Editing the Text

As well as being the inspiration for the revival of the Lincoln Mystery Plays in 1978, and Artistic Director from then until 2000, Keith Ramsay, together with Professor Edgar Schell, wrote the script which we use in our productions. This is based on the medieval manuscript known as “The N-Town Play”, and their script retains the shape and feel of the medieval text while being entirely accessible to modern-day actors and audiences.

The following is, again, taken from the programme for our Millennium production in 2000 and was written by Keith Ramsay.

The task of editing and modernising the text of the N-Town Play (which became the Lincoln Mystery Plays) was a lengthy one, since it consists of forty-two separate plays.

At the festival of Corpus Christi, these plays would have been performed during the hours of daylight. Performances in Lincoln were staged outside the West Front of the Cathedral (Lincoln’s text has been lost, most probably burned in a period of reforming zeal).

“N-Town” belongs to the East Midlands, it has been discovered possibly to Bury St Edmunds and its environs. It is claimed the priest-scribe, who compiled much of it, came from the village of East Harling. However, in Lincoln, we have given “N-Town” a home for the past twenty-two years and hopefully for many years to come.

I set myself the task of making a selection from these forty-two plays. I have chosen to present sixteen of the original plays. French Mystery Plays are inclined to concentrate more exclusively on that period of the story which deals with the life of Christ. This focus appealed to me.

I see the figure of Christ as the hero and at times, the tragic hero of the play. We start the evening off with the long Creation Play and with the twin falls of Lucifer, and of Adam and Eve. We end with the Doomsday Play. The remainder of the plays are concerned with the life and death of Christ. This is a conscious crafting of the medieval script, and some may feel not a true rendering of the original text. However, some selection has to be made.

No modern audience will sit through sixteen hours of dramatic text unless they are academics or audiences watching Goethe’s “Faust”. I have on frequent occasions in the past been accused of “going on too long”. I hope this year I have “reformed this altogether”.

When I invited my friend Professor Schell to help in the modernisation of the text, we swiftly came to a joint decision. We attempted to leave in as many of the original Middle English words as possible. Some fellow academics have encouraged me to present the plays in the original medieval language. Interesting though this may be as an experiment, I doubt it would meet with any commercial success. So, what we have is a gentle compromise. An example that I like to give of this preservation of the original Middle English is illustrated by a line spoken by Death in “The Massacre of the Innocents”. “Me withstand may no castle” would be a direct update. In context, nobody can have a problem with: “Me withstand may no castell”. Apart from anything else, this line is easier to speak than a full modernisation. “Me withstand may no castle” spoken in ‘Southern Received’ sounds ridiculous and a fair tad more ridiculous than a broad Yorkshire “cassle”. “Castell” solves all problems.

text by Keith Ramsey, from the 2000 production programme