Corpus Christi Plays and the Stations of the Cross: Medieval York and Modern Sydney
Sydney Studies in English, Vol 35 (2009)
Theatre scholars have much to learn about medieval audience responses to the secular performance of religious drama in cities like York as well as actors’ approaches to their roles. Although centuries apart, the Sydney Stations of the Cross for Catholic World Youth Day 2008 and the York Corpus Christi Plays have much in common. The audience and actors in Sydney exhibited what was known in the Middle Ages as ‘affective piety’. Margery Kempe, a medieval mystic, who practiced an affective piety focused on the Passion, was both audience and actor in her imaginative engagement with the Stations. Her responses as audience and her involvement as actor are compared with audience and actor responses to the Sydney Stations. Observations of the event itself and evidence in the Compass television program on the making of the Stations show how this modern event enhances an understanding of the devotional theatre of the past.
The metropolis of Sydney in 2008 may seem worlds away from the closely packed community of around 8,000 souls nestled within the walls of pre-Reformation York. This was a thriving medieval city, a town full of towers; after a building program that had extended over two hundred and fifty years, the Minster was completed in 1472 and its impressive gothic tower stood out against the skyline, proclaiming, along with the spires of the various religious houses and the numerous parish churches where the ordinary citizens worshipped, a society whose life was imbued with Christian spirituality. Sydney‟s central business district in the „noughties‟ has around 22,000 residents, a tally that increases to 4.4 million when you include the sprawling suburbs that surround it. And if you take a snapshot of the CBD using Google Earth‟s twenty-first-century satellite technology, you will find another, but rather different, set of towers: the iconic sails of the Opera House and the towers of commerce that cluster down to the shoreline of our famous harbour. This is not a city that speaks openly of religious affiliations, yet in 2008 it provided material for research into the devotional plays of medieval York—and indeed the religious drama of other cities in pre-Reformation England—when it hosted the Catholic World Youth Day Stations of the Cross on Friday 18 July.