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Signifying God

Social Relation and Symbolic Act in the York Corpus Christi Plays

In Signifying God, Sarah Beckwith explores the most lavish, long-lasting, and complex form of collective theatrical enterprise in English history: the York Corpus Christi plays. First staged as early as 1376, the plays were performed annually until the late 1500s and involved as much as a tenth of the city in multiple performances at a dozen or more locations.

Introducing a radical new understanding of these plays as "sacramental theater," Beckwith shows how organizing the plays served as a political mechanism for regulating labor, and how theater and sacrament combined in them to do important theological work. She argues, for instance, that the theology of Corpus Christi in the resurrection plays can only be understood as a theatrical exploration of eucharistic absence and presence. Beckwith frames her study with discussions of twentieth-century manifestations of sacramental theater in Barry Unsworth’s novel Morality Play and Denys Arcand’s film Jesus of Montreal, and the connections between contemporary revivals of the York Corpus Christi plays and England’s heritage culture.

312 pages | 6 halftones | 5-1/2 x 8-1/2 | © 2001, 2003

Literature and Literary Criticism: British and Irish Literature

Medieval Studies

Religion: Christianity

Table of Contents

Part One: Ruins and Revival
Chapter 1 The Present of Past Things: The York Corpus Christi Cycle as a Contemporary Theater of Memory
Part Two: Social Relation and Symbolic Act
Chapter 2 Ritual, Theater, and Social Space in the York Corpus Christi Cycle
Chapter 3 Work, Markets, Civic Structure: Organizing the York Corpus Christi Plays
Part Three: Sacramental Theater
Chapter 4 Real Presences: The York Crucifixion as Sacramental Theater
Chapter 5 Presence after Presentness: The Theater of Resurrection in York
Chapter 6 Penance, Presence, Punishment
Part Four: Reform
Chapter 7 Theaters of Signs and Disguises: The Reform of the York Corpus Christi Plays
Part Five: Revival
Chapter 8 By the People for the People: The Gift of God for the People of God
Works Cited

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