In July, we went to the 2014 performance of the York Mystery Plays. Before we talk about this year’s event, here’s a little introduction as to what the mystery plays actually are—time for Hannah to put her medievalist hat on…
The York Mystery Plays are a cycle of Middle English mystery plays that were performed each year at the Feast of Corpus Christi (which fell on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday). These plays told the Christian story from Creation to Last Judgement, with individual plays (or ‘pageants’) being performed by the craft guilds of the town. Each guild presented a particular story, taking responsible for the script, the performers, the costumes and the decoration, and the pageant was then performed on the back of a waggon that was rolled through the town to the twelve ‘playing stations’.
Forty-eight pageants from the York cycle have survived, as well as evidence of performance, costume and props
While many medieval towns would have had similar entertainment at Corpus Christi, the York cycle is unusual in the amount of information that has survived to the modern day. Forty-eight pageants have survived—making the York cycle one of only four (almost) complete sets of plays—and there’s surviving evidence of performers (usually guild members, but occasionally professional players), costumes and props for some of the pageants as well. There is no record of the earliest performance of the cycle, but they had probably been performed many times prior to the earliest surviving records, which date from 1376. The plays continued to be performed annually until the Reformation, after which they carried on for a short time (adapted to remove reference to the adoration of the Virgin) before being suppressed in 1569.
After this suppression, the plays were pretty much forgotten until the end of the nineteenth century—though manuscript evidence of the pageants survived, squirrelled away in various collections. In 1885, an edited transcription of one of the manuscripts was published, and then in 1909 a selection of the plays was performed to raise funds for St Olave’s Church in York. This early revival paved the way for the study and performance of the plays in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Various casts ‘bring forth’ pageants, performing their plays on waggons at stations around the town
The revival of the plays has seen two different strands of performance. Since 1951, plays have been staged at three- and four-year intervals, at which a selection of pageants is performed at a single static location with a single cast made up of amateur and professional actors (usually a professional actor takes the role of Jesus, and sometimes that of Lucifer/Satan). Alongside this, from the 1970s, attempts have been made to revive the waggon plays—in which various casts ‘bring forth’ pageants, performing their plays on waggons (usually brewers’ drays) at several playing stations around the town. 1994 saw the first processional waggon plays to be performed in modern times, and this event had nine amateur dramatic groups taking a play each and touring it around five locations in York. Since then, the waggon plays have been performed at four-year intervals (currently two years out of step with the static plays).
Hannah went to the 2010 performance of the waggon plays (before we met), and was keen for us to go to the next event. While the revival of the static plays has seen some ambitious performances, wonderful actors and talented direction, there’s something about the waggon plays that’s very appealing. Since 2002, production of the plays has been managed by a committee made up of the Guilds of York, and the 2010 and 2014 performances were played by a mixture of Guild members, amateur dramatic and student actors, church groups and other local volunteers. The sets are designed to be housed (or carried) entirely on a single waggon, and each pageant has a different cast. This feels more ‘authentic’—or at least, closer to the spirit of the medieval play cycle—and it makes for a very fun day out.
In 2014, twelve pageants were staged, moving between two playing stations. Each group had creative and interpretative freedom to present the story in their own way, and it was interesting to see the differences in the plays that were also performed in 2010 (which included Creation, The Slaughter of the Innocents, The Crucifixion and The Last Judgement—which are kind of the ‘biggies’), as well as to see new interpretations of other pageants. The plays were performed in two sets—so you could watch both halves at the same location (with a break in the middle), or watch the first half at one station and then move on for the rest (which is what we did).
This year, accompanying music for the pageants was provided by the International Guild of Town Pipers and The Taborers Society, and a chorus was included to offer some exposition on the stories presented.
Creation of the World to the Fifth Day
In the Middle Ages, this pageant was performed by the Guild of Plasterers. Following the opening chapters of Genesis, the pageant presents the beginning of God’s creation, ending with life being brought forth.
