Raging in the Streets of Medieval York


  • Margaret Rogerson University of Sydney




In the processional performance mode that was the norm for biblical cycle plays in several English towns in the Middle Ages, the area of the pageant wagon stage was a restricted one. Modern 'original staging' experiments have shown that off-wagon performance has advantages of additional playing space and the enhanced contact between performance and audience occasioned when the actors appropriate the space otherwise occupied by the observers. A stage direction in a sixteenth-century pageant text from Coventry indicates that off-wagon performance was used in some performances of the Nativity pageant, where Herod was seen 'raging in the street'. This article examines the possibility that the Coventry practice was followed in York. It begins with a review of the records of the stage history of Herod, from Chaucer to Shakespeare. From the evidence available, we can learn about the use of rhetorical gesture and props in the expression of the tyrant's rage, but not about movement around the stage area or into the audience space. The discussion considers the common tendency of scholarly investigators to assume that off-wagon playing was widely employed in York, and outlines evidence for it in implicit stage directions in the York texts. It also explores the advantages and appeal of performances confined to the pageant wagon stage. It draws on modern 'original staging' experiments with the York texts in 1992 and 1998, and the work of Shakespearean scholars as well as medievalists. It concludes that we should keep an open mind about the viability of on-wagon performance and should not privilege off-wagon playing in our thinking about the York Play.