Medieval Sacred Drama – the Mystery Plays of England

The great cycles of mystery plays, usually performed at the Feast of Corpus Christi, told the story of mankind from the Creation to the Day of Judgment.

The mystery plays generally date from the High Gothic era, and their high point came in the 14th and 15th centuries. Modern revivals have shown the power that these sacred dramas still retain.

In England, the plays were usually performed by the guilds, from which came the word ‘mystery’ – the Latin word mysterium meaning ‘occupation’, ie. the guilds.

Characteristics of the Mystery Plays

The plays dramatized sacred history from the Creation to the Last Judgment, including along the way Old Testament stories such as the Flood, Nativity plays, and episodes from Christ’s ministry, as well as the passion and resurrection.

All the surviving plays use homely and often outspoken language to make biblical stories real to ordinary people. They often had enormous casts – in York, many hundreds of people took part in performances.

The Surviving Cycles of English Mystery Plays

It is possible that many towns had their own versions of the mystery plays, but only four cycles of mystery plays have survived. The longest is the York cycle, which contains 48 episodes. It probably dates from the last quarter of the 14th century and is therefore probably the earliest cycle, though it has later additions and alterations.

The town of Wakefield, in Yorkshire, had its own cycle of mystery plays, 32 in total, of which five were borrowed from the York cycle and others probably written by a single author, dubbed the ‘Wakefield Master’. Both the York and Wakefield plays share the same robust humor and earthy realism.

The Chester cycle comprised 25 plays, of which only 24 remain. Compared with the two Yorkshire cycles, the Chester plays have a simpler and more austere tone.

The fourth surviving group, consisting of 42 plays, is known as the ‘N-Town’ plays. Originally these were thought to have come from Coventry, but seem in fact to have been probably a touring cycle of East Anglian origin, performed by traveling players who were probably professional actors.

How the Mystery Plays Were Staged

The plays would have been performed on pageant wagons, large wagons with two tiers, with the performance up above and the lower tier used as a dressing room. The wagons would have been hauled from one location to the next.

Often the plays would have been performed in a single day. In York, with its cycle of 48 plays, probably performed at 16 different stations, the plays would have started at first light and continued well after dark. At Chester, however, the plays were probably performed over three days in five different locations.

Modern Revivals of the Mystery Plays

In 1977, to great acclaim, the National Theatre staged The Mysteries, an adaptation of the Wakefield cycle with elements of some of the other cycles, and since then a number of other revivals of these ancient and powerful plays have taken place.