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REED project still making major finds New volume of drama records slated for publication

November 21, 2006

Source: University of Toronto

Even though itís been centuries since medieval and Renaissance theatrical touring companies traversed the British kingdom, major historical records are still being unearthed today, shedding new light on this little-known period of western culture.

Benefiting from these recent discoveries is U of Tís Records of Early English Drama project (REED) at Victoria College which will soon release its 24th collection entitled Cheshire (including Chester).

REEDís mandate is to establish the context for Britainís theatrical past by examining material related to drama, secular music and other communal entertainment and ceremony from the Middle Ages until the mid-17th century.

"Whatís important about Chester is that it is one of the very few places where major mystery cycles were performed that, in the 16th century, were massive tourist attractions, bringing in hundreds of people like rock concerts do today," says Sally-Beth MacLean, executive editor and associate director of REED.

Mystery plays, she explains, were important Biblical dramas performed on pageant wagons in city streets over the course of a day or, in Chesterís case, three days until shut down by Protestant reformers in the 1570s.

Unfortunately for scholars, however, is the fact that mountains of historical documents remain unread (sometimes for centuries), lying in privately held archives and family collections. Researchers may be charged a hefty fee for the opportunity to review them, MacLean says.

Luckily for REED, generous grants from the Leverhulme Foundation, the Social Sciences Research Council for the Humanities, the Jackman Foundation, the British Academy and the National Endowment for the Humanities were able to open a few doors for Cheshire (including Chester).

"Weíve discovered, for the first time, that a hall in Congleton, a relatively small town south of Manchester, was actually a performing space for Renaissance players," she says. "Itís a puzzle because this town isnít on a main road, so why did the players feel this was a profitable place to perform?"

Another big moment for MacLean was when they came upon records that listed a small theatre space attached to a former grammar school for boys.

"This was definitely a whoa! moment for me," she says, still excited by the discovery. "Itís very intriguing to have a playhouse in the very small town of Whitton. What was it about this place that justified what appears to be a theatre space? Who used it and for what purpose? Plays or musical performances or readings? We simply donít know yet Ė but thereís a research paper lurking under the surface of this totally unexpected mystery."

Cheshire (including Chester), which completes the series of REED volumes on the west of England, will be released in April 2007 by the University of Toronto Press and the British Library.



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