Practical Cues and Social Spectacle in the Chester Plays

Practical Cues and Social Spectacle in the Chester Plays

Matthew Sergi

Print publication date: 2021

ISBN: 9780226709239

Publisher: University of Chicago Press


This book’s subject is the relationship between early play texts and early performance, as manifested in the extant manuscripts (inscribed 1575-1607) of the Chester plays (performed, and continually revised, ca. 1421-1575). It examines the Chester plays’ “practical cues”—the texts’ verbal prompts for extra-verbal action (physical movement, position, and interactions, and the construction and use of costume pieces, scenery, sets, props, and special effects)—in explicit stage directions, implicit in the dialogue, or revealed in comparison to non-dramatic records. It argues that practical cues are crucial symbols around which the texts’ verbal meaning is often organized, in manuscripts whose lost exempla bore the marks of many hands, intentions, and performed interpretations. Even in the absence of decisive origins, dates, or connections to documented events, the extant manuscripts engage with live performance in legible and demonstrable ways, vital to the understanding of the texts and of their relation to Cestrian culture. To gather a mass of the Chester plays’ practical cues is to describe an array of over-the-top crowd-pleasers: street-level antics, reveling feasts, physical feats, massive social gatherings, and sentimental nostalgia involving children. These cues insist that Chester’s biblical plays were part of a performative lay devotion that was raucously fun. Reconnected to the cues that attach them to practitioners’ understandings of real space, real time, real bodies, and local culture as viewed from within, previously ignored passages in the play texts come to new life, full of the energy and force of live performance.