York Mystery Plays: Medieval meets modern

“Beginning, middle and end I with my word have wrought.”

from The Plasterer’s Play:
The Creation of the World to the Fifth Day

(performed in 2018 by the York Guild of Building)

I have heard here and there some attribute modern theatre (we’re spelling it the British way today) largely to the Elizabethan era, with the advent of the Globe and Shakespeare and all that developed from this explosion of creativity. In truth, the standalone theatre building was popularized around that time. However, besides the epic Greek tragedies and a million other ancient performance related works I could imagine, the medieval era quite dramatically (ahem) proposes a much earlier start for the theatre world. Enter the Mystery Plays…

“Beginning with the creation and ending with the last judgement, the English Mysteries introduced aspects of medieval life into theatrical representations of the Bible. With community guilds presenting relevant scenes on lavishly decorated wagons or platforms, these collections of plays were developed from the 10th Century up until just before Shakespeare’s own plays were performed.” ~ The Globe Mysteries, 2011

Not just England, but towns all over Europe put on plays like this. My parents and I saw an incredible 6 hour performance of the Oberammergau Passion Play in Bavaria in the year 2000. There were live animals, and many of the townspeople in this tiny village had a role in the play. We even stayed with a charming local artist, home stays being part of the ticket package. It was an unforgettable experience.

As you can see by the trailer, Mystery Plays are epic. One review even called the plays an “epic medieval disaster movie“!

The city of York in the north of England has perhaps one of the best preserved of the Mystery Plays in all of England. Many of the written texts survive, out of 48 original scripts which were performed by the medieval Guilds of York. After a loooong hiatus of about, oh 400 years or so, the 20th century saw a slow and steady revival of English Mystery Plays – Chester, Lincoln, and Lichfield, for example – with York leading the way.

A great review of this year’s Mystery Plays discusses how they are performed:

“As one farm wagon gets trundled out to its next location, another — led by the early music of Waits — is poised to rumble in with the next part of the story. It is a masterpiece of pageantry of which the Guilds of York are justly proud….

What we usually see are the chosen plays in chronological sequence; but, in 2018, there is a reversion to a typological approach — an understanding in the Middle Ages that people, events, and images of the Old Testament prefigured those of the New Testament. Audiences would have been familiar with the pairing of stories; so that the Crucifixion and Death of Christ would naturally follow the story of Abraham and Isaac; and the remorse of Cain would be mirrored in the Remorse of Judas.

It works beautifully. The mind picks up the sequence and travels with it. Everything is somehow heightened, and the appropriateness of a particular play for a particular community group is enhanced. It is natural for the York Guild of Building to “bring forth” Creation to the Fifth Day, and the Company of Butchers the Crucifixion.”

Tom Straszewski, Pageant Master and artistic director of the 2018 plays, puts the Mystery Plays in perspective: The Mysteries are a vital part of York’s heritage, but they’re not a museum piece, and they demand to be performed. We’ve got a huge range of people involved: butchers, builders, schoolchildren, students, even a whole company of accountants,” he says.

They’ve found something in the plays that they connect to: a push for freedom, the temptation of glory or worldly wealth, or even just the chance to dance and sing. I hope the audiences will respond just as heartily to their enthusiasm and talent.” 

As you might have guessed, I have my sights set on going to York to see these in person one day. The Mystery Plays of 2018 ended only this past weekend in the middle of September, but there will be another cycle coming hopefully in 2022. For a full overview of the York Mystery Plays, have a look here: https://www.yorkmysteryplays.co.uk/ 

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