Peter Travis "Dramatic Design in the Chester Cycle": A Review

Updated on February 17, 2017
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V Ron Dorn is a Canadian writer with a Bachelor's in English and World Language Studies and a Master's in English and Creative Writing.


Peter Travis’s book Dramatic Design in the Chester Cycle is an enormous and ambitious undertaking. He is the first scholar to attempt to create a “multileveled formal, rhetorical, and thematic analysis” of an entire English mystery cycle, and he chooses to focus his efforts on Chester (xiv). His general goal with this work is to establish the Chester Cycle’s “dramatic design”, something he explains as a series of unifying principles (“theological, historical, and aesthetic”) which illuminates (or at least should illuminate) connective patterns between the paginae, and therefore singularly proves the deliberate authorial intentions behind the work as a whole (xiv).

The book begins with some pertinent background information. Chapter 1 looks at England’s Corpus Christi festivities and how they evolved. Travis focuses on ideas of drama and ritual, spectacle, and Eucharistic unifications of the mundane and the divine in English religious festivities. He comments on the increasingly visual nature of mass, specifically ocular forms of communion, and how this sight-focused faith translated into a spectacular, ritualistic tradition of Corpus Christi drama. Travis also outlines one of his key principles right away – that Corpus Christi drama had an intended purpose and expected a certain reaction from the audience. The play, he argues, was an imitation of religious ritual that nonetheless inspired an authentic religious response, and thus served as a reminder to spectators of their sacred place in the spiritual world.

Chapter two continues with the historical analyses, but shifts to look specifically at the Chester Cycle and its various manuscripts and histories. Travis immediately states that, while Chester has a stylistic unity that the other cycles may not, there are enough discrepancies to indicate that it is the work of more than one author and/or reviser. Nevertheless, he hereafter refers to one “Chester playwright” or “Chester dramatist”, the genius who, he says, has orchestrated the intricate designs that govern the whole cycle. Travis also uses this chapter to look at much of the scholarship that has been done on the subject so far, and to draw his own conclusions about what we can and cannot know with certainty. For example, he claims that we must regard Chester as an ultimately anonymous work, whose developments in the fifteenth century will forever be unknown.

Chapters 3 through 8 focus almost solely on the Chester texts themselves and are written largely as summary and close-readings with smatterings of relevant historical, political, philosophical, or theological background. Each of these chapters focuses on a group of paginae that are thematically related and grouped together. Travis examines the historical and salvation elements of the first plays, the comedic and ritual nature of the nativity pageants, the neo-romanesque and liturgical quality of the ministry pageants, the rhythmic communion of the passion plays, the credal design of the resurrection plays, and themes of time and illusion in the final pageants of the cycle. Each chapter is an almost self-contained unit with its own criteria and hosts of individual merits. If looked at separately, each chapter can be compelling with strong close readings and important historical or theological connections. And yet, any semblance of the unity that Travis claims pervades Chester is not present in the overall execution of his argument. As each chapter looks at its own set of plays with a different critical lens, the book, the argument, and the Chester Cycle itself comes across as more disjointed than designed.

There are other issues, too, with this work. Travis’ Chester is one where everything has a purpose and everything has a place. It is a series of inter-locking shapes and counter-balances. Each pagina, he claims, complements, adds to, or contrasts in some way with those that came before so that an overall design can be acknowledged. This, however, does not conform to the reality of the cycle, and Travis himself admits that he is working with his own carefully chosen selection of Chester texts. He has, in essence, created his own version of the cycle to work with in order to suit his specific needs. He also attributes far too much in the way of intention, both to Chester’s author, and sometimes to the cycle itself. For example, he often speaks of the expected audience reaction without specifying who or what expects such a thing and with no elaboration of how such a reaction would have been achieved. J.A.B. Somerset has said that Travis tends to “assume a dramatic effect rather than demonstrate how it came about” and that is absolutely true of his arguments in this text (Somerset 312). The visual, dramatic, logistical, and physical elements of the plays are almost completely neglected in his analyses. The plays are looked at as more as texts than as dynamic, three-dimensional entities that moved within and took up space. Travis also never broaches the subject of the economic, guild-driven structure of the cycle, which seems a rather large omission when it comes to the relevant historical and political landscape surrounding the plays.

Travis’ writing is, for the most part, clear, concise, and to the point, although the credibility of any objective argument it attempts to outline is often marred by the frequent use of phrases like “I think” and “I believe”. Travis also frequently refers to episodes in the Bible’s narrative as “historical events” which is an inappropriate choice of words for such an academic context.

Despite these criticisms, Travis’ work does serve an important purpose in the scholastic conversation. As aforementioned, it is, so far, the only work of its kind and is monumental in its breadth and depth. This book represents the possible scope subsequent research could achieve in the field. Considering the construction of the work, it must be said that the overall shape of the book is thoughtfully crafted. The first two chapters contain necessary background information and provide a both elegant and helpful entry into the world of the medieval Chester plays. The following chapters are paced well and, while the overarching unifying design Travis argues for may not necessarily come through convincingly, his focused examinations of smaller sections of text and his keen thematic eye are, in most individual cases, extremely compelling. Travis’ book certainly isn’t perfect, but it seems almost impossible that such a large work possibly could be. It is a work as unique as it is huge and it perhaps marks the beginning of what could be an extraordinary movement in mystery cycle research, a movement in which scholars do not limit themselves, their material, or their arguments, but rather actively engage with and pursue their most gargantuan ambitions.


Somerset, J.A.B. “Reviewed Work: Dramatic Design in the Chester Cycle by Peter W. Travis. Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England. 4 (1989): 310-313. Web. March 25 2016.

Travis, Peter W. Dramatic Design in the Chester Cycle. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1982. Print.

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