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Mystery plays were a kind of drama that originated in the Middle Ages. At their height, they were the most popular form of theatre in Britain. Keep reading, and you'll find out why!
First, let's consider what a mystery play actually was.
Mystery plays were a kind of play developed in the Medieval era of Europe (15th and 16th centuries), particularly in England, known as vernacular dramas. These were written and performed in vernacular languages (spoken dialects of local people) rather than in Latin, as had been customary for plays before this time due to affiliations with the Catholic Church.
The other kinds of vernacular dramas were called morality plays and miracle plays. Morality plays focused on delivering educational, religious messages about making moral choices, and miracle plays depicted the lives of saints, chronicling their martyrdom.
When performed in local languages, Biblical stories and teachings became much more accessible to ordinary people. Mystery plays were concerned with spirituality and depicted many liturgical scenes.
Mystery plays are also known as 'cycle plays' due to their structure. They were made up of small, individual plays that functioned as a collection of performances chronicling the spiritual history of Mankind, as told in the Bible. These usually began with stories about the Creation and Fall of Man, and ended with depictions of the Last Judgement.
Often, mystery plays became part of large celebrations and holy days. The spectacle that developed made them hugely popular and successful.
Mystery plays are thought to have originated throughout Europe from simple readings performed on Church grounds by clergymen as early as the 9th century. These were called tropes, depicting Biblical scenes with different characters. Whilst originally limited to religious themes, they soon grew in complexity, adding more characters, props, set pieces and costumes.
During the Middle Ages in England, these developed into mystery plays. They began to be written and performed in the vernacular by groups unaffiliated with the Church, usually by guilds, growing more distant from their ecclesiastical origins. They tended to include fictitious, non-religious and even satirical elements.
Guilds were medieval groups of craftsmen or merchants who regulated and taught their trades. They were usually wealthy and held significant power and influence.
Mystery plays were produced, funded and organised by these guilds, which were also referred to as 'mysteries' at the time. This is perhaps where the term originated.
Guilds were also responsible for casting these plays, finding suitable players, or cast members as we might call them today. Importantly, mystery plays were acted by ordinary people rather than professionals. This added a level of relatability and perhaps even comedy to their performances as it was not uncommon to see a neighbour, friend or local tradesmen in roles like Noah or Jesus.
As the form developed, mystery plays came to consist of up to 50 plays (sometimes called pageants) being performed, grouped into cycles. They all depicted Biblical events, usually beginning with the Creation of Man and ending with the Last Judgement.
It is important to note that these cycles often lasted a whole day, inciting a huge celebration on holy days and bringing religious messages to the streets. Cycles tended to differ from town to town, adopting local references to landmarks or even characters, creating a feeling of familiarity for audiences in different locations.
From as early as 4.30 in the morning, audiences arrived to secure prime viewing spots. About 2 hours later, parades of actors on pageant wagons (stages with wheels) moved through the streets, eventually settling at designated stations around the city where performances would commence. Wealthy audience members, such as royalty, could pay for a seat to watch performances, however, most ordinary people were free to roam the streets and observe whichever play caught their eye. Audiences became involved, immersed in the stories and performances. This created accessibility and closeness in which the mysteries of God and the spiritual history of Mankind became more comprehensible to audiences.
The most famous example we might consider was the cycle of the York Mystery Plays.
Throughout the day, 48 plays were performed at 12 special places throughout the city, which were designated by ornate city banners.
Each pageant was created by different guilds, taking on Biblical stories that were most relevant to their craft.
For instance, a play about Noah's Ark would have been sponsored by the shipbuilders guild, which could provide various props and sets, like the ark itself. More morbidly, the crucifixion would have been produced by the metal pinners, and the death of Christ by butchers.
Although the main purpose of mystery plays was to glorify and celebrate God, the popularity of mystery plays came as a huge benefit to guilds, giving them opportunities to advertise their wares and trades through performance. This incited some competition between guilds, each of which sought to create the best play.
