English Economies and Welsh Realities: Drama in Medieval and Early Modern Wales

  • David N. Klausner
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


It has long been a commonplace of Welsh literary history that Wales had nothing to compare to the great proliferation of drama—public and private, amateur and professional, civic and parish—that flourished in England in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In Wales, the subject has for the most part been dealt with by ignoring it. Thomas Parry’s History of Welsh Literature (1955) devoted three brief pages to drama; the multivolume Guide to Welsh Literature (1976–97) ignores the subject altogether, and Cecil Price’s English Theatre in Wales gives a short summary of the previous three centuries.1 Gwenan Jones’ edition of the two surviving biblical plays was privately printed in Bala in 1939 and has never been reprinted.2 It is not, on the whole, a subject that has sparked much interest. This is unfortunate since, although there is no question that the situation was very different in Wales from the extensive dramatic traditions east of the border, it suggests that drama was virtually unknown in early Wales. The records suggest otherwise: that while dramatic performance was never as vital and pervasive a part of the Welsh tradition as it was of the English, early Wales did have plays and performances, and that these were often quite different from plays in England. These plays were geographically widespread, from Llanelli to Beaumaris to Chirk, and in both Welsh and English. This chapter will survey the evidence for drama and dramatic performance in Wales up to the earliest anterliwtau, the first Welsh popular dramatic tradition.


Fifteenth Century Documentary Evidence Professional Player Dramatic Performance Stage Direction 
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  1. 1.
    Thomas Parry, A History of Welsh Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955); A. O. H. Jarman and Gwilym R. Hughes, A Guide to Welsh Literature, 2 vols. (Swansea: Christopher Davies, 1979, 1984); R. Geraint Gruffydd, A Guide to Welsh Literature, c. 1530–1700 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1997); Cecil Price, English Theatre in Wales in the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Century (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1948), 6.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Gwenan Jones, A Study of Three Welsh Religious Plays (Bala: Bala Press, 1939).Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    David Klausner, ed., Herefordshire and Worcestershire, Records of Early English Drama (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), 115–16.Google Scholar
  4. 8.
    On the artificial origin and redating of the Towneley plays, see Barbara D. Palmer, “Recycling ‘The Wakefield Cycle’: The Records,” Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama 41 (2002): 88–130 and Garrett P. J. Epp, “The Towneley Plays and the Hazards of Cycling,” Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama 32 (1993): 121–50.Google Scholar
  5. 9.
    See my forthcoming article “Staging the Unstageable: Performing the Crucifixion in Medieval England and Wales,” in Aspects of Medieval Civic Drama: Essays in Honour of David Mills, Medieval English Theatre, (2008).Google Scholar
  6. 10.
    Sarah Campbell, ed., “The Strong Man and Its Contexts: An Edition, Translation, and Study of a Medieval Welsh Morality Play” (Ph.D. diss., Catholic University of America, 2005). Quotations and translations are from Campell’s edition.Google Scholar
  7. 13.
    W. Beynon Davies, ed., Troelus a Chresyd (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1976); the text is also available online at the Historical Corpus of the Welsh Language site, Scholar
  8. 17.
    J. S. P. Tatlock, “The Welsh Troilus and Cressida and Its Relation to the Elizabethan Drama,” Modern Language Review 10.3 (1915): 277, note 1; R. I. Stephens Jones, “The Authorship of Troelus a Chresyd,” Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 28.2 (1979): 223–28; Gwyn Williams, “‘Troelus a Chresyd’: A Welsh Tragedy,” in Person and Persona: Studies in Shakespeare (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1981), 109–10 (reprinted from Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, 1954).Google Scholar
  9. 21.
    Robert Henryson, The Testament of Cresseid, ed. Denton Fox (London: Nelson, 1968), lines 169–82.Google Scholar
  10. 24.
    David Klausner, “Family Entertainments among the Salusburys of Lleweni, Denbighshire and Their Circle, 1595–1641,” Welsh Music History/Hanes Cerddoriaeth Cymru 6 (2004): 129–54.Google Scholar
  11. 25.
    The prologues that Williams wrote for his productions are printed in David Klausner, ed., Records of Early Drama: Wales (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), 43–45. Alfred Harbage lists The Rebellion of Naples as “closet drama,” but it is clear from Williams’ prologue that it received at least one performance, even though that was very distant from London (Annals of English Drama: 975–1700, rev. edn. S. Schoenbaum [London: Methuen, 1964], 146–47).Google Scholar
  12. 30.
    Klausner, ed., Records: Wales, 99.Google Scholar
  13. 31.
    The 1572 letter-book of the Chester Puritan preacher Christopher Goodwin gives some indication of the aspects of the city’s biblical plays that he found particularly objectionable, especially in his list of the plays’ “absurdities”; see Elizabeth Baldwin, Lawrence M. Clopper, and David Mills, eds., Records of Early English Drama: Cheshire (including Chester), 2 vols. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), 1: 143–48, esp. 147–48.Google Scholar
  14. 35.
    See the discussion of the use of Exeter’s Guildhall in Sally-Beth Maclean, “The Southwest Entertains: Exeter and Local Performance Patronage,” in Bring Furth the Pagants: Essays in Early English Drama presented to Alexandra F. Johnston, ed. David Klausner and Karen S. Marsalek (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), 58–71.Google Scholar
  15. 45.
    Records of the Court of Great Sessions, for example, do not survive from all jurisdictions. When the court was abolished in 1830, control of the records was left in the hands of the county administrator who had previously kept them, but no further funds were provided for their storage. In many jurisdictions this meant that the records were junked. Parchment documents from Caernarfonshire were sold to tailors to line cuffs and collars; paper documents were tossed unceremoniously in the Menai Straits. In the light of such treatment, we are lucky that anything at all has survived. See Kenneth O. Fox, “The Records of the Court of Great Sessions,” Journal of the Society of Archivists 3 (1966): 177–82.Google Scholar
  16. 46.
    See, for example, the accounts of the borough of Haverfordwest, B. G. Charles, ed., Calendar of the Records of the Borough of Haverfordwest 1539–1660, Board of Celtic Studies, History and Law Series 24 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1967). The one payment of five shillings to the Earl of Essex’s musicians in 1596–97 is a striking exception to the rule. Devereux had close connections with Haverfordwest, having been brought up at the family seat of Lamphey Hall in the southern part of the county.Google Scholar

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© Ruth Kennedy and Simon Meecham-Jones 2008

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  • David N. Klausner

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