‘In the Beginning … ’: Performing the Creation in the York Corpus Christi Play

Greg Walker

in The Oxford Handbook of Tudor Drama

Published in print July 2012 | ISBN: 9780199566471
Published online November 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks of Literature

‘In the Beginning … ’: Performing the Creation in the York Corpus Christi Play


The playwrights of the medieval York Corpus Christi play faced a daunting challenge — to represent all of universal history, from the dawn of Creation to the Last Judgement of Doomsday in the course of a single day, using only the flexible but finite resources of a small pageant wagon stage set up at various ‘stations’ on the city streets. Nowhere was this challenge more obvious than in the first pageant of all, the Fall of the Angels, where the task was to stage the beginnings of everything: the mysterious, unknowable events at and before the beginning of time itself. Confronted with the need to represent the moment when God, alone in the infinite isolation of his own unique existence, chose to speak into being the temporal and material universe, any playwright might reasonably have quailed. But the unknown playwright rose magnificently to the task, creating a pageant that, while brief, nonetheless suggests both the unfathomable depth of significance to the events he was presenting and the rich, numinous quality of that time before time, ‘in the beginning’ of all things. The resulting pageant not only testifies to the richness and dramatic power of the medieval religious plays and demonstrates their importance for the stagecraft of later Tudor playwrights, but also reflects and relies upon the volatile, unpredictable quality of the alchemy that occurs when performers seek to engage the affective responses of spectators in pursuit of theatrical effects.

Keywords: playwrights; medieval plays; Fall of the Angels; universal history; religious plays; Tudor drama

Article.  9486 words. 

Subjects: Literature ; Literary Studies (1500 to 1800)

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