At their height, it was thought that 125 towns in England produced cycles of mystery plays, cancelled only in the most severe of circumstances like plague or war.
Their popularity, however, declined due to a number of factors. The emergence of secular productions by touring companies proved more preferable to audiences. This was encouraged by the spread of Protestantism in England, creating a skepticism towards mystery plays which had associations with the Catholic Church. What made things worse, was that they lost the support of the Church too, due to its lessening influence and increasing secularism in their content.
It seemed that mystery plays were not secular enough for the general public, but too secular for the Church, so, they soon lost support and funding, and gradually declined into non-existence.
Mystery plays were the most elaborate of the vernacular dramas, and thus, had important characteristics that we must consider.
Mystery plays consisted of many short performances, called pageants, grouped into a cycle.
Each pageant depicted a Biblical scene, and the entire cycle chronicled the history of Christianity.
Pageants were produced by guilds, who organised and cast performances and created set pieces.
Each guild took on stories that related to their craft.
Often, mystery plays were seen as celebrations and were held on holy days to pay glory to God. They would appear as a parade through the streets and move to various locations around the town to commence performances.
Performers, called players, were usually local, ordinary townspeople rather than professional actors.
Guilds produced specifically modified wagons for their performances. They contained up to 3 mansions (set backdrops), usually depicting Heaven or Hell.
Mystery plays introduced special effects to audiences. Interesting mechanisms like trap doors and pulleys were used inventively to create exciting spectacles in performances.
Surprisingly, there is a fair amount of evidence that we can consider to give us an idea of what mystery plays would have looked like.
From the 15th century, evidence for mystery plays began to be preserved. Only four still survive today. We can consider the most famous of these below!
In 1415, Roger Burton, a civic official, was the first to record a list of the York Mystery Plays, naming 51 plays, of which only 48 have been preserved.
Sometimes, these are referred to as the 'York Corpus Christi Plays' because they were performed on the day of the medieval festival of the Feast of Corpus Christi, which was celebrated 60 days after Easter, usually in May or June.
The surviving manuscript is stored in the British Library. Scholars have evidence that the plays were performed as a cycle around 1376, produced by the York Craft Guilds, however, the text contains some references to religious performances that predate this.
Since their revival in 1951, they have been performed periodically, remaining an important part of the city's history and tradition.
Another one of the surviving cycles, the Chester Mystery Plays, are thought to have been performed sometime during the early 15th century in Chester, England.
These plays are interesting to scholars due to their diversion from strictly religious themes, including more dramatic elements. They are important evidence of the dwindling influence of the Church, especially when we consider that Chester was the last English city to outlaw the performance of mystery plays.
They were also revived in 1951, and, to this day, continue to be performed periodically.
Mystery plays were a kind of Medieval drama that explored the spiritual history of Mankind using Biblical stories. They were structured in cycles, separated into shorter, episodic plays to make up a collection of performances.
The main purpose of mystery plays was to show the glory of God, and to celebrate religion on holy days.
Both miracle and mystery plays are examples of vernacular dramas of the Medieval period.
Miracle plays tended to depict the lives of saints, combining fact and fiction to chronicle various events, miracles and eventual martyrdom.
However, mystery plays focused on chronicling the spiritual history of Mankind through many short, episodic performances that formed a cycle, or collection.
Mystery plays consisted of many smaller plays, each portraying Biblical stories. These were produced by guilds, which created sets that moved around the streets to entertain audiences in an immersive way.
The York Mystery Plays.
During what historical era were mystery plays performed?
The Middle Ages
What language were mystery plays performed in?
Vernacular (local, spoken language)
What language were religious plays performed in before the advent of vernacular drama?
What kinds of stories did mystery plays present?
What is the name of the groups of tradespeople that organised mystery plays?
Where does the term mystery play originate?
Guilds were often called 'mysteries'. So, their performances became known as 'mystery plays'/
What were players?
Cast members of the productions. They were usually ordinary people
What were the moving sets called?
How many plays usually made up an entire cycle?
Up to 50
What was a mansion?
A set backdrop
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