage is an arena for imitation and “play”, and that God has been placed within it. Lucifer’s evil poses a similar issue: does the actor’s imitation condone Lucifer’s evil? These may be issues of the Christian conscience; however, by allowing the embodiment of sacred and antithetically evil figures in the presentation of Cycle plays, the audience can react directly with these figures of power to comprehend God’s championing of evil.
“Playfulness” may have popularised the medieval Cycle play, yet the resulting pageants are problematic. Tydeman interprets this recreation as “downmarket”, perhaps too harsh a word to describe the issues of blasphemy, simplification and irreverence surrounding the popularisation of Biblical texts. However, in their secular context, the extravaganza of the cyclic pageants, and the festivity of the committed audience, the plays seek accessibility unattainable from the pulpit. “Playfulness” in comedy, literary devices, characterisation and the liberty of embodying God contribute more to the plays’ messages as opposed to demeaning their sanctity. Rather, England’s medieval Cycle plays offer a “playful”, popular reimagining of God’s word.
Beadle, Richard and King, Pamela, eds. “The Barkers: The Fall of the Angels.” In York Mystery Plays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Beadle, Richard and King, Pamela, eds. “The Pinners: The Crucifixion.” In York Mystery Plays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Happé, Peter, ed. “The Death of Herod.” In English Mystery Plays. Penguin, 1975.
Happé, Peter, ed. “Noah.” In English Mystery Plays. Penguin, 1975.
Harrison, Tony. “The Nativity.” In The Mysteries. Faber, 1985.
 Peter Happé, ed., “Noah,” in English Mystery Plays (Penguin, 1975), 127.
 Tony Harrison, “The Nativity,” in The Mysteries (Faber, 1985).
 Harrison, “The Nativity.” This edition omits line numbers; the quotations can be found on pages 77 and 78.
 Peter Happé, ed., “The Death of Herod,” in English Mystery Plays (Penguin, 1975).
 Previously thought to belong to the Coventry Cycle, it is now believed the Ludus Coventriae originated in East Anglia.
 Richard Beadle and Pamela King, eds., “The Crucifixion,” in York Mystery Plays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984).
 Happé, “Noah,” 118.
 Richard Beadle and Pamela King, eds., “The Fall of the Angels,” in York Mystery Plays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 1–7.