Myths and Mystery Cycles
John Sessions follows the story of a research project that is rewriting the history and context of early English drama through close study of church and court records.
The Records of Early English Drama is now one of the biggest research projects ever to have taken place in the study of English literature. It's brief is to 'establish the broad context from which the great drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries grew'. But rather than look again at the extant texts and folios of the mystery plays and pageants of the early medieval period, a small army of REED (Records of Early English Drama) scholars, marshalled from their HQ at the University of Toronto, are combing through church and court records for any reference to plays, music, pageant and performance that they can find.
Very often the records are no more than court reports of wrong doings; illegal performances, drunken revellry, and bawdy performances. Occasionally there are snap shots of the plays that were put on by way of costume and performer costs, touring plans, venue preparation and even descriptions of events that took place.
County by county, Riding by Riding the scholars are producing a brilliantly colourful picture of drama and entertainment from the early Medieval period up until the closing of the theatres in 1642.
At the moment the map of Great Britain is completely covered. Some of the counties have completed volumes, others are on-going. All this started back in the seventies when a young scholar, Professor Alexandra Johnston, discovered a document recording in minute detail the contents of a York player's wagon. Her vision and drive along with the painstaking and diligent scholarship that has followed is turning vague notions of what went on in Britain in the centuries before Shakespeare into a clear idea of the professionalism of playing troupes and musicians and the sheer exuberant activity of local performers.
John Sessions follows REED scholars into the archives, talks to them about the scale and discipline of their work - it can take over ten years to cover one county - and he asks scholars and performers like Peter Holland and Mark Rylance what all this new evidence does to their understanding and performance of early English theatre.
There are a number of myths being debunked. The notion of touring players wheeling into an inn yard and setting up their performance appears to be entirely fiction. Players would go where they were invited. Their touring journeys were highly organised.
Producer: Tom Alban.