The York Play of the Crucifixion
Washington State University
THE YORK PLAY
OF THE CRUCIFIXION
Medieval drama originated in Easter and Christmas church pageants that outgrew the nave and were moved outside the churches. Miracle plays may have gotten the name from at first being dramatizations of miracles of the saints. By the 14th and 15th centuries, though, they had become depictions of stories from the Bible, and acted by the guilds, who presented them on Corpus Christi Day in cycles. The14th-century York cycle of 48 guild pageants includes the miracle play The Crucifixion (preserved in a 15th-century manuscript), created by the so-called York Realist, and showing typically northern linguistic and spelling features. Earlier, city leaders would assign particular plays to appropriate guilds, but craftsmen became too persistent in interjecting commercial announcements for themselves into the performances. The pin makers and painters (“pynneres and paynters”) became responsible for The Crucifixion. The stanzaic structure resembles that of Gawain and the Green Knight, but with more rhyming.
The soldiers engage in typical workman chat, oblivious to the significance or implications of their chore of crucifying Jesus. Their colloquial speech is delivered with an earnestness and bustling quality. They are nervous about getting their job accomplished, enthusiastic in a sense but not especially vindictive — more or less psyching themselves up with pep talk. The running commentary often drifts towards kvetching. The holes have been drilled incorrectly (an ironic feature since the pinners — makers of pegs for wood-joining — are playing soldiers here), so they must stretch the limbs of Jesus before hammering the nails. The mortice into which the cross must be dropped turns out to be too wide and needs to be wedged. When Jesus does speak, only twice in passages whose length conveys stateliness, his language originates in the Seven Last Words of the Gospels and from the liturgy for Holy Week (Bevington 569). But how Jesus is supposed to “act” is uncertain: agonized? serene and placid?
Ironic effects are rampant. The soldiers essentially “divide him up amongst themselves” in taking responsibility for various limbs. The assorted anachronisms heighten the ironies operating but also collapse time and space (not unlike many of the medieval arts) into a synchronicity. What amounts to almost an audience-participation effect is created in the hoisting of the cross.
In the end, the business of crucifixion has been mercilessly drawn out, not simply for theatrical macabre humor but to make the ironic point that the phenomenon of distancing oneself from the importance of the Passion of Christ is common. “Proud of their skill and yet comically incompetent to us, the soldiers so lose themselves in their world of mechanical details that they have no sense of the large issues confronting them. As Christ compassionately observes, they know not what they do” (Bevington 569). Here a central moment in Western history has been familiarized, but even those physically involved remain obtuse. And we audience members may understand that we would not have acted differently.
Crucifixio Christi. Medieval English Literature. Ed. Thomas J. Garbáty. Lexington, Massachusetts: D.H. Heath & Co., 1984. 872-881.
The Crucifixion of Christ. Medieval Drama. Ed. David Bevington. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1975. 569-579.
The York Play of the Crucifixion. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 1. 8th ed. NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006. 398-406.