by Heather Elvidge
On Sunday, York offers a glimpse into the medieval mind with its famous Mystery Plays. Six hundred volunteers will fill the streets with colour - it’s a unique experience, not to be missed.
This is drama for the community, by the community, just as it was 600 years ago. As these are modern adaptations there’s no medieval language, although Yorkshire dialect gives a feel of the originals.
You have to admire our ancestors’ ambition. Tackling epic stories set in heaven, earth, and hell, the Mystery Plays were an important stage in the development of drama.
The plays grew out of the festival of Corpus Christi, when images of saints, pictures of biblical scenes, models of angels and fabulous beasts were carried in procession.
In some towns a short play was performed afterwards, set against a painted backdrop. Then someone had the idea of putting the actors on a flat cart and joining the procession. York has the earliest record of these moving tableaux in 1376, followed by Beverley the following year.
York’s tableaux became proper plays sometime between 1433 and 1460. While the city had the longest cycle - 52 plays, from Creation to Doomsday - it’s probable that only a selection was put on each year.
The finance and staging of Mystery Plays were organised by local craft guilds, whose members built the sets and acted the roles. It was a chance to advertise their skills - the shipwrights might tackle Noah’s Ark or the bakers, the Last Supper. When a particular story demanded lavish sets, costumes and musicians, several guilds would club together.
The guilds were also responsible for the strange title - a craft or trade whose secrets were passed on through apprenticeship was a “mystery”.
So what was it like to be in the medieval audience? Crowded, noisy, a bit rowdy, but you’d want to be there because nothing else was as rich and spectacular. Coventry’s plays, the most famous in their day, even attracted royalty.
Leaving aside serious episodes such as the Crucifixion, the general emphasis was on entertainment. Some scripts that survive in York Minster’s archives are written in rhyming couplets, sprinkled with gags and opportunities for slapstick.
York’s wheeled stages had a curtained chamber underneath for costume changes. The painted sets could have moving parts; waves moved back and forth, stars, moon, and sun flew across the sky, Jonah’s whale spouted water and trapdoors allowed dramatic entrances.
But however amazing, nothing lasts forever. When the medieval church became a target of Protestant reforms most towns abandoned their Corpus Christi plays. Those at York and Coventry lasted longest, stripped of anything that might offend. In 1569 they too were abolished.