The revived pageant is brought forth by the Guild of Building, and it really brings out the references to construction and craftsmanship found in the surviving script. It’s important to remember that these pageants weren’t simply straightforward dramatizations of Bible verse—there was a lot of creative interpretation, humour and invention. As we’ll come to shortly, a number of the pageants were based on stories that aren’t actually found in the Bible—but even in the ones that have a Biblical source, they’re often adapted by the guild to which they belong.
So, in the Creation of the World, we find God imagined as a Yorkshire builder (complete with charts, compass and a Thermos of tea), surveying the construction of the world with a shrewd eye. Even though the players remain fairly faithful to the language of the surviving Middle English script, it’s pretty easy to follow (and laugh) along with the affectionate and comic presentation.
The Fall of Man
This pageant presents the story of Adam and Eve’s temptation by Satan in the Garden of Eden, and it was traditionally performed by the Cooper’s Guild. In the 2014 plays, the pageant was brought forth by Canon Lee School and the Gild of Freemen. The performers (playing the roles of Satan, Eve, Adam and God) were all GCSE students, who managed to fit rehearsals around their final exams. We were particularly impressed with Ben Franks, who played the role of Satan. His performance was very charismatic—he was quite the persuasive Devil!
The Angels and the Shepherds
Of the 48 surviving pageants, only eleven draw on Old Testament stories—the rest of the plays are concerned with the birth, miracles, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ (and Mary). The 2014 performance roughly followed this ratio, as we leapt from Genesis to the Nativity without stopping on the way.
The ‘Angels and Shepherds’ play is traditionally known as the Annunciation to the Shepherds or the Adoration of the Shepherds, and it was performed by the Guild of Chandlers (candle-makers). This year, it was brought forth by the Guild of Scriveners, with an angelic choir provided by SoundsFun community choir. Even though it was a nice sunny day, it was hard not to get a touch of Christmas spirit as we moved into familiar territory of Nativity plays and carols.
The Slaughter of the Innocents
Quite a dramatic shift in tone and style now. The Slaughter of the Innocents is a moving and poignant pageant, and this was the first play to use modern costumes and design this year. The pageant is based on the Christian story of Herod’s massacre of all young male children following reports of the birth of Christ. While the story does have a Biblical source (Matthew 2:16-18), the medieval version was much expanded and was recounted in a number of pageants. The Coventry pageant of the sixteenth century (performed by the Shearmen and Tailors) included the ‘Coventry Carol’—perhaps the least cheerful Christmas carols that’s still sung today—a lament by the mother of one of the murdered infants. The York play of the Massacre of the Innocents similarly focuses on the pain and grief of the bereaved mothers (which is only referred to prophetically in the biblical account), offering a sharp counterpoint to Mary’s joy at the Nativity and a painful moment of identification for mothers in the audience.
The pageant was traditionally performed by the Guild of Girdlers and Nailers; in 2014, it was brought forth by Heslington Church. As we’ve said, the decision was taken to present the play in modern dress—with Herod appearing as a despotic military leader—and the set was a recreation of the façade of Heslington Church itself. In a creative addition to the script, the pageant featured a vicar who attempts to intervene but is killed for his efforts.
We moved ahead now to the life of Christ, specifically the baptism by John that marked the beginning of his public ministry. Traditionally performed by the Barbers’ Guild, the pageant was performed in 2014 by the HIDden Theatre Company (which was founded by members of the Lords of Misrule after their performance in the 2010 Mystery Plays). Like several other plays in the cycle, the Pageant of the Baptism focuses on the humanity of Christ—Christ is both human and divine at the moment of baptism—but also that of John the Baptist (much of the script is concerned with John’s uncertainty about worthiness to perform the task in front of him). In this year’s selection of pageants, it was the first to clearly point ahead to the issues of salvation and revelation that would lead us forward to the Last Judgement.
