Towson troupe participates in ancient theater cycle Drama: On this longest day of the year, the students will participate at the University of Toronto in a marathon 48 plays that chronicle the history of humankind.


Weather has been known to affect the theater, especially outdoor dramas. But it's not often that a play is dependent on the Earth's orbit.

But it happens today in Toronto, where the York cycle of English mystery plays will be enacted on the campus of the University of Toronto. The date was chosen because it's the day of the vernal equinox: Midsummer Day, the longest of the year.

A dozen students of Towson University will offer their contribution to the York cycle, starting almost at daybreak.

The Towson company will be presenting "The Flood," the story of Noah and the Ark, which comes early in this sequence of 48 plays that trace the story of humankind from Creation to the Last Judgment.

"It'll start about 6 a.m.," says Ralph Blasting, their faculty adviser. "Nobody knows how long [the cycle] will run, but we're hoping to be finished by 10 p.m."

This is in accordance with historic accounts, he says. "In some records, it says everyone had to be ready to go at 4: 30 in the morning. And some of the guilds complained that they never got to do their play when it was light out."

The University of Toronto's medieval studies center has been producing the four English mystery play cycles since 1977.

Blasting, acting chairman of Towson's theater department, earned his doctorate at the University of Toronto and participated in its first York cycle. He volunteered his students for the current production, which incorporates presentations from more than 30 colleges and universities from the United States, Canada and England.

The mystery cycles, which arose in the 14th century, were the first attempts of everyday Christians to have a voice in the church. They were organized by the various crafts guilds rather than church officials and were given in English, not Latin.

Often, certain guilds claimed kinship with the stories. The carpenters' and shipwrights' guilds, for instance, wrote and presented the stories of the Flood and the building of the Ark -- not only in England but all over Europe. The Noah stained-glass window in Chartres Cathedral was paid for by those same guilds.

In England, the cycles were given for 200 years until they were outlawed early in the reign of Elizabeth I. They were regarded as incendiary occasions by the various Protestant and Catholic factions who fought for supremacy throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. The last York cycle was presented in 1569.

In Toronto, the cycles were resuscitated by the Poculi Ludique Societas (cup and game society), a club of medievalist scholars. After the 1977 York cycle, the PLS organized a Chester cycle in 1983, a Towneley cycle in 1985 and an N-Town cycle in 1987.

(The Towneley cycle, formerly called the Wakefield cycle, was determined by scholars to contain plays from several sites. It was renamed for the nobleman who kept its manuscript in his family archives for centuries.

(Similarly, the N-Town cycle was known as the Coventry cycle until it was learned that it was actually a traveling production that went from town to town. "N" was an indication to criers to fill in the name of the next stop.)

As in medieval times, the York cycle will be produced on pageant wagons, like those built by the crafts guilds. Towson's, designed by Daniel Ettinger for the play's indoor production in March, is like an Advent calendar: Panels open as the story is told to show the animals, two by two, and the waves, populated by merry dolphins, on which the great ship rides. At the end, a rainbow unfurls from its masts.

The production includes nine actors and three musicians from Towson's Early Music Ensemble, directed by H. Gene Griswold. Blasting will be along for technical support; graduate student Susan Rotkovitz, the assistant director, will videotape the event for the university archives.

The whole project, Blasting said, will cost about $3,000 for transportation of the actors and wagon, and for lodging.

"This is an extraordinary opportunity," Blasting said. "You can talk about productions on wagons and have the students read a few scripts, but this is living theater history."

It has also taught the students that art imitates life. Last Tuesday's touch-up rehearsal of "The Flood," which was to take place in the parking lot of the Fine Arts complex, was rained out by a deluge that Noah might have related to.

For more information on the York cycle, visit the PLS Web site at 8080/(tilde)medieval/www/pls/

Pub Date: 6/20/98

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