Friday, April 2, 2021

The Digby Play of Mary Magdalene

A manuscript in the Bodleian Library in Oxford contains a unique miracle play about the life of Saint Mary Magdalene. The manuscript, known as "Digby 133" for its 17th-century donor, seems to be imperfectly copied, but it gives us some fascinating insights into medieval drama.

The Digby Mary Magdalene portrays its protagonist as coming from a wealthy family. Her father Syrus even owns his own castle, but when he dies, grief sends Mary into a downward spiral. The Seven Deadly Sins, sensing the weakness of her emotional state, all come after her and eventually have to be exorcised by Jesus.

As is the case with many medieval plays, allegorical figures make numerous appearances, and not just the Seven Deadly Sins. The sins of Pride and Covetousness attend a character known as World. Another allegorical character, Flesh, rules over Sloth, Gluttony, and Lechery. The Devil himself appears as well, attended by Wrath and Envy.

Magdalene Castle is assailed, and Lechery gets inside, along with a character known as Bad Angel. Mary complains to Lechery of her grief for her father, and the sin advises her to engage in "sportes whych best doth yow plese." Traveling to Jerusalem with Lechery as her companion, Mary goes to a tavern and meets a young man named Curiosity.

According to the Bad Angel, Curiosity is none other than Pride, and Mary grants him all his requests. Fortunately, Good Angel shows up to awaken her conscience, and the saint repents, falling at the feet of Jesus and anointing the Lord with ointment. Jesus orders the seven devils out of Mary. They depart, and together with the Bad Angel "enter into hell with thondyr."

Hellmouths frequently show up in medieval drama, but this one appears to have been particularly impressive. A stage direction indicates: "Here xal the tother deylles sette the howse one a fyere..." Presumably, the set for hell actually had real pyrotechnics! This isn't the only use of special effects, though. In the second half of the play, Mary takes a sea journey, which is one of several shipboard scenes. The ship apparently moved, since there are stage directions like "Her goth the shep owt of the place."

Over the course of the play, pagan idols tremble, and a cloud from heaven sets a temple ablaze. Later, Mary goes out into the wilderness to fast and pray, and angels descend with a sacred host to nourish her. We think of our own theatre as being technologically advanced, but it might not have been a match for what theatre artists were doing way back during the middle ages!