This week on the site, we’ll be exploring the world of the Medieval Mystery Plays. Medieval Mystery Plays were usually performed around the time of the Feast of Corpus Christi which was firmly established as an outdoors event by 1311. The plays told the stories of the Old and New Testament Bible from Creation to Doomsday. They were a means of promoting the Christian message but also community events; individual town guilds took responsibility for their own plays. Performances were popular and sometimes ‘holiday’ events which meant that they were eventually banned and many of their scripts called in. They mostly played out of doors, often as processional pieces moving from station to station (static stage sets at set spots set up en route.)The most famous cycles are those of Chester, Coventry, Lincoln and York but they were also performed in France, Germany, Italy and Spain.
Once there were numerous plays in this cycle; now just two remain; The Weaver’s Pageant and the Pageant of the Shearmen and Taylors. Coventry performed its plays from 1392-1578. The cycle was revived as part of a city-wide themed festival that takes in a multi-faith, multi-nationality, ‘modern’ mysteries: a week-long, seven days celebration of performing arts, from music, dance, drama, poetry, comedy/the spoken word, art installations, film and digital media. The events look to make creative use Coventry’s urban spaces. In 2011, for instance, there was a carnival procession, stilt walking ‘trees’ moving through the Precinct, dance and sound in Millenium Place and live on a big screen, drama in the cathedral ruins, and poetry and music in the Canal Basin.
The plays are on in 2014.
Wakefield Mysteries, or Towneley, played in 2013 and in 2014, as the Wakefield Wireless Mysteries, a creative and traditional reworking by local playwright Michael Yates and directed by Howard Frost.
(See this site for its excellent archive.)
Along with York, Chester has the best set of medieval plays. Chester was also the last ever town to perform the plays after they were banned in 1578, making it the longest running cycle anywhere. Like York, the city revived the mysteries for the Festival of Britain in 1951. In 2013 the cycle was acted out inside Chester Cathedral for the first in a very long time (usually the plays take place out of doors). Written by Stephanie Dale, and directed by Peter Wild, it had a cast of 400 which included Jonathan Sharp as Jesus, Nicholas Fry as God, and Francis Tucker as Lucifer. Though the language of the text was authentic Middle English, its staging was a mash-up of various 20th century music and dress.
Chester performs on a 5-year cycle. Its next performance is in 2018.
Remember to visit the site tomorrow, when we’ll be looking at the Lincoln Mysteries.