mystery plays

mystery plays
   The most widespread and popular form of drama in medieval Europe was the mystery play, which retold a story from the biblical narrative.While extremely popular in France and in Germany, these plays were most widespread in England, where they took the form of a long series of relatively short plays depicting the traditional biblical history of the world from creation through Doomsday. These plays, which might be called sacre representazzione in Italy or auto sacramentale in Spain, derive their English name mystery plays (an 18th-century coinage) from the French term mystère, denoting a trade or craft.What is known of the production of mystery plays in England indicates that the craft guilds, the most powerful political and economic organizations of the medieval towns, took responsibility for the staging of the various plays.Mystery plays were known to have been performed in England during CHAUCER’s lifetime (late 14th century), and continued well into the Elizabethan period, with productions recorded in the 1570s, during Shakespeare’s youth.Most extant English mystery plays belong to one of four cycles—the YORK CYCLE (which comprises 48 plays), the CHESTER CYCLE (with 24 plays), the TOWNELEY CYCLE (sometimes called the Wakefield Cycle, with 32 plays), and the N-TOWN PLAYS (also known as the Ludus Coventriae, with 42 plays). Only the first two of these seem to be the surviving scripts of actual cycle dramas as performed in Chester and in York, although it is clear from medieval archives that many English towns (notably Coventry,Norwich,Newcastle, Lincoln, and others) staged such plays.
   The English mystery plays are particularly associated with the festival of CORPUS CHRISTI, a holiday honoring the sacrament of the Eucharist and the real presence of the body of Christ in the sacrament. Falling on the Thursday after the movable feast of Trinity Sunday, Corpus Christi could be celebrated on any date between May 23 and June 24.As an early summer festival,Corpus Christi was perfect for an outdoor celebration, and this may have influenced the development of outdoor dramatic entertainment. The fact that Corpus Christi was initially celebrated, beginning in 1311, with a procession of the host (the communion wafer) through the town may have influenced the staging of the plays, so that they were produced in a procession as well.
   The production of mystery places varied from place to place and from year to year, so any generalization about them is dubious, and most scholars prefer to speak of specific local customs.Nevertheless, in at least some towns (such as York), the plays were staged on large wagons (called pageants), which were drawn to a series of preordained stops in the city, where audiences would be waiting, so that each play might be performed several times during the course of the day, and any given audience would see the entire cycle as a series of plays as one wagon followed another to the staging area. Obviously, staging a cycle would have been a huge community effort, in terms of time, manpower, and expense.Yet participating in the festival was a matter of civic pride, and each guild was responsible for furnishing the pageant wagon, actors, props, and scenery for its own play. Individual guilds laid claim to particular plays that they kept from year to year. Sometimes these assignments made logical sense, as in the assigning of the York Noah play to the shipwrights’ guild, the play of the Last Supper to the bakers’ guild, or the play of the Magi to the goldsmiths’ guild. Sometimes there was no particular connection, as in the assignment of the York HARROWING OF HELL play to the saddlers’ guild. The guilds very likely also commissioned the script of the play, perhaps from a learned local priest or from their guild chaplain. The purpose of the mystery cycles was certainly basically didactic—to present the biblical salvation history to an audience that for the most part could not read the Scriptures themselves. But the character of the English mystery plays reflects their audience and their various authors’ efforts to popularize the text and appeal to the broad range of medieval burghers. Characters are clearly good or evil, and the evil are more often than not comic in their futile defiance of the Almighty. The language of the characters is the language of their audience— the language of the marketplace or the farm, with its colloquialism, its occasional bawdiness or coarseness, full of everyday anachronistic expressions that allowed the audience to identify with the characters.
   Mystery plays were enormously entertaining, as authors added numerous comic elements to the traditional stories to appeal to the audience of common people. Noah’s wife, for example, became a favorite shrewish character in more than one of the cycles. The most admired of all mystery plays is the famous SECOND SHEPHERDs’ PLAY from the Towneley Cycle, in which the comic plot concerning the shepherds and the sheep-stealing Mak dominates a play purportedly about the Nativity.
   Still, it was the allegorical MORALITY PLAYS that exerted the greatest influence on the development of Elizabethan drama, and not the more realistic mystery plays. Associated as they were with the Roman Catholic festival of Corpus Christi and with veneration of the Virgin Mary, whose life served as the background for a number of the dramas, the mystery plays were suppressed during Elizabeth’s reign and the triumph of Protestantism.
   ■ Beadle, Richard, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
   ■ Kolve, V. A. The Play Called Corpus Christi. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1966.
   ■ Robinson, J.W. Studies in Fifteenth-Century Stagecraft. Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University, Medieval Institute Publications, 1991.
   ■ Woolf, Rosemary E. The English Mystery Plays. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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