There’s not much point trying to enforce an order to ‘medieval’ ‘mysteries’. Most surviving plays texts are quite late, but may represent words written centuries earlier. Trying to unravel it all may give you a headache, so just dip in and out.
Okay, let’s go down the rabbit hole. So, the term Mystery Play is sort of rubbish, but it’s also quite useful and still the clearest way of focusing your attention on a certain kind of play. None of the alternatives quite hit the spot. Corpus Christi plays would work, if these plays were all performed on the feast of Corpus Christi. Biblical plays is a bit too vague, because there’s a bit of overlap with semi Biblical material about saints and other God related business. Miracle play might be more appropriate, if it weren’t for the possibility of a distinctly different, if related, genre about miracles. If genre can really be a thing prior to theatre being a business.
Basically, it’s the term we all use, even if a little part of us dies inside every time we do so. Don’t @ us.
There are four Mystery Cycles, two of which are pukka examples of day/multi day performances of the story of the creation of the universe through to its destruction. The York Cycle is a snap shot of the cycle as it stood in the 1460/70’s, and The Chester Cycle is a series of copies made late in its life. The two other cycles, N-Town and Towneley are composite texts, collated to look like a coherent cycle, but with materials which might never have been performed together. We then have an number of individual cycle type plays, some of which were part of larger cycles, and others… who knows.
The York Cycle – okay, this IS your fairly pukka mystery cycle. It’s the one that fits the idea everyone has of a cycle. It’s on pageant wagons, it was presented on a single day, there’s a lot of evidence around to help build an idea of how these plays work. A discussion of the York plays can be found on the podcast here. Full playlist of First Look Exploring Sessions available below.
The Chester Play – the Chester plays survive in multiple transcriptions, made in the late 16th and early 17th century, so they’re a bit modernised (or early-modernised), which makes them quite easy to dip into. The cycle changed over the centuries – presented as a one day event on Corpus Christi, then reworked as a three day event for Whitson.
The N-Town Play – isn’t really a ‘proper’ cycle. The text is an edited text, made up of a number of different sources. There might be a core text based on a cycle, but that might be wishful thinking. There are clear Mary and Passion Plays in the sequence that reflect separate events. It’s complicated. A complete series of exploring sessions are available on the podcast (see playlist), with some video sessions on YouTube. We also have a discussion on producing the Mary and Passion texts.
The Towneley Plays – another sort of cycle again, caught in some strange co-dependent loop with York in places, and with other voices popping in and out. Complete playlist of Exploring Sessions available.
N-Town and Towneley help demonstrate that ‘Mystery’ plays were staged in lots of different ways. There is no template – they occur as local conditions allow. A local parish might do a single play once a year, many times a year, working through the Bible, ransacking it for stories. Or a big town or city might string these together into a long event made of short pageants as Mystery cycles. These events might happen on the feast of Corpus Christi, or on another appropriate feast day for that area. Sometimes a play might be small, short, simple – sometimes a play would be an epic undertaking.
Playlist of Non-Cycle or Semi Biblically based plays… it’s all a bit random.
Sometimes a play was played in church, outside church, in fields, in streets, on purpose built stages, on carts that moved, on the ground with raised seating, in halls… in any way that seemed best at the time. These plays demonstrate the infinite adaptability of theatre to suit circumstance.
Over the course of hundreds of years these plays evolved, devolved, were passed around – in ways we will never know. One pageant might be found in a cycle in Chester, or separately as a single event in the wilds of East Anglia – the Brome play of Abraham and Isaac is significantly similar to Chester’s Abraham play.
The first exemplars of these plays may have been French, following royal cultural privilege after the Norman conquest, or part of a wider continental cross pollination over the centuries. There may be a connection with the Latin liturgical rituals occurring in churches, but maybe not as much as people used to think. To see an early example of the French mystery play, watch this wonderful version of The Play of Adam, translated into English by Professor Carol Symes for the University of Illinois.
They started out sometime at the turn of the millennium, and continued until the late 16th century. But, with a few exceptions, we only have documents from the end of the story. From what we do have of the early performances, we know they were fairly sophisticated dramatic works, engaging with practical concerns of stage craft from the off. The language is simpler, but that’s time for you.
There’s a lot of other God stuff on offer in the medieval period. You can perhaps split them into two basic kinds. Narrative plays and Idea plays. The Mystery plays, and their sister variant of Miracle plays, are Narrative. They tell a story. There’s usually an explicit moral, but sometimes they just tell the story and hope for the best. The idea plays are generally called Morality plays, but that’s another story.