Mystery And Miracle Plays In English Drama

The mystery and miracle plays of the middle ages developed out of liturgical drama and were the early forerunners of mainstream English drama.

Related Terms:

LITURGY""sacred rituals of the Church.

LITURGICAL DRAMA""plays performed in Latin by the clergy and the choir that sang the service, as part of the liturgy of the Church during the medieval period. As early as the fifth century, bible stories were represented in church by means of live tableaux accompanied by singing. From such simple beginnings, liturgical dramas developed gradually over several centuries as parts of the liturgy were embellished by "tropes" and then elaborated into dialogues and short reenactments of scenes from the Easter story and the Nativity. Eventually the laity began to participate and vernacular elements were included.

TROPE""from the Greek, meaning "turn," a phrase or verse added as an embellishment or interpolation to the sung parts of the mass. In general, a trope is any rhetorical or figurative device, but a special development in the use of tropes occurred during the Middle Ages, when the term was applied to a verbal embellishment of the liturgical text. Some time before the tenth century, parts of the liturgy at Easter and Christmas were embellished by such tropes as the Nativity antiphonies and the "Quem Quaeritis" before the Easter Introit. Over time these tropes were expanded to include very rudimentary representations of the Nativity scene and of the Three Marys at the sepulcher, mimed by the priests and the choir that sang the antiphonies

"QUEM QUAERITIS"""Latin for "Whom do you seek?" This was spoken to the three Marys by the angel at the sepulcher, who told them that Christ was not to be found in the tomb, for He had risen. This phrase was used as a trope during the Easter liturgy, and was adapted and elaborated into a dialogue that became the source of liturgical drama. Eventually it developed into a dramatized representation of the scene at the tomb and then became detached from the sacred liturgy. The "Quem Quaeritis" trope is considered to be the primary seed from which nonliturgical religious drama, and subsequently mainstream drama, grew.

ANTIPHON""a psalm, anthem or verse sung responsively (Webster's Dictionary, ninth ed.).

ANTIPHONY""a responsive alternation between two groups, especially of singers (Webster's Dictionary, ninth ed.). Antiphonies lent themselves readily to development into dialogue.

FARCE""an exaggerated, comic performance with no purpose other than to amuse the audience. Farce often contains ribald elements, but because of its playfulness, it usually is not considered offensive.

MYSTERY""from the Latin "mysterium," meaning "handicraft" or "office." The artisan or trade guilds were called "mysteries," and once the guilds took over the performance of the secularized religious dramas, those plays came to be known as "mystery plays."

The tremendous flowering of English drama during the Elizabethan Age had its roots in earlier nonliturgical vernacular religious dramatic forms""the mystery, miracle, and morality plays. (The morality play [q.v.] developed about two centuries later than the mystery and miracle plays and is different in dramatic structure and purpose.) These secular religious plays in turn developed out of even earlier forms of religious drama.

As early as the fifth century a.d., bible stories were represented in church in live tableaux accompanied by singing or chanting. At some point before the tenth century, parts of the liturgy of Easter and Christmas were embellished by such "tropes" as the Nativity antiphonies and the "Quem Quaeritis?" Over time these tropes were expanded into playlets that included very rudimentary representations of the Nativity scene and the three Marys at the Tomb, mimed by the priests and the choir that sang the antiphonies.



These simple tropes developed into more elaborated liturgical drama, performed in Latin by the priests and the choir as part of the worship service in the church. Antiphonal singing, of course, can easily be extended into dialogue, and as the liturgical dramas were elaborated, additional melodies and tropes in dialogue form were included. From about the eleventh century, plays on biblical subjects""e.g., Daniel in the lion's den, the Easter story, the Fall of Man, the raising of Lazarus""were acted out in church by the clergy.

As these liturgical plays became more popular and elaborate, vernacular elements were introduced and the laity also began to participate in the performances. As the liturgical dramas became increasingly secularized, they began to be performed entirely in the vernacular, and eventually they moved out of the church and into the churchyard, and then into the nearby marketplace.

Soon the plays were taken over by the religious and professional guilds, with each guild taking responsibility for a particular episode or set of episodes from scriptural history. One guild, for example, might present the Fall, another the Flood, and yet another the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. The trade guilds were called "mysteries," from the Latin for "handicraft" or "office," and that is why this type of drama came to be known as "mystery plays" (often simply called "mysteries"). The involvement of the trade guilds reinforced the tendency to incorporate topical and social themes into the plays, though the emphasis remained on God's relationship with man and on the promise of salvation through Christ.

