Play Texts and Public Practice in the Chester Cycle, 1422-1607 investigates how the Chester cycle`s scripted action engages playfully with the unscripted practices that surrounded it, especially on the feast days that occasioned its fifteenth- and sixteenth-century civic performances. From the dissertation`s series of close readings emerges a new vision of cycle drama, in which the revelers who perform and watch the cycle actively exert developmental influences on the form and content of the texts. I show that the extant texts are mirrors of Cestrian public recreation and festivity, enacting feasts, games, intercultural commerce, and civic ceremonies with surprising frequency. Not only do the plays reflect public practice, I argue, but they constitute it: the texts inscribe real guild ceremonies and celebrations into a repeatable dramatic tradition.
The Chester plays are inextricable from the holiday festivals that occasioned them, so a close literary analysis of the extant play texts requires an understanding of the circumstances within which the live performances developed. Those circumstances are only fully visible when the mises-en-scène imagined by the extant texts are taken into account as meaningful symbols inseparable from the poetic lines. Throughout Play Texts and Public Practice, I not only combine new readings of archival data with on-site research into Chester`s live performances and urban topography, but I also treat the play texts themselves as accretive records of performance, allowing me to excavate from them previously unnoticed vestiges of performance cues and circumstances. In turn, I incorporate those cues and circumstances back into my formal analysis, to comprehend the open-ended space and time of street theater as medieval Cestrians played it and understood it.
A rigorous performance-based approach allows me to read the extant texts as indices of ongoing community-based practice -- a set of local festivities in which the literary subtleties and embellishments of Chester`s texts play a crucial role. The form and content of the cycle, integrating real festivities with the symbolic representation of those festivities, create a complex conceptual space within which the relationships between secular and religious practice can be negotiated and explored. The fifteenth- and sixteenth-century performance conditions make their real environment radically visible, rather than trying to darken it; the local spectators and architecture that crowded in on the plays` productions were absorbed into their texts -- so that the extant texts, having developed during that immersive and collaborative performance process, resonate aesthetically and symbolically with the Cestrian community and its city.