The York plays have long been the subject of performance-oriented modernizations, of which this is merely the latest. One of the earliest, that of Phillips Endecott Osgood in 1928, was designed for performance at stations within an Episcopalian church. Osgood provides a version (which he claims is a translation of "the ancient Norman-Saxon-Latin text" edited by Lucy Toulmin Smith) of the York nativity sequence. The 1951 performance of the abridged York play for the York Festival used the modernized text of J. S. Purvis, who later produced another, more conservative version of the entire text for publication (SPCK,1962). In 1984, Richard Beadle and Pamela King published a modern-spelling version of 22 of the plays; and in 1993 Tony Harrison's The Mysteries provided a loose adaptation of the York text. Finally, this modernized text was used for the performance of the entire York Cycle by the PLS and other companies on June 20, 1998, in Toronto.

The process of changing the language of the York plays thus has a long and varied history. Yet despite this heritage, or perhaps because of it, the process remains a subject of suspicion among many scholars. Each version, after all, reflects the assumptions of its adaptors, incorporating them into, and threatening to overshadow, the original. Behind every adaptation, the shadow of Dr. Bowdler lurks. We, of course, had no intention of going to such an extreme, nor did we do so in the end.

A series of definitions may help to approach and define the subject, and to explain why we thought of the process as modernization rather than as translation. One standard definition of the word "translate" runs as follows: "to turn from one language into another; to change into another language retaining the sense; to render, also, to express in other words; to paraphrase; to make a version from one form of language into another" (OED). So far, the definition is ethically neutral, but later, the word takes on a sinister sense: "to change in form, appearance or substance; to transmute; to transform, alter; in industrial use, of a tailor, to renovate, turn, or cut down (a garment); of a cobbler, to make new boots from remains (of old ones)." The concept of translation, therefore, implies a certain level of violence to the text. Interestingly, we noticed in 1998 that those scholars who looked most askance at the prospect of using a modernized text tended to call it a "translation" anyway, despite our protestations to the contrary.

By contrast, the same source defines "modernize" as "(a) to rewrite (an old text) in modern spelling or language; to replace obsolete (words, language or spelling) with modern equivalents (b) to remodel and refashion an ancient building." This is what we set out to do; it is a job of reconstruction and preservation. It is a task for the careful builder, not for the opportunistic scavenger. In treating the text as an ancient and much-loved structure in need of renovation for contemporary use, we were nonetheless aware of the danger facing all reconstructions: namely, that of making false the subject matter; of appearing to make a simulacrum that violated the spirit of the original. This is not, we think, what resulted, however, because of the constraints that we placed on ourselves: namely, to produce a text that would work in performance to convey, as nearly as possible in the present context, the meaning and spirit of the original.

For that is the use of these texts: to be performed. In Playing God: Medieval Mysteries on the Modern Stage, John Elliott surveyed the use of modernized or translated versions of Middle English texts for performance. He called for some acknowledgement of responsibility on the part of the makers of these texts:

With the exception of a few school and university productions which have managed to give the plays in their original linguistic forms, it has been assumed, plausibly, that the only feasible way to present the mysteries to modern audiences is some type of modernized version of the text. The question of what kind of translation or adaptation this should be is obviously an important one, as the sound of the language does much to condition the response of both actors and audiences to the plays. By the same token, a translator cannot begin his [or her] work without first making a decision about the kind of appeal he [or she] feels the plays to have and the kind of production style he [or she] imagines appropriate to them. Every translation is, in this sense, an interpretation. (Elliott 133)

The text we produced was designed, accordingly, with a series of precise yet contradictory goals in mind: it had to reproduce accurately the meaning, rhyme, metre, and alliteration of the original; additionally, it had to be comprehensible to the speaking tongue and listening ear of the late twentieth-century North American actor and audience. Thus, we removed most of the Yorkshire idiom, changed most of the thees and thous into yous, and occasionally rewrote lines and even stanzas in order to preserve the rhyme scheme and metrical patterns of the original. The work was both technical and creative, and was a constant balancing act between opposing needs.

In cases where leaves are missing from the manuscript, we have written compatible verse based on the other cycles, and designed to match the number of missing lines. For instance, Play 7, the Glovers' pageant of Cain and Abel, needed much reconstruction of this kind. The original text is in ruinous condition: the two brothers' sacrifices and the murder of Abel are missing from the manuscript, and what remains consists of two different layers of revision in different hands, not entirely connected to each other. In this case, we rearranged the stanzas slightly, so that all the surviving text is used; in addition, we spliced in the appropriate episode from the Towneley plays (highly edited for length), and invented a few stanzas to introduce Cain's servant Brewbarret. The result is not what was played in medieval York, but it works as drama nonetheless, and preserves the spirit of the original as nearly as possible: more nearly, we think, than a fragmentary text would in performance.

Elliott's second question, the kind of appeal that we felt the plays to have, is far more elusive. We would characterize their charm as immediate, emotionally powerful, and frequently intimate. The plays were not originally written in intentionally old-fashioned language; nor were they presented in the idiom of another land. They were of their time and place. Our version attempted to provide the impression of familiarity; to give our audience the impression that they were experiencing something very much like what the original audience would have experienced.

The second kind of appeal we tried to preserve was the beauty of the poetry. The language is tightly and neatly locked into various and recurring patterns. When this poetry is read aloud, it has immense power; it rolls and flows and builds on itself, often providing colour to characterization and punctuation to the development of the plot. We wanted to preserve as much of this poetical power as we could, and therefore we kept the rhyme scheme, alliteration, and the pattern of beats within each line. When we wrote or rewrote lines, we did so in order to recreate the patterns within that play.

We worked, thus, within very tight guidelines: nothing to be cut; additions to be made only as the lacunae in the MS dictated; poetic forms to be retained; archaism and incomprehensible idiom to be interpreted into clear and correct verse; false cognates (such as "in fere" which means "together") to be reworded; jumbled word orderings to be clarified; no changes to be made merely for the sake of elegance if the MS already made sense. Of course, these guidelines rest heavily upon our judgements of what "makes sense" -- and these judgements were made in Canadian terms, for the sake of non-professionals.

We discovered that although our styles were compatible, they were not identical; Yates's is more conservative, Scoville's is more creative. We realized that there was no ultimate version, no perfect text - we could have continued to work at it for years, adjusting editorial standards as we learned and as our aesthetics continued to develop. Any version is exactly that - a version only, one of many, as ephemeral as the performance for which it was designed.

We've come away from the experience with a deep respect for the complexities of the original text. The result of our labour, we hope, will encourage actors and audiences to take a larger interest in the original York plays and in the drama of the Middle Ages. To paraphrase Voltaire, when he introduced his French version of Shakespeare's plays, "Pardon the blemishes of the modernization for the sake of the original; and remember always that when you see a version, you see merely a faint print of a beautiful picture."

- Chester N. Scoville
Kimberley M. Yates

Go to York Pageant List.