What Exactly are the York Mystery Plays?

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Siobhain Bowen


English Seminar

Mystery Plays

What Exactly are the York Mystery Plays?

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The distinguishing features of medieval drama are its Christian content and its didactic purpose. Vernacular plays typically dramatized the lives of the saints, stories from the Bible, or moral allegories.

The biblical cycle plays, sometimes called mystery plays, were originally performed under church auspices, but by the late 14th century they were produced under the supervision of craft guilds (misteres) and performed in public places on the feast of Corpus Christi or during Whitsuntide. Fairly complete texts survive for the English cities of York, Wakefield, Chester, and an unidentified fourth town; two pageants are extant from the Coventry cycle. Similar cycles dramatizing events from the fall of Lucifer to the Last Judgment were produced on the continent.

Although they contained Old Testament and nativity sequences, the cycles were primarily devoted to portraying the life and passion of Christ, his harrowing of hell, his resurrection and appearances to his disciples and to the two Marys, and his ascension. Some cycles centered on the life of the Virgin, but these were suppressed in Protestant countries during the Reformation period. Typically the plays adhered as closely as possible--given their "translation" into verse--to the biblical narratives; the most atypical are those based on episodes that had been left undeveloped in the Bible, such as the visit of the Shepherds or Balaam and his ass, or those derived from legendary sources, such as plays about the Antichrist. The cycle plays rarely made use of allegorical figures, although the historical persons depicted were often represented as moral types. They reached their greatest expansion in the 15th and early 16th centurties but in England were suppressed as "popish" in the 1570s.

Protestant antagonism also accounts for the disappearance of most of the miracle, or saints, plays. Only two such English plays are extant: the Conversion of Saint Paul is a straightforward narrative history similar to the biblical cycles; however, the Mary Magdalene combines elements of the biblical cycles with the framework of the morality.

The morality play was an allegory that depicted the fall of a representative Everyman, his life in sin and folly, and his eventual redemption. In the most elaborate of these, the Castle of Perseverance (c.1425), the soul of Humanum Genus resides in a castle that is encircled by the forces of good (God, His Angels, and other agents) and evil (the World, the Flesh, the Devil, Covetise and the other Seven Deadly Sins). The play follows his life, its climax being a battle in which the forces of good beat off the evil ones with a barrage of roses, symbols of Christ's passion.

Not all morality plays were solemn, however; Mankind (c.1470) depicted the fall and life in sin of its protagonist in an often farcical manner. It is marked by occasional obscene humor and various kinds of direct interaction between the audience and the performers.

The most famous morality play, Everyman (c.1500), an English work probably derived from a Dutch original, is less typical of the genre in that it omits the fall and life in sin and instead dramatizes Everyman's summons by Death to account for his sins. These moralities were performed by professional and traveling troupes. The influence of the form can be seen in Doctor Faustus (1588?) by Christopher Marlowe and in the Falstaff scenes of Shakespeare's Henry IV, as well as in other Renaissance plays.

The mystery plays as defined in the encyclopaedia online is: mystery plays, cycle plays form of medieval drama that came from the dramatization of the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church. It developed from the 10th - 16th century., reaching tis height in the 15th century, The simple lyric character of the early texts, as shown in the Quem Quoeritis, was enlarged by the addition of dialogue and dramatic action. Eventually the performance was moved to the churchyard and the marketplace. Rendered in Latin, the play was preceded by a prologue or by a herald's salute. When a papal edicit in 1210 forbade the clergy to act on public stage, supervision and control of presenting the plays passed into the hands of the town guilds and various changes ensued. The vernacular language replaced Latin and scenes were inserted that were not from the Bible. The acting became more dramatic as characterization and detail became more important.
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Based on the Scriptures from the creation to the Second Coming and on the lives of the saints, the plats were arranged into cycles, and were given church festival days; particularly the feast of Corpus Christi lasting from sunrise to sunset. Each guild was responsible for the production of a different episode. Wit simple costume and props, guild members, who were para actors, performed on stages equipped with wheels; each scene was given at one public square and drawn onto its next performance at another, while a different stage succeeded it.

Named after the town in ...

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