The Brome play of Abraham and Isaac
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 fifteenth-century play of unknown authorship, written in an East Anglian dialect of Middle English, which dramatises the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac.
In the opening scene, Abraham prays to God, thanking Him for His various blessings, most of all his favourite son, Isaac. Next, God reveals to an angel that he will test Abraham's faith by asking him to sacrifice Isaac. The angel conveys this instruction to Abraham who, though he is distraught, agrees to comply with it. Abraham takes Isaac to the place of sacrifice, his grief made all the greater by Isaac (not yet knowing he is the "qweke best" intended for sacrifice) being eager to aid his father. When Abraham reveals that he means to kill him, Isaac at first pleads for his life. However, when he learns that it is God's will that he should die, Isaac acquiesces in his death, even urging his father not to tarry over the deed. Abraham binds Isaac so that he will not deflect his father's sword but when he draws that sword and prepares to strike, the angel appears and takes it out of his hand. The angel reveals that God is pleased with Abraham's obedience and that Isaac need not be sacrificed after all. Leaving them with a ram, the angel departs. As they make the offering, God appears above (the medieval custom was to have God act at a higher level than other characters) and promises them that “for thys dede | I schall mvltyplye yowres botheres [both] sede | As thyke as sterres be in the skye”. In an epilogue a doctor, a stock figure in medieval drama, appears and points the moral that we should obey God's commandments and not rail against the designs God has for us.
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. 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.
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.
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. However, comparing the two, J. Burke Severs decided that the Chester play was an expansion and reworking of the Brome one.
It is not known whether the play was originally part of a larger cycle of mystery plays, such as at Chester Mystery Plays and York Mystery Plays, or if it stood by itself, as Osborn Waterhouse of the Early English Text Society believed, though he conceded that it was to be supposed “that the stage was the usual pageant, and the mode of performance practically identical with that of the regular cycle plays.”
The play is often considered the best of Middle English Abraham plays, humane in its treatment of infanticide, inventive in its language; Lucy Toulmin Smith, a nineteenth-century editor, found it to be superior to others of the period on the same subject and in the twentieth century George K. Anderson thought the play, its "human qualities" and characterisation, "unusually good", and Gassner thought it "a masterpiece". Adams noted that it was often reprinted due to its being "justly regarded as the best example of pathos in the early religious drama".
All of the surviving English mystery cycles deal with the story of Abraham and Isaac:
There is also another individual 15th-century English play on the binding of Isaac, the so-called Northampton Abraham, which is sometimes also referred to as the Dublin Abraham, as the manuscript is kept at Trinity College Library, Dublin. The subject also features in the first part of the Cornish language Ordinalia.
- Non-cycle plays and fragments by Norman Davis, Early English Text Society, reprinted 1970, OUP
- The Metres of the Brome and Chester Abraham and Isaac Plays, by Margaret Dancy Fort
- The Mediaeval Stage by E. K. Chambers
- A Comparison Between the Brome and Chester Plays of Abraham and Isaac by Carrie Anna Harper, Ginn and Company, Boston, 1910
- The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre edited by Richard Beadle and Alan J. Fletcher, Cambridge University Press
- Levinas and Medieval Literature edited by Ann W. Astell and J. A. Jackson, Duquesne University Press, 2009 ISBN 978-0-8207-0420-3
- Chapter, “Doing Justice to Isaac: Levinas, the Akedah, and the Brome Play of Abraham and Isaac” by Daniel Kline
- Early English Drama: an anthology edited by John C. Coldewey, Routledge, 1993, ISBN 978-0-8240-5465-6
- Chief Pre-Shakespearean Dramas edited by Joseph Quincy Adams, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1924
- Google docs
- Mediæval Drama by A. M. Kinghorn, Evans Brothers, London 1968
- The Sacrifice of Isaac in Medieval English Drama
- Old and Middle English Literature From the Beginnings to 1485 by George K. Anderson, OUP, 1950, p.215
- Medieval and Tudor Drama edited by John Gassner, Applause Theatre Book Publishers, 1963, 1995 reprint ISBN 978-0-936839-84-4
- Past productions
- The Sacrifice of Isaac in Medieval English Drama
- The Brome Play Of Abraham And Isaac. At From Stage to Page – Medieval and Renaissance Drama. NeCastro, Gerard, ed.
- The Sacrifice of Isaac in Medieval English Drama by Clifford Davidson
- Text of the Chester play of Abraham and Isaac. At From Stage to Page – Medieval and Renaissance Drama. NeCastro, Gerard, ed.