The Woman Taken in Adultery and The Raising of Lazarus
In the Middle Ages, this pageant was performed by the Guild of Capmakers, but here it was brought forth by staff and students of York St John University. The stories are drawn from the Gospel of John (8:1-11 and 11:1-44), and are probably fairly familiar to modern audiences. The York St John adaptation sought to focus on the role(s) of women in the two Bible stories, offering a dramatic contrast between the imposed silence of the Woman Taken in Adultery and the very vocal grief of Martha and Mary at the death of their brother Lazarus.
The end of this pageant was one of only two points in the day’s entertainment where we didn’t skip ahead too far. This play is No. 24 in the surviving medieval cycle, and the next one to be performed would be No. 25. Christ’s final words in this pageant signal his intention to travel to Jerusalem—and his encouragement to others to follow him—and so, it was to Jerusalem that we travelled next.
The Entry into Jerusalem
This pageant was traditionally performed by the Skinners’ Guild, but today we saw it as imagined by the York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust. Jesus arrives in Jerusalem with his disciples and is met by enthusiastic citizens. As he carries out several miracles (including redeeming the tax collector), Jesus is celebrated with great joy—however, this is subdued by Christ’s knowledge that his betrayal and death will quickly follow. In the full cycle of plays, the Entry into Jerusalem is contrasted by the later Christ Led to Calvary—as the latter play wasn’t being performed this year (there was a very good version performed in 2010), the contrast was shown instead through the rather downbeat and detached depiction of Christ (played here by Laurence O’Reilly).
Nevertheless, the Entry into Jerusalem was a lot of fun. The costumes were styled on early twentieth century fashions (there were even a couple of suffragette sashes to be seen) and the set was floral, bunting-heavy and picturesque—less Entry into Jerusalem, more Entry into an English Village Fete (And did those feet, in ancient time…)—which made the whole thing a rather jubilant end to the first half of the programme.
At this point, we had a break for lunch, then we moved on Museum Gardens in the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey for the second set of pageants. (And we do have to apologize for the quality of a couple of these pictures—as Hannah was taking photos and tweeting on behalf of the Manchester Medieval Society all day, her phone battery died and she had to switch to a back-up.)
Christ Before Annas and Caiaphas
We picked up the story after Christ’s betrayal and arrest. This pageant—which was traditionally performed by the Bowyers and Fletchers—depicts the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, with priests Annas and Caiaphas taking centre stage. The 2014 version was brought forth by the York Settlement Community Players on behalf of the Company of Cordwainers. The adaptation was staged in modern dress, with the conflict between Caiaphas (the older, politically powerful priest) and Annas (his younger rival) brought to the fore.
The Crucifixion and the Death of Christ
The York Play of the Crucifixion is one of the best-known pageants in the cycle (at least, among people familiar with medieval literature). There’s been a lot of academic work done on the play, and, like many tutors of medieval literature, Hannah has taught it to undergraduate students on a number of occasions. It’s a (literally) stunning piece of drama that has retained its power to shock audiences with its combination of uncomfortable humour and arresting stagecraft.
The 2014 production combined the Pinners’ Pageant of the Crucifixion with the Butchers’ Pageant of the Death of Christ, and it was brought forth by the Company of Butchers with the parish church of St Chad on the Knavesmire. The soldiers’ treatment of Christ is uncomfortably prolonged, with their squabbling and incompetence creating a sense of cruelty, but also mundanity. These bumbling soldiers are far removed from the corrupt power of Caiaphas—they are just jobsworths trying to get their task finished as quickly as possible. If the audience begins to snigger along with these jokey characters, it makes them complicit in the betrayal of Christ (an important lesson in much medieval literature and drama). All this comes to a dramatic climax as the soldiers raise up the cross, allowing Jesus to face the audience for the first time. When Christ speaks to/of the soldiers, it feels a lot like he’s talking about the assembled viewers as well.
