19 May 2009

Literature & Education: Medieval Mystery Plays

By Sandra Schwab

Religion and Church were extremely important for medieval man. But as Church services were held in Latin, it became necessary to teach laymen the important bits from the Bible in a different way. This need resulted in embellishments of the Easter liturgy: a short dialogue between the women visiting the grave and finding it empty, and the angel telling them that Christ had risen, was acted out - and this was the beginning of British drama. These so-called tropes were continually lengthened and eventually developed into full-length Easter dramas. They were so popular that they had to be performed outside the churches. Yet because of the entertainment these plays provided, the church authorities became suspicious and forbade the clergy to act.

And this was the point when drama took really off: laymen snatched the chance, took up acting and ditched the Latin altogether. At least since the 14th century annual plays were staged by the town guilds in the context of the newly introduced Corpus Christi festival. These Corpus Christi plays or mystery plays were performed as cycles, which covered important passages from the Bible, starting with the Fall of the Angels (which is not directly covered by the Bible, but was thought to be the reason why God created humankind: humans should eventually replace those fallen angels in the heavenly choirs) and ending with the Day of Judgment. Each guild was responsible for one play within a cycle, and profession of the lay-actors was in some way connected to the contents of the play: e.g., in York the shipwrights staged the building of the ark, and the bakers did the Last Supper.

In York the annual production of the Corpus Christi plays took a special form: there were 12 stations throughout town, and each acting troupe moved from one station to the next with a wagon upon which the stage had been erected. The York cycle contains 48 individual plays, so if all of them were performed, it was a massive undertaking indeed, with 576 performances in total. The plays were not only a giant communal project and a chance for the guilds to display their wealth, but they can also be regarded as the worldly equivalent of the procession in which the host was carried around town in honor of the Corpus Christi festival: in both instances the divine permeates the city.

Through the mystery plays the biblical story became something people could relate to; it became part of their lives. This becomes abundantly clear in the so-called "Second Shepherds Play" from the Wakefield Cycle, which deals with the shepherds on the fields who are called to bear witness to the birth of Christ. They not only address Baby Jesus with endearments that might be used for any other baby ("Hail, little tiny mop!" --mop meant child--and "Hail, darling dear"), but the biblical episode is also preceded by a humorous episode involving the sheep-thief Mak, who hides a stolen sheep in a cradle and pretends it is his newborn child. In a somewhat daring move, the anonymous author thus included a comic version of the nativity in his play.

Both this episode and the introductory passages in which the shepherds bemoan their lot make the characters in the play "normal" people, not removed in time and space from the audience. When at the beginning of the play the world is described as an inhospitable place, full of injustices, it is concerns of the 15th century which are addressed. It is the audience's own world which is in need of God's grace. And together with the shepherds they are reassured that with the birth of Christ God has sent hope into their world.