Troelus a Chresyd: ‘Putting old wine into new bottles’

In November 2016, Sue Niebrzydowski introduced us to Peniarth MS 106 and its anonymous Troelus a Chresyd. In February, the National Library of Wales followed up with news of the manuscript on its blog From NLW, we owe our gratitude to Iwan ap Dafydd,  Maredudd ap Huw, and Rhodri Shore for their gracious and generous help. And a special thanks to Jacqueline Burek for making us aware of this understudied appropriation of Troilus and Criseyde. By permission of Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru / National Library of Wales.

As an additional treat for Global Chaucers’s readers, Maredudd ap Huw recorded a clip from the prologue to Troelus a Chresyd. Listen and imagine yourself back in a sixteenth-century Welsh-speaking household where a performance of Chaucer’s Trojan love story is about to begin.

by Sue Niebrzydowski, Darllendydd/Reader, Ysgol Llendyddiaeth Saesneg/School of English Literature, Prifysgol Bangor University

Troelus a Chresyd is an example of putting old wine into new bottles. Why was Chaucer’s romance of Troilus and Criseyde translated into a Welsh language play at the close of the sixteenth century? In 1598 George Chapman translated the Seven Books of the Iliades, and there followed a series of Trojan plays: an unidentified play of Troy (1596), Dekker and Chettle’s Troyeles and Creasse daye (1599), both now lost, Thomas Heywood’s two-part play, The Iron Age (?1595–?1596), and Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida (1602 or 1603, published 1609). Whoever wrote Troelus a Chresyd did so amid a flurry of interest in all things Trojan.

Troelus a Chresyd differs from English plays about Troy in its emphasis on the doomed relationship of two lovers caught up in the conflict. In basing his play on Chaucer and Henryson, and translating their poetry into another language, our playwright was following in the footsteps of Nicholas Grimald who, in 1559, so John Bale tells us, wrote a Latin, comic play, Troilus ex Chaucero (‘Troilus from Chaucer’) based on Chaucer’s romance. Sadly, this play is now lost.

How might Troelus a Chresyd have been performed? Jones’ copy lacks annotation, and some pages remain uncut, suggesting that the manuscript was used neither as a prompt book nor an acting text of any kind. The ’Iawn urddassol ddarlleydd’ / ‘Right Honorable Reader’ (pp. 38 and 106 of the manuscript) is addressed twice and Chaucer’s narrator, transformed into a ‘chorus’ figure, speaks to an implied audience of ‘Chwchwi rasysol gwmpeini’ / ‘you gracious company’ (opening of Book 1). Troelus a Chresyd may have been designed to be read aloud. Its stage directions, however, suggest performance:

Kalchas yn dywedyd wrtho ei hun / ‘Calchas talking to himself’ (stanza 6)

Kressyd yn dyfod gida Synon, ag yn syrthio ar in glinieu/ ‘Chresyd comes in with Sinon and falls to her knees’ (stanza 25)

Troelws yn dywedyd yn issel ynghlysd i vrawd Hector / ‘Troilus whispers into his brother Hector’s ear’ (stanza 32)

Ac ar hynn yma yn llesmeirio. Troylus [sic] a’i gleddyf noeth yn ei law yn ymkanu ei ladd ei hunan / ‘At this point she faints. Troelus draws his sword with the intention of killing himself’ (stanza 146)

Kressyd yn rhoddi ei llaw i Ddiomedes / ‘Chresyd gives her hand to Diomedes’ (stanza 171)

Here we see instructions for entrances and exits, bodily gesture, facial expression, soliloquy and dialogue. Props are required – Troelus’ sword, the brooch that he gives to Chresyd, the mirror in which she sees her altered state, the purse of gold and jewels given to her by Troelus –  as is sound (a bell is rung before the judgement of the gods on Chresyd), and costume; Diomedes’ cloak. David Klausner has suggested that during the judgement of the gods against Chresyd, some of the gods may have entered and then paraded wearing headdresses and carrying symbols of their power, akin to masque performance.[1] If so, then music would be appropriate at this point. The whole play can be performed in around an hour-and-a-half, with as few as ten players, and in a single playing space. In August 1954, Gwyn Williams directed Troelus a Chresyd at the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Ystradgynlass in the Gwwini Theatre y Deau, demonstrating that it is a performable play.

Where might Troelus a Chresyd have been performed? One possibility is before a Welsh speaking audience of cultured guests, settled comfortably in the hall of a wealthy house in the March of Wales. A private, domestic context might have allowed for the play’s performance by friends or local actors, and for female parts to be played by women. The Welsh-speaking household may have been London-based, those living away from their native Wales, gathering and socialising in their language of choice, to watch or participate in a play on a topic much in vogue. A further possibility is that Troelus a Chresyd was performed at one of the Inns of Court in London. Between 1590 and 1639, 526 members were admitted from Wales, with a strong representation at Lincoln’s Inn and Inner Temple.[2]

That someone chose to translate Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde into Welsh should not surprise as his countrymen had a long established tradition of translation of Latin, French and English works into their native tongue, and vice versa. ‘Troy Story’ was a trend at the turn of the sixteenth century, and the play catered for those interested in Chaucer and this narrative. For those away from their homeland, Chresyd’s lament for her lost city of Troy may have served as a poignant reminder of the North Walian walled cities – of Biwmaris, Conwy and Caernarfon – and of the pain that separation from beloved people and places can cause:

Arnad, Troea, mewn hiraeth a thrymder yr wy’n edrych –

dy dyre uchel a’th reiol gaeref kwmpaswych;

llawer diwrnod llawen a fewn dy gaeref a gefais,

a llawer o hiraeth amdanad ti a ddygais.

            O Troea, gwae fi o’r myned!

            O Troelus, gwae fi dy weled!

            O Troelus, fy anwylyd

On you, Troy, I look with longing and sorrow –

On your high towers and grand encircling walls;

I have had many a glad day within your walls,

and I bear great longing for you.

O Troy, alas for my leaving

O Troilus, alas for my seeing you

O Troilus, my beloved

             Troelus a Chresyd, stanza 180

With so many people today exiled from their country and language of origin, this play still has much to say.

[1] David Klausner ‘English Economies and Welsh Realities: Drama in Medieval and Early Modern Wales’ in Authority and Subjugation in Writing of Medieval Wales edited Ruth Kennedy and Simon Meecham-Jones (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) 213-229 (219).

[2]  Wilfred R. Prest The Inns of Court under Elizabeth I and the Early Stuarts 1590-1640 (London: Longman Group, London, 1972) 33, 36, 37.