York Mystery Plays

History Of York Mystery Plays

The York Mystery Plays are a cycle of 48 pageants or individual plays covering biblical events from Creation to The Last Judgement. Even though there are other Mystery Play cycles, York’s stands out as the most complete.

Originally they were performed in York from the middle of the 14th century (no first date is known but they are recorded as early as 1376) until 1569. During this period, the Plays would be performed and funded by the local trade guilds each of whom would take responsibility for one
particular play.

Whilst the Plays continued for a short while after the Reformation, which saw the demise of the feast of Corpus Christi in England with which they had previously been associated, they finally came to an end.

Into The 20th Century

In the beginning of the 1900s there were performances of individual elements of the Plays, following a new transcription of the manuscripts by Lucy Toulmin Smith, however it wasn’t until 1951 that they were properly revived after a gap of almost 400 years.

As part of the Festival of Britain celebration, the York Festival of the Arts performed in front of the ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey on a fixed stage. It was a phenomenal success with reports of a total audience of over 26,000 including the then Prime Minister, Clement Attlee.

A tradition was re-born with the Plays being staged in front of St Mary’s – initially every 3 years but eventually every 4. It was during this period that York born Judi Dench took part as an amateur actor (the part of Jesus was usually reserved for the only professional member of the company).

Tough Times But The Waggons Rolled On

Due to various financial and practical reasons, the Mystery Plays then moved in to York Theatre Royal for the productions in 1992 and 1996 (in which they caused controversy by casting a female actress as God) . Whilst this was necessary to keep the plays alive many felt it wasn’t the same in the more formal theatre setting.

Taking up the baton of keeping the plays outdoors were the waggon plays. In 1994, through the collaboration of the then Friends of York Mystery Plays, the Centre for Mediaeval Studies at the University of York and York Early Music Festival, 9 amateur groups toured the city. In 1998 some of the modern York Guilds joined the group before they eventually took over management of the waggon plays for the 2002 production.

Meanwhile the Millennium staging of the Mystery Plays took place in the splendour of York Minster. The York Mystery Plays would not be staged on such a scale again for another 12 years. In the intervening years, the Guilds continued the tradition and can in many ways be credited for keeping the Mystery Plays as we know them alive for audiences to enjoy today.