>This is actually not my post on the pleasures and problems of surveys and anthologies, but a smaller, related but more specific bit that I thought I should separate out of the more general post I’m working on (which I’ll finish tonight, I think).
So I finally looked more closely at the medieval drama selections and headnotes in the new 8th edition of the Norton Anthology of English Literature and I have to say I less to complain about where the cycle/mystery plays are concerned (except, perhaps, missing the Chester Noah play, as Lecturess also lamented in the comments to the last post) than I used to. In fact, all in all, I’m actually really pleased with the updates to those selections. Until this new edition, the headnotes for “Mystery Plays” in the Norton were hideously out of date (by about 50 years!) and factually wrong. Finally they’ve been updated by medievalists who know what they’re talking about and, in fact, I think I now prefer them to the ones in the Longman Anthology of British Literature. Best of all, the new Norton headnotes correct the old chestnut – which was overtuned half a century ago but which stubbornly persists – that the vernacular Biblical drama developed out of Latin liturgical drama. (It didn’t.) This medievalist says “Yay! Finally!” Now if only we can get it out of the ‘world drama’ anthologies. There are a few little bits to nitpick – for instance, Simpson and/or David (whoever wrote this particular headnote) seem to think that N-Town and Wakefield were also guild-sponsored like York and Chester, when actually there’s no external evidence for that in either case, and only very questionable manuscript evidence in the case of Wakefield. But that’s a tiny nit. All in all, I think the headnotes for both the York “Crucifixion” (a new edition) and the Wakefield “Second Shepherd’s Play” are very good.
As for the missing Chester “Noah” play and the addition of the York “Crucifixion” (copying Longman, it seems), I think I can guess their reasoning. When the “Second Shepherd’s Play” and “Noah” were the representatives of cycle drama, it made it seem as if it were all slapstick and failed to demonstrate that the vast majority of plays in the cycles are about the trials, passion, and resurrection of Christ, or that there’s a plethora of tones and moods. The replacement of Noah with the Crucifixion not only shows the variety of tones the plays strike – and the weird ways they can combine “gallows humor,” everyday realism, purposeful anachronism, and piety – but shifts the emphasis back onto the central Christian narrative (although I personally would have kept Noah or put in a different Old Testament narrative so one could show how they work in the cycles, too). I like, too, that they put the Crucifixion play right after Margery Kempe, making connections thematic rather than simply generic (again, seemingly copying the Longman).
But why, oh why, must Everyman be the example of a “medieval morality play.” (Never mind the problems with the term “morality play” – or heck, “mystery” play, for that matter. Too big an issue for this blog post.) I remember a Kalamazoo paper title (I should find it online, but I’m rushed now – I’ll find it later) along the lines of “Everyman: Quintessential? English? Medieval? Morality? Play?” and that’s the way I teach it. Everyman is an anomaly and a vexed one at that. Much more representative would be The Castle of Perseverance or Mankind (if they wanted to copy Longman once more). Seriously, no wonder students think medieval drama is stiff and boring if Everyman is all they read (which may be the case in some courses, where there isn’t time for the mystery play selections). And gosh, it sets up the “renaissance” of Elizabethan theater quite nicely, doesn’t it? (I know early modernists who teach it in just that way, as a foil for the greatness of the Elizabethan theater. Of course I know not all would do that, but many Shakespeareans of a certain generation are prone to that sort of reading.) Oh well, stuff to work on for the 9th edition.
OK, so that’s my bit about the medieval drama selections in the Norton. I haven’t had a chance to really plumb the depths of other changes to the medieval selections, but I did notice this: they added “Cheverfoil” to the Marie de France selections. Oh for pete’s sake, why “Chevrefoil” when just about any of the other Lais is more interesting?! I mean, come on – “Bisclavret” is a werewolf tale!