Everyman, and Medieval Miracle Plays Summary & Study Guide

A. C. Cawley
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Everyman, and Medieval Miracle Plays Summary & Study Guide Description

Everyman, and Medieval Miracle Plays Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

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This collection of Christianity-themed mini-plays, referred to as pageants, dates from the middle of the 1500s. Each of the pageants was part of a larger sequence, referred to by scholars and analysts as a Corpus Christi (Body of Christ) cycle. Each cycle was staged in a different city in England by guilds of different tradespeople, and each cycle dramatized Biblical events from the Creation to the Last Judgment. The creators of the various pageants endeavored, in various ways, to tell the well-known Bible stories in humorous and accessible ways, and explored additional themes related to faith versus doubt, as well as the theological concept of Original Sin versus Redemption.

The collection opens with a contemporary preface from the editor explaining how, in the decades since the collection was first published (in 1956), scholars looking at the pageants from both the historical and theatrical perspectives have come to recognize their unique value and place in both areas. The preface is followed by the original Introduction to the 1956 edition of the collection, in which the editor describes the circumstances within which, and the intentions with which, the pageants were written and performed.

The collection itself begins in the same way as all the Corpus Christi cycles do—with the Old Testament stories of the Creation and the Fall from Grace (of Adam and Eve). These first two stories, recounted in fairly straightforward fashion (that is, as faithful and unadorned dramatizations of the stories in the Bible), are followed by the stories of Cain and Abel and Noah and the Flood. In these two pageants, the style of the narratives moves more clearly into the blend of secular and humorous characterizations, with spiritual truth and integrity as one of the collection's key themes. Also, with both pageants the creators follow the apparent pattern of including material that is less Biblical and more the stuff of fable and legend (such as, for example, the shrewish stubbornness of Noah's wife). The final Old Testament pageant in the collection dramatizes the famous Bible story in which Abraham was ordered by God to sacrifice the life of his son Isaac as proof of his (Abraham's) faithfulness and devotion.

The pageants based on stories from the Bible's New Testament begin with a dramatization of The Annunciation, the visit from the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary with news that she is to give birth to the Son of God. The tradition of interpolating fable with Biblical "fact" continues here, with the pageant's glimpse into the troubled mind and heart of Jesus' earthly father, Joseph. The play that follows takes this practice even further, essentially inventing a story about a thieving colleague that gives the Biblical tale of the Three Shepherds that visited Jesus on the night of His birth more weight and depth. This also is the result of the next pageant, a dramatization of the circumstances surrounding the so-called "Slaughter of the Innocents", the killing of all infant males by the paranoid King Herod. A story of the adult Jesus follows, one in which his advocacy of mercy and preaching of God's love takes immediate, very personal form. This particular pageant is among the most theatrical, in the contemporary sense of the word, of the collection.

The last grouping of pageants follows the events of Jesus' crucifixion, death, and resurrection. The first is a dramatization of the traditional Biblical narrative, but told from a different point of view—that of the soldiers actually nailing Jesus to the Cross. The second is another interpolation of fable—the so-called "Harrowing of Hell", in which the dead Jesus (between the time of his crucifixion and his resurrection three days later) releases several tortured souls from hell. Finally, there is the Resurrection, a straightforward dramatization of the Biblical story. The final pageant is a dramatization of the Biblical Day of Judgment, when all souls are judged by God according to their deeds. All the Corpus Christi cycles end with such a pageant.

The collection proper concludes with the morality tale of Everyman who, when told he is about to die and face judgment, tries desperately to carry as much of he can of his earthly life, allegorically represented by actors, with him. After Everyman come two appendices, one dramatizing the story of what happened to Pilate after Jesus' resurrection, the other offering a complete list of the various cycles that still exist today, almost five centuries after they were first written and performed.

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