English Literature for Boys and Girls - H. E. Marshall
In this chapter I am going to give you a part of one of the Townley plays to show you what the beginnings of our drama were like.
Although our forefathers tried to make the pageants as real as possible, they had, of course, no scenery, but acted on a little bare platform. They never thought either that the stories they acted had taken place long ago and in lands far away, where dress and manners and even climate were all very different from what they were in England.
For instance, in the Shepherd's play, of which I am going to tell, the first shepherd comes in shivering with cold. For though he is acting in summer he must make believe that it is Christmas-time, for on Christmas Day Christ was born. And Christmas-time in England, he knows, is cold. What it may be in far-off Palestine he neither knows nor cares.
"Lord, what these weathers are cold! and I am ill happed;
I am near hand dulled so long have I napped;
My legs they fold, my fingers are chapped,
It is not as I would, for I am all lapped
In storm and tempest,
Now in the east, now in the west,
Woe is him has never rest
Mid-day or morrow."
In this strain the shepherd grumbles until the second comes. He, too, complains of the cold.
"The frost so hideous, they water mine een,
Now is dry, now is wet,
Now is snow, now is sleet,
When my shoon freeze to my feet,
It is not all easy."
So they talk until the third shepherd comes. He, too, grumbles.
"Was never syne Noah's floods such floods seen;
Winds and rains so rude, and storms so keen."
The first two ask the third shepherd where the sheep are. "Sir," he replies,
"This same day at morn
I left them i the corn
When they rang lauds.
They had pasture good they cannot go wrong."
That is all right, say the others, and so they settle to sing a song, when a neighbor named Mak comes along. They greet the newcomer with jests. But the second shepherd is suspicious of him.
"Thus late as thou goes,
What will men suppose?
And thou hast no ill nose
For stealing of sheep."
"I am true as steel," says Mak. "All men wot it. But a sickness I feel that holds me full hot," and so, he says, he is obliged to walk about at night for coolness.
The shepherds are all very weary and want to sleep. But just to make things quite safe, they bid Mak lie down between them so that he cannot move without awaking them. Mak lies down as he is bid, but he does not sleep, and as soon as the others are all snoring he softly rises and "borrows" a sheep.
Quickly he goes home with it and knocks at his cottage door. "How, Gill, art thou in? Get us a light."
"Who makes such din this time of night?" answers his wife from within.
When she hears that it is Mak she unbars the door, but when she sees what her husband brings she is afraid.
"By the naked neck thou art like to hang," she says.
"I have often escaped before," replies Mak.
"But so long goes the pot to the water, men say, at last comes it home broken," cries Gill.
But the question is, now that they have the sheep, how is it to be his from the shepherds. For Mak feels sure that they will suspect him when they find out that a sheep is missing.
Gill has a plan. She will swaddle the sheep like a new-born baby and lay it in the cradle. This being done, Mak returns to the shepherds, whom he finds still sleeping, and lies down again beside them. Presently they all awake and rouse Mak, who still pretends to sleep. He, after some talk, goes home, and the shepherds go off to seek and count their sheep, agreeing to meet again at the "crooked thorn."
Soon the shepherds find that one sheep is missing, and suspecting Mak of having stolen it they follow him home. They find him sitting by the cradle singing a lullaby to the new-born baby, while Gill lies in bed groaning and pretending to be very ill. Mak greets the shepherds in a friendly way, but bids them speak softly and not walk about, as his wife is ill and the baby asleep.
But the shepherds will not be put off with words. They search the house, but can find nothing.
"All work we in vain as well may we go.
I can find no flesh
Hard or nesh,
Salt or fresh,
But two toom platters."
Meanwhile, Gill from her bed cries out at them, calling them thieves. "Ye come to rob us. I swear if ever I you beguiled, that I eat this child that lies in this cradle."
The shepherds at length begin to be sorry that they have been so unjust as to suspect Mak. They wish to make friends again. But Mak will not be friends. "Farewell, all three, and glad I am to see you go," he cries.
So the shepherds go a little sadly. "Fair winds may there be, but love there is none this year," says one.
"Gave ye the child anything?" says another.
"I trow not a farthing."
"Then back will I go," says the third shepherd, "abide ye there."
And back he goes full of his kindly thought. "Mak," he says, "with your leave let me give your bairn but sixpence."
But Mak still pretends to be sulky, and will not let him come near the child. By this time all the shepherds have come back. One wants to kiss the baby, and bends over the cradle. Suddenly he starts back. What a nose! The deceit is found out and the shepherds are very angry. Yet even in their anger they can hardly help laughing. Mak and Gill, however, are ready of wit. They will not own to the theft. It is a changeling child, they say.
"He was taken with an elf,
I saw it myself,
When the clock struck twelve was he foreshapen,"
But the shepherds will not be deceived a second time. They resolve to punish Mak, but let him off after having tossed him in a blanket until they are tired and he is sore and sorry for himself.
This sheepstealing scene shows how those who wrote the play tried to catch the interest of the people. For every one who saw this scene could understand it. Sheepstealing was a very common crime in England in those days, and was often punished by death. Probably every one who saw the play knew of such cases, and the writers used this scene as a link between the everyday life, which was near at hand and easy to understand, and the story of the birth of Christ, which was so far off and hard to understand.
And it is now, when the shepherds are resting from their hard work of beating Mak, that they hear the angels sing "Glory to God in the highest." From this point on all the jesting ceases, and in its rough way the play is reverent and loving.
The angel speaks.
"Rise, herdmen, quickly, for now is he born
That shall take from the fiend what Adam was lorn;
That demon to spoil this night is he born,
God is made your friend now at this morn.
At Bethlehem go see,
There lies that fre
In a crib full poorly
Betwixt two beasties."
The shepherds hear the words of the angel, and looking upward see the guiding star. Wondering at the music, talking of the prophecies of David and Isaiah, they hasten to Bethlehem and find the lowly stable. Here, with a mixture of awe and tenderness, the shepherds greet the Holy Child. It is half as if they spoke to the God they feared, half as if they played with some little helpless baby who was their very own. They mingle simple things of everyday life with their awe. They give him gifts, but their simple minds can imagine no other than those they might give to their own children.
The first shepherd greets the child with words:—
"Hail, comely and clean! Hail, young child!
Hail, maker as methinks of a maiden so mild.
Thou hast warred, I ween, the demon so wild."
Then he gives as his gift a bob of cherries.
The second shepherd speaks:—
"Hail! sovereign saviour! for thee have we sought.
Hail, noble child and flower that all thing hast wrought.
Hail, full of favour, that made all of nought.
Hail! I kneel and I cower! A bird have I brought
To my bairn.
Hail, little tiny mop,
Of our creed thou art crop,
I would drink to thy health,
Little Day Star!"
The third shepherd speaks:—
"Hail! darling dear full of Godhead!
I pray thee be near when that I have need!
Hail! sweet is thy cheer! My heart would bleed
To see thee sit here in so poor weed
With no pennies.
Hail! put forth thy dall.
I bring thee but a ball:
Have and play thee with all
And go to the tennis."
And so the pageant of the shepherds comes to an end, and they return home rejoicing.
This play gives us a good idea of how the Miracles wound themselves about the lives of the people. It gives us a good idea of the rudeness of the times when such jesting with what we hold as sacred seemed not amiss. It gives, too, the first gleam of what we might call true comedy in English.