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The N-Town Play, 2 vols.

In welcoming this edition of one of England's major cycles of Miracle Plays, I have chosen to highlight a number of areas through comparison with the earlier (1922) text produced for the same Society by K. S. Block. This is a convenient methodology rather than a genuine comparison except in the case of the Glossaries. A single-volume edition produced seventy-odd years ago before Medieval Drama had become the academic industry it is today cannot but be at a relative disadvantage. I have adopted the approach simply to suggest those areas in which, I believe, the present edition offers significant improvements and those in which it does not.

The respective titles encapsulate the issue nicely. In opting to describe the cycle as Ludus Coventriae, Block was confirming apparent associations between the text and that city. Similar connections with Lincoln would also be made. Later research has defined the limited value of such evidence. In describing BL MS Cotton Vespasian D8 as the 'N(omen)-Town' cycle, Dr Spector reflects this new caution, returns to a title with textual authority, and implies an itinerant theatrical practice which accounts for references to specific cities without implying that any one need necessarily be the drama's place of origin.

His edition is also simply more readable, more user-friendly if you will. Block's retention of scribal features aided her fellow editors but presented other readers with an awkward, at points even arcane, text. The 1991 version remains properly conservative in its principles but effectively removes these inelegancies. It also provides us with an account of the text's physical make-up which is a model of stylistic economy and has an admirably clear summing-up.

At times, compression is carried too far. In assessing the composition and development of the Cycle, Dr Spector sums up the findings of his own thesis with modest brevity but in so doing manages to bypass the arguments which would account for the pageants whose verse-forms are exceptional and the questions of decorum and language as moral sign. The reader presumes that the fuller answers are stored in Yale but is left with his immediate intellectual curiosity unsatisfied.

To note, in a comparative context, that the greatest advance concerns the Glossary, is per se to claim little. Of all the Early English Text Society's editors, Block was one of the least curious in this area. For the most part she provided one word equivalents for the first appearance of 'difficult' words and so managed to 'cover' the codex in twenty pages. The new edition is thorough by any standards. Nuances are carefully noted and related to particular citations. End-notes and footnotes complement such material so that, even in cases of personal disagreement, the grounds for discussion have been carefully defined. For example, in the Proclamation Dr Spector glosses 'blake' as 'black' at line 25; as 'yellow' at line 36. The Commentary discusses the variation and gives the history of the crux. 'Devyse' is glossed as a verb ('consider') in Play 14 line 320; the Commentary explains this as well as the readings which encouraged earlier editors to give it the force of a noun and gloss as 'trick' or 'intent'. In one sense, this is only to say that Dr Block's glossary does what a good glossary should; my study suggests that he does it particularly well and I linger over the point in appreciation of the toil which is needed to achieve that simply stated end.

It would be most charitable to end here and say that the principal aims seem to me to have been achieved for a Text Society edition. Readers, however, who come with the additional expectation that the latest theatrical, critical, philosophical, and theological researches will also have been noted are bound to be disappointed. This goes beyond the time-lag often implied by Text Society publication. One is not surprised to find practically no bibliographical references post-1985. One is concerned to observe that none of the newer critical approaches is represented. Even the valuable work done on the practical level of theatrical presentation begins and ends with the question of how the Cycle as a whole was performed.

Moreover, in the sections concerned with Staging and Structure, I had a curious sense that Dr Spector was uninvolved in the issues. A series of rather curiously chosen authorities are listed and their positions briefly explained. Instead of drawing these together in his conclusion (as so expertly done elsewhere), the editor adopts a 'much can be said on all sides' attitude and leaves it all to us.

It would, however, be unfair to end on this note. I should prefer to dwell on the achievements of this edition rather than demand that it be all things to all scholars.

R. D. S. JACK University of Edinburgh
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Author:Jack, R.D.S.
Publication:The Review of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1994
Words:795
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