An English Mystery Play: Abraham and Isaac, the Brome Non-Cycle Play

rembrandt_sacrifice150x225

Harmensz Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch painter, 1606-1669), “Sacrifice of Isaac” (1635), oil on canvas, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

The sacrifice of Isaac is the basis for six extant Miracle plays. There is also the Coventry cycle of plays, where Isaac submits to his fate. In the Towneley Plays, which are part of the York cycle, Isaac is made to be 30-years-old rather than a child. Some experts say this because Isaac is a “model” for Christ in the story. The Abraham and Isaac story is a perfect example of the same theme being used in several of the plays. The Chester Sacrifice of Isaac closely corresponds with the Brome Non-cycle Play entitled Abraham and Isaac. There is a great similarity in the middle section of both, which leads experts to believe they were based on the same source. 

Early English Drama: an anthology edited by John C. Coldewey [Routledge, 1993] tells us The Brome play of Abraham and Isaac (also known as The Brome “Abraham and Isaac”, The Brome Abraham, and The Sacrifice of Isaac) is a 15th Century play of unknown authorship, written in an East Anglian dialect of Middle English, which dramatizes the story of the binding of Isaac (the story of Akedah). 

The text of the play was lost until the 19th century, when a manuscript was found in a Commonplace Book dating from around 1470–80 at Brome Manor, Suffolk, England – thus, the name of the play. The manuscript itself has been dated at 1454 at the earliest. This manuscript is now housed at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. (Chief Pre-Shakespearean Dramas edited by Joseph Quincy Adams, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1924)

While Joseph Quincy Adams reckoned the Brome Abraham “must be dated as early as the fourteenth century,” most other scholars assign various periods of the fifteenth century for the play’s composition.

isaacsacrifice.jpg The Brome Abraham’s relation to the play of the same subject in the cycle of Chester Mystery Plays has attracted attention. A comparison of the texts reveals around 200 lines of striking similarity, in particular during the debates between Abraham and Isaac that are at the hearts of the plays. A. M. Kinghorn judged the Brome play to be a superior reworking of the Chester barbers’ play of Abraham, and accordingly dated the play to late in the fifteenth century. (Mediæval Drama by A. M. Kinghorn, Evans Brothers, London, 1968) However, comparing the two, J. Burke Severs decided that the Chester play was an expansion and reworking of the Brome one.

W. W. Norton publishers tells us, “The story of Abraham and Isaac as told in Genesis xxii is a very spare account of an incident that appealed greatly to the medieval imagination, which was always stimulated by a situation in which an ideal is upheld at the expense of all normal human values. This all-or-nothing attitude may also be seen in Chaucer’s Franklin’s Tale, where Arveragus delivers his wife to an adulterer in order that she should not be guilty of breaking her word, one’s pledged word being, according to him, the most demanding of human contracts. In the story of Abraham and Isaac, it is obedience to God’s command that a father sacrifice his son that must be carried out. The audience is, of course, aware that the awful consequences of upholding the ideal will at the last minute be canceled. Meanwhile, however, the mind luxuriates in a realistic depiction of the people involved in the threatening action. Medieval sentimentality appears in the play at its most intense as Abraham discusses, first with himself and then with his beloved son, the consequences of obeying God, and as Isaac expresses at once his natural desire not to die and his willingness to do so through obedience to his father— whom, indeed, he rebukes for delaying, which only increases the agony of them both. The play, like Everyman, closes with the explanation of a Doctor (a learned man) of the moral the audience should draw from the play; but the play itself not only makes its moral point about the importance of obeying the divine will, but also prefigures the sacrifice in later Biblical history of Jesus, the Lamb of God, for whom there could be no last-minute substitute of the kind that saves Isaac.

“The Brome play of Abraham and Isaac is one of six English mystery plays on this subject that have survived. It is preserved in a single manuscript of the late 15th century (Brome is the name of its 19th-century owner), a miscellany containing items of Middle English verse, legal deeds, accounts, etc. It is not known how the original compiler of the manuscript received a copy of the play. Presumably it was derived from an otherwise lost mystery cycle, and part of it closely resembles the play of Abraham and Isaac in the Chester cycle, though whether the Brome play draws on the Chester play or the Chester play on it is not clear. Nor is it possible to assign a firmer date to it than the first quarter of the 15th century. The present text, based on the manuscript in the Beinecke Library of Yale University, has been modernized. The edition of the play in Norman Davis, Non-Cycle Plays and Fragments (1970), has provided the editor with much help.”

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About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
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