The Feast of Corpus Christi (the Body of Christ), established in 1311 to celebrate the miracle of the Eucharist, created a framework for integrating these plays. The English mystery plays were probably first performed in Chester, sometime around the middle of the thirteenth century. By the sixteenth century, several English towns had established the performance on Corpus Christi of long cycles of mystery plays, covering sacred history from Creation to Judgment Day.

On the continent mysteries were performed on stationary stages, but in England the guilds mounted their plays on "pageants," movable two-tiered floats. The upper tier was used for the performance, and the lower tier was curtained off and used a s a dressing room for the actors. Each play was performed on a separate wagon, and on the day of the festival the pageants traveled in a carefully timed procession through the town. Each pageant stopped at each street to perform its play, and then moved on, to be replaced by the next pageant, performing the next episode in the sacred drama. Although each play was fairly short, the complete cycle of plays took a very long time, often as long as eighteen hours, to perform. (In some towns the plays were performed one per day, taking a month or more to complete the cycle.)

In addition to the events of sacred history represented by the mystery plays, the cycles also included miracle plays, which dramatized the lives and miracles of the saints, or episodes of divine intervention in human affairs, often through the agency of the Virgin Mary. Sometimes the term "mystery play" is used to refer to both mystery and miracle plays.

Once the religious dramas had been removed from the church and the control of the clergy and appropriated by the trade guilds, they became progressively secularized, even incorporating elements (including ribaldry) from popular farce. They became boisterous and realistic in tone and style, often moving from serious religious subjects to topical farce and back, as in the well known "The Second Shepherd's Play" from the Wakefield cycle. It was this increasing secularization and farcical elaboration that led the Church to withdraw official approval from the mystery and miracle plays, and finally to suppress them altogether in England following the Reformation in the sixteenth century.

A major subset of the mysteries was the Passion play, a type that survives even today as a tourist attraction in a few European towns. The Passion play, which is usually performed on Good Friday, has as its subject the suffering and death of Christ. Originally it was also a rudimentary dramatic representation within the church service, but it was eventually combined with the "Quem Quaeritis," the Resurrection, and other liturgical plays attached to the Easter service. The first Passion play performance was apparently around 1200 at Sienna, and in 1244 "The Passion" and "The Resurrection" were performed together at Padua. In some places the Passion plays were incorporated into the Corpus Christi cycle, while in others they remained separate and continued to be performed only at Easter.

The cycle of mystery plays associated with the Feast of Corpus Christi covered the entire range of scriptural history, but most of them were based on Old Testament stories. The Passion plays, on the other hand, focused specifically on the main event of the New Testament, Christ's sacrifice and resurrection. Cycles of Passion plays in England and on the continent, especially in France, were almost as popular as the Corpus Christi cycles.

The actors in the mysteries performed under the patronage of the guilds were amateurs. Occasionally mystery and miracle plays were also performed as separate dramas by professional troupes of itinerant actors, but the staging of these plays could not compete with the lavish costumes and elaborate effects produced by the guilds in the mystery cycles. Staging of the plays in the town cycles included such special effects as floods, fires, and elaborate lighting for nighttime performances. Such effects were far too elaborate to travel well""or even to be afforded by the acting troupes. The special effects in the town cycles were so elaborate that they sometimes got out of control. Crowds were soaked by overly realistic floods, costumes and sets sometimes caught fire, and occasionally the actors who played the role of Christ on the Cross suffered more than was intended during the Crucifixion scenes.

Most of the mystery plays were written in the simple and widely familiar stanza form of the popular romance. The writing and characterization were, for the most part, crude, as more effort was expended on the elaborate staging of the plays than on their literary quality.

The Corpus Christi cycle in England, which contained thirty or more plays, took form by the end of the fourteenth century. Four fifteenth-century cycles are extant""those from York, Wakefield, Chester, and so-called "N-Town" (perhaps Lincoln). We also have fragments remaining from other cycles. The anonymous author of four plays from the best-known cycle, the Wakefield cycle, has been dubbed the "Wakefield Master," because his plays are much better written than most and they achieve a complex integration of social satire, religious doctrine, and popular farce. The plays attributed to the Wakefield Master are "The Killing of Abel," "Noah," "Herod," and "The Second Shepherd's Play."

Although mystery and miracle plays, like morality plays, became less popular in England during the sixteenth century, probably because of growing pressure by religious authorities, the mainstream drama of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods was developed out of these early religious dramatic forms, and consequently their influence on English drama cannot be overlooked. The morality play, which arose about two centuries later than the mysteries, is more directly implicated in the development of dramatic structure and characterization in mainstream drama, yet the moralities themselves had their roots in the earlier mysteries.

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