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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

III. The Early Religious Drama

§ 14. Chester Plays

Of the Chester Plays (twenty-five parts), five complete MSS. from the period between 1591 and 1607 have been preserved. They were doubtless intended for representation on perambulating pageants. It might seem astonishing that the performance used to take place at Whitsuntide, not on Corpus Christi day; however, this is not unexampled; at Norwich, for instance, processional plays were acted on Whit Sunday, at Lincoln on St. Anne’s day (26 July). But, besides this, the stage arrangement here has several peculiarities of its own. Dramatic life is not so fully developed as in other processional plays; the Chester Plays, in fact, remind us of the medieval German processional plays of Zerbst and Künzelsau, from which we still may see how the procession gradually assumed a dramatic character. As in these, there appears in the Chester Plays an “expositor,” who intervenes between actors and audience; instead, however, of his place being with the rest of the actors on the stage vehicle, he accompanies them on horseback. He declares expressly that he is about to explain to the unlearned among his audience the connection and the deeper meaning of the performances; he joins moral reflections to the actions represented; sometimes, he supplies a narrative of events passed over in the plays. The contents of several scenes are chiefly instructive or didactic, such as the offering of bread and wine by Melchizedek, or the prophecies of Ezekiel, Zechariah, Daniel and St. John concerning the end of the world. The traditional humorous figures of Noah’s wife, and of the shepherds on Christmas Eve, are still kept up; but, generally speaking, the original purpose of these processions, namely, a representation of the ecclesiastical history of the world in its chief passages, appears more plainly here than in the York and Wakefield Plays, which, for the sake of what was theatrically effective, almost entirely neglected the original instructive element. It may be further noted that, at Chester, processional plays were not all acted consecutively on a single day, the performance being spread over Whit Monday and the two following days of the week.