[PDF Notes] Get complete information on English Comedy and Humor

Of more importance at this period was the development of English Comedy, as exemplified Roister Roister (c. 1566), and Gammer Gurton’s Needle (1575), plays rich in English humor; the first (the better of the two) showing a keen sense of dramatic movement.

The Wakefield Cycle:

The Wakefield cycle consists of thirty-two plays commencing with the Creation.

The usual series of plays follow: Noah; Abraham and Isaac; Jacob and Esau; the Old Testament of Christ; Pharaoh; the taxing of thaws.-‘: by Caesar Augustus; the Annunciation, Salutation, and Nativity; the Visit of the Wise Men, the flight into Egypt, the Slaughter of the Innocents, the Purification, Jesus among the Doctors, John the Baptist, the Last Supper, three plays on the Passion and the Crucifixion, Harrowing of Hell, the Resurrection, the Appearance of Christ to the Disciples, the Ascension, Doomsday, the Raising of Lazarus, and the Hanging of Judas.

The Chester Plays:

The Chester Plays show a more serious and didactic purpose than the other cycles. The plays of which there are twenty-five, were acted by the trade companies of the city on the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday in Whitsun week from 1268 to 1577, and again in 1600. The series commences with the Fall of Lucifer, acted by the Tanners, next came the Creation and the fall. The Creation was rendered more realistic by sending into the crowd as many strange animals as could be obtained, and by sending a flight of pigeons into the air.

The Coventry Pays:

A complete cycle of plays have been preserved which are said to have been acted at Coventry on the Festival of Corpus Christi. This, however, rests on uncertain evidence, and if the plays belong to Coventry it is thought probable they were acted by the Grey Friars of the town and were not connected with the trade guilds. The M.S. dates from the time of Henry VI (c. 1468), and consists of forty-two plays which were, however, not all acted in one year the custom being to perform the first twenty-eight in one year, and the remainder the next year.

The Interludes :

The Interludes of John Heywood stand midway between the Moralities and the regular drama, since in the Interlude the allegorical characters have disappeared. The morality was a sermon in disguise; the Interlude aimed at amusement and entertainment.

It is possible that Interludes of music, jesting, story-telling, had always to a greater or lesser extent accompanied feasts and banquets, but it was left to John Heywood, in the reign of Henry VIII, to give the Interlude a definite place not only in literature but in the evolution of the drama. Heywood was born in North Mims in Hertfordshire; he was Roman Catholic and a friend of Sir Thomas More, who obtained for him his position at Court, as a producer of entertainments of the King’s pleasure.

This he kept through the reign of Edward VI and Queen Mary. On the death of Queen Mary he is said to have fled from the country. He died in exile sometime between 1577 and 1587. An Interlude by Heywood is The Merry Play between the Pardoner and the Frere, printed in 1533, but which was written before 1521.

English Tragedy :

The first English tragedy was written by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton, and was acted by the Gentlemen of the Inner Temple before Elizabeth, on the Banqueting Day of the Grand Christmas festival of the Inner Templers, January 18, 1561.

The argument of the play is as follows: “Gorboduc, King of Britain divided his realms in his lifetime to his sons Ferret and Pore. The sons fell to dissension. The younger killed the elder. The mother that more dearly loved the elder, for revenge killed the younger. The people moved with the cruelty of the fact, rose in rebellion, and slew both father and mother.

The nobility assembled, and most terribly destroyed the rebels; and afterwards for want of issue of the Prince, whereby the succession of the crown became uncertain they fell to civil war, in which both they and many of their issues were slain, and the land for a long time almost desolate and miserably wasted.”

The story is divided into five acts, Norton wrote the first, second, and third, and Sackville the fourth and fifth. The action takes place behind the scenes, and each act ends with a chorus, in mutation of the tragedies of Seneca. It departs from the classical model in the use of dumb show and is written in blank verse-first used by Surrey in translating a part of Virgil’s A Enid, and now for the time applied to the drama.

First Regular English Comedy ‘Ralph Roister Roister’

The first regular English comedy, based on the model of the Latin comedy, was produced in 1541 or earlier. The play is usually attributed to Nicholas Udall, headmaster of Eton from 1534 to 1541. Udall was born in Hampshire in 1506.

He was educated at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and came under the influence on the teaching of More, Colet, and Erasmus. Udall and a number of other young men were arrested in 1527 by order of Wolsey, for possessing Tyndale’s translation of the New Testaments and Luther’s Tracts. The students saved their lives by making a public recantation. After leaving Oxford, Udall seems to have become a schoolmaster in the North. In 1533 Udall was in London, and shortly afterwards was appointed headmaster of Eton, where he remained until 1541.

It was the custom at public schools to act Latin plays on special occasions. The idea seems to have occurred to Udall to substitute an English play for the usual comedy from Plautus of Terence, Hence the production of Ralph Roister.

The Toweled Plays :

These were acted at Wood irk, near Wakefield and are sometimes known as the Wakefield Plays, deriving their first title from the fact that the M.S. volume containing the text was discovered in the library of Toweled Hall in Lancashire. Some of the plays may have been acted by the two fairs which were held annually at Wood irk. Five of the plays are almost identical with plays in the York cycle, and some of them were acted by the trade guilds of Wakefield.

The second Shepherd’s play is prefaced by a comic interlude that has been described as the first farce in the English language.

The shepherds are out in the fields on Christmas Eve, they begin to grumble at the weather, their heavy taxes:

“We are so lamed

We are made hand-tamed

With these gentle men”.

Of the trials of matrimony:

“We silly wed-men deer truckle woe”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *