Encyclopedia  |   World Factbook  |   World Flags  |   Reference Tables  |   List of Lists     
   Academic Disciplines  |   Historical Timeline  |   Themed Timelines  |   Biographies  |   How-Tos     
Sponsor by The Tattoo Collection
Mystery play
Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Mystery play

Mystery plays are one of the earliest formally developed plays in medieval Europe. They developed from the representation of Bible stories in churches as tableaux with accompanying antiphonal song, such as the Quem Quaeritis - a short musical performance set at the tomb of the risen Christ. These simple structures were developed with tropes, verbal embellishment of the liturgical text, and became more elaborate. As these liturgical plays became more popular, more vernacular elements were introduced and non-clergy began to participate. As the dramas became increasingly secular, they began to be performed entirely in the vernacular and were moved out of the churches by the 13th or 14th century.

These vernacular religious performances were taken over by the guilds, with each guild taking responsibility for a particular piece of scriptural history. From the guild control they gained the name mystery play or just mysteries, from the Latin mysterium (meaning handicraft and relating to the guilds). They are also known as Miracle plays, because they re-enacted episodes from the lives of the saints.

The mystery play developed into a series of plays dealing with all the major events in the Christian calendar, from the Creation to the Day of Judgment. By the end of the 15th century, the tradition of acting these plays in cycles on festival days (such as the Feast of Corpus Christi) was established across Europe, each play was performed on decorated carts called pageants, that moved about the city to allow different crowds to watch each play. The entire cycle could take up to twenty hours to perform and could be spread over a number of days. Taken as a whole, these are referred to as Corpus Christi cycles.

The plays were performed by amateurs and used the stanza form that was already well known; they were often marked by the extravagance of the sets and 'special effects'.

The dramas of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods were developed out of mystery plays.

There are four complete or nearly complete extant English cycles: the York cycle of forty-eight pageants; the Towneley cycle of thirty-two pageants, acted at Wakefield; the N Town cycle of forty-three pageants (also called the Ludus Coventriae cycle or Hegge cycle) acted probably in Lincolnshire or Norfolk, and the Chester cycle of twenty-four pageants. Also extant are extant, includeing two pageants from a New Testament cycle acted at Coventry, and one pageant each from Norwich and Newcastle-on-Tyne. There are three surviving plays in Cornish, and several cyclical plays survive from continental Europe.

The cycles differed widely in content. Most contain episodes such as the Fall of Lucifer, the Creation and Fall of Man, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, Abraham and Isaac, the Nativity, the Raising of Lazarus, the Passion, and the Resurrection. Other pageants inclded the story of Moses, the Procession of the Prophets, Christ's Baptism, the Temptation in the Wilderness, and the Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin.

In given cycles, the plays came to be sponsored by the newly emerging Medieval craft guilds. The York mercers, for example, sponsored the Doomsday pageant.

Perhaps the most famous of the mystery plays were those of Wakefield.

These are attributed to the Wakefield Master, an anonymous playwright who wrote in the fifteenth century. Early scholars suggested that a man by the name of Gilbert Pilkington was the author, but this idea has been disproved by Craig and others. The epithet "Wakefield Master" was first applied to this individual by the literary historian Gayley. The Wakefield Master gets his name from the geographic location where he lived, the market-town of Wakefield in Yorkshire. He may have been a highly educated cleric there, or possibly a friar from a nearby monastery at Woodkirk, four miles north of Wakefield. This anonymous author wrote a series of 32 plays (each averaging about 384 lines) called the Towneley Cycle. A cycle is a series of mystery plays performed during the Corpus Christi festival. These works appear in a single manuscript, which was kept for a number of years in Towneley Hall of the Towneley family. Thus the plays are called the Towneley Cycle. The manuscript is currently found in the Huntington Library of California. It shows signs of Protestant editing--references to the Pope and the sacraments are crossed out, for instance. Likewise, twelve manuscript leaves were ripped out between the two final plays because of Catholic references. This evidence strongly suggests the play was still being read and performed as late as 1520, perhaps as late in Renaissance as the final years of King Henry VIII's reign. This fact says something about the power and influence of the medieval mystery play--the genre was still popular when Shakespeare was a small boy, and he might very well have grown up watching such plays before writing his own.

The best known pageant in the Wakefield cycle is The Second Shepherds' Pageant, a burlesque of the Nativity featuring Mak the sheep stealer and his wife Gill, which more or less explicitly compares a stolen lamb to the Saviour of mankind. The Harrowing of Hell, derived from the apocryphal Acts of Pilate, was a popular part of the York and Wakefield cycles.

The Mystery Plays were revived in York in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain.

See also : morality play, a 15th Century development.