It probably goes without saying that the Crucifixion was one of the pageants selected for the 2010 performance as well—it’s hard to imagine this iconic play being missed out of the modern performances.
The Harrowing of Hell
Although the Harrowing of Hell is alluded to in the Bible (1 Peter 3:19-20), this story doesn’t really have a Biblical source. Nevertheless, the story of Jesus’s triumphant descent into Hell between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection can be found in Old and Middle English literature, as well as Western and Eastern art. The purpose of Christ’s descent was to offer salvation to the souls of all the righteous who had died since the creation of the world—in Middle English pageants, this was often illustrated through the saving of recognizable Old Testament figures, such as Adam, Noah and Abraham, who died before the birth of Christ (and therefore weren’t Christian).
In the 1300s, this pageant was performed by the Guild of Saddlers. Today, it was brought forth by the Parish Church of St Luke the Evangelist. The production was striking for its post-apocalyptic sets and unusual portrayal of Satan (played by Willow Pollock, as a tiny but utterly arresting punk devil).
Since the Middle Ages, the Last Judgement play has been the most spectacular part of the cycle, but this version of the Harrowing of Hell set quite a high bar in design terms. We’d find out shortly if the 2014 Last Judgement could match it, but there was one more significant step to the story first…
The Carpenters’ Pageant of the Resurrection presents the fearful reactions of Pilate, Caiaphas, Annas and the soldiers to Christ’s return, as well as the joyful response of Mary. The 2014 version was brought forth by the Company of Merchant Taylors, with much of the cast drawn from Helperby and District Dramatic Society. The dialogue from the surviving medieval script had been edited down in this version, with the reactions to Christ’s resurrection instead being carried through music and song. One musical number—entitled ‘Resurgens’—encouraged audience participation, and percussionist Janet Fulton (of the Manchester Camerata and the Halle Orchestra) provided accompaniment on the tubular bells.
The Last Judgement
The York Play of the Judgement Day (or the Last Judgement) has always been a pretty lavish affair. In the Middle Ages, it was the province of the Guild of Mercers (purveyors of expensive and exotic textiles), and surviving evidence of the production reveals the time and expense that went into the pageant (including the creation of gilded props and costumes and the hiring of professional players). The Mercers were a powerful guild, and their pageant was a show of wealth and authority—as well as being the final, awe-inspiring (in the truest sense) ‘message’ of the pageant cycle. The Last Judgement is the true climax of the mystery plays—both in terms of its theological significance and of its status as the ‘grand finale’ of the Corpus Christi entertainment.
Hannah and her friends were very impressed with the 2010 Judgement Day play, so she was curious to see how it would be interpreted in 2014. And it wasn’t a disappointment…
Brought forth by the Company of Merchant Adventurers—the descendant of the medieval Guild of Mercers, who have revived tradition by ‘re-adopting’ their play and performing it each year—and Pocklington School, this year’s Apocalypse was a steampunk end-times fiesta. As the souls of the righteous were separated from the souls of the damned, and a heavenly platform was slowly erected on the waggon, the cast of performers spread across the gardens with their chaotic jumble of props, clothes and musical instruments. Christ’s arrival and ascension to the throne of Heaven was stylishly done, but our favourite bit was undoubtedly the dancing by Ravens Morris, a steampunk Morris troupe from Yorkshire.
We’re not totally sure that the underlying doctrinal message of the pageant (drawn from the Book of Revelations) was as clear this year as it was in 2010, when members of the audience were invited to participate, before being led to the left or right as they were judged. But for sheer spectacle, we think this year’s pageant takes the cake. It might be a terrifying prospect if you stop and think about it, but the York Play of Judgement Day has long proved that the Apocalypse can be a lot of fun to watch.
And with that, the waggon rolled away for another four years. We’re really hoping that the waggon cycle of mystery plays will be back in 2018 as planned, and we’re looking forward to seeing the new adaptations and developments.