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‘Lo, he merys. Lo, he laghys’: Humour, Laughter, and Audience Response in the York and Towneley Plays.

BECKETT, JAMES,IAIN,ROSS (2018) ‘Lo, he merys. Lo, he laghys’: Humour, Laughter, and Audience Response in the York and Towneley Plays. Doctoral thesis, Durham University.

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Humour is generally regarded as a means to entertain, but it should not always be considered superficial. This thesis explores the use of humour in the ‘mystery plays’ of the York Corpus Christi Cycle and the Towneley MS, moving away from a consideration of the use of humor as little more than an aesthetic embellishment on otherwise serious biblical dramas, towards an appreciation of the range of meanings located in comic forms. Rather than merely functioning as a pleasing distraction, the humour of these plays was rooted in devotional trends and broader lay concerns of Yorkshire and north-east England in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Its analysis offers fruitful insights into the complex and competing discourses of contemporary lay society, and how a varied demographic of spectators considered their relationship with God.

Drawing on established critical approaches and utilising theories from the field of Humour Studies, the following work argues that comic forms were utilised as a way to prompt a cognitive process in spectators, playing on incongruities between the biblical narrative and elements of contemporary life brought into performances. Rather than timeless evocations of biblical history, these plays were defined by their contemporaneity. The surviving play-texts encode tensions through their use of humour, drawing attention to apparent inconsistencies between the biblical and the contemporary, rather than masking them. By this means, those experiencing the dramas were motivated to consider the relationship between their own lives and the arc – or cycle – of biblical history.

The first chapter considers the ‘lost’ York Funeral of the Virgin pageant, which prompted the only record of laughter as a response to the cycle: though not for the reasons producers might have hoped. A new speculative context is offered for the play, reflecting the sense in which narratives beyond performances could inform audience response. A similar approach is presented in the second chapter on the Noah plays of York and Towneley; it reassesses the much-discussed comic relationship of the patriarch and his wife. Chapter three looks to plays associated with the ‘shepherds’, considering the humour of the plays as a reflection of specific devotional and commercial interests vested in the region where they were produced. In chapter five the comically-inflected performances of Herod and the tyrants are reconsidered, within a discursive context of temptation and superficiality. Finally, chapters six and seven look to the use of humour in plays involving Joseph, Mary and Christ, where comic elements mediate between the ‘earthly’ and the divine.

Item Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Award:Doctor of Philosophy
Keywords:Humour; Laughter; Early Drama; Medieval Drama; Mystery Plays; Performance; Audience; Spectatorship; Medieval; Late Medieval; Early Modern; Reformation; Lay Devotion; York; Yorkshire; North-East England.
Faculty and Department:Faculty of Arts and Humanities > English Studies, Department of
Thesis Date:2018
Copyright:Copyright of this thesis is held by the author
Deposited On:04 Jun 2019 13:31

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