Printer Friendly

The N-Town Play: Cotton MS Vespasian D.8.

Ed. by Stephen Spector, Early English Text Society, Supplementary Series, 11, 12, 2 Vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press for the EETS, 1991). lvii + 661 pp. ISBN 019-722411-3; 019-722412-1. 45.00[pounds].

|BL MS Cotton Vespasian D.8 contains one of the four surviving English mystery play cycles, a composite and in many ways unique dramatic collection of unknown origin' (p. xiii). Stephen Spector's opening sentence to the first volume of this new edition highlights a long-recognized problem. While the |Creation-Doomsday' arrangement of the plays in the manuscript suggests a play-cycle, bibliographical and textual evidence demonstrates that it includes plays that had formerly existed independently and had been adapted to this cycle-format. Throughout his discussions the reader must be alert to this problem, and to the tendentiously value-laden implications of |cycle' and |collection'.

Previous discussions of the manuscript's compilation and provenance leave Spector little scope for new initiatives in those areas, though he re-presents this essential material with commendable clarity and thoroughness. W. W. Greg's 1913 Sandars Lectures and the introduction to K. S. Block's 1922 EETS edition discussed these issues admirably, and the introduction to the 1977 facsimile edition gave Stanley Kahrl and Peter Meredith space for the authoritative description of the manuscript to which Spector makes frequent reference. Similarly, advances in mediaeval dialectology have allowed Richard Beadle, among others, to locate the manuscript to a limited area of Norfolk on linguistic grounds. Perhaps because Block virtually ignored language, Spector devotes some nineteen of his forty-five introductory pages to a thoroughgoing linguistic survey of the text, building upon recent studies, which gives an air of philological priority to the Introduction. What is more important, perhaps, than such data is their implications for our understanding of the manuscript and its purpose, issues which Spector considers briefly in the three appendices to his second volume.

Is N-town a closet text for private reading, or a collection of plays designed for performance? If the latter, should it be considered as a |cycle', or be editorially disbound into its original independent components, as a |collection'? Unfortunately, Spector's text was submitted before the publication of Meredith's editions of the Mary (1987) and Passion (1990) plays, though some of their local findings are incorporated into the Apparatus. Building upon his manuscript studies, Meredith boldly maintains not only that these particular plays can be reestablished as independent dramas, but that they become misleading if considered in the context of a play-cycle. Spector's commission to edit the whole manuscript poses a dilemma, revealed both in that opening sentence and also in his subsequent discussions. Considering it as a literary construction, Spector appreciates N-town as a coherent whole: |The eclecticism of the text does not preclude the possibility of thematic and artistic unity' (p. 543); but considering it as a collection of plays, he acknowledges its heterogeneity: |Discussion of the production of the entire cycle ... in some instances presupposes a unity of purpose that has not been demonstrated in so composite a text' (p. 548).

This edition disappoints in its reluctance to emphasize the performance potential of the plays, and in particular to consider the implications of its East Anglian provenance. Meredith's editions give considerably more scope to the plays as practical theatre and point the possible relevance of the theatrical context, English and European, to the manuscript's purpose. Spector's footnote comment, |Meredith ingeniously suggests that the manuscript rather than the cycle was itinerant' (p. 548 n. 2), is uncharacteristically dismissive of a serious Point. Meredith grapples with the manuscript's purpose and offers at least a reasonable explanation for the manuscript's compilation if it is an acting-text, pointing to French practice as well as East Anglian performance evidence. Despite its appendices, the edition seems to signal its priority, the withdrawal of the text from the play-space to the study.

Compared with the extreme conservatism of its 1922 predecessor, which presented the text with manuscript punctuation, this edition offers its text with modern punctuation and layout. Spot-checks using the facsimile confirm the accuracy of Spector's transcription. But Spector does retain the play-numbers from the manuscript, which originate in the scribe's attempt to forge a conformity between the text and the Proclamation. Like the manuscript, therefore, he moves directly from 16 to 18 (there is no manuscript number 17) and retains the numbers in the Mary and Passion plays, where they are clearly inappropriate. More puzzlingly, he inserts modern play-titles beside those numbers, intensifying their effect by breaking up the text on the page and implying the discreteness of the parts.

The textual apparatus of the second volume is a considerable strength. It includes useful headnotes for each play, covering sources, and similar source comparison continues in the notes. The notes also deal, often with perception and critical decision, with points of linguistic and textual interest or difficulty. The select glossary is excellent.

Some readers may wish that Spector had addressed current controversies more directly or given more attention to the currently fashionable concerns with performance; but Spector's reluctance to venture too far into possibly contentious areas is perhaps understandable in an edition of this kind. Construing his editorial role as essentially that of transparent mediator between text and reader -- even to the extent of scrupulously sectionalizing off summaries of various critics from his own conclusions in the appendices -- Spector has made the complete N-town text at last accessible to scholar and student in an attractive modern edition which reflects the high standards of textual scholarship that we have come to expect from EETS publications.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Society for the Study of Mediaeval Languages and Literature
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Mills, David
Publication:Medium Aevum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Previous Article:The Middle English 'Weye of Paradys' and the Middle French 'Voie de Paradis': A Parallel-Text Edition.
Next Article:Regionalism in Late Medieval Manuscripts and Texts: Essays Celebrating the Publication of 'A Linguistic Atlas of Late Medieval English.'

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters