The history of York Mystery Plays
The York Mystery Plays are a cultural treasure that the city of York is rightly proud of. Beyond the magnitude of religion, they represent the values of community and togetherness as they draw on the talents of local people, who gladly give their time to present these iconic plays to the people of Yorkshire and beyond.
An important part of the rich tapestry that make up this historic city, the York Mystery Plays have gained international recognition with people travelling from far and wide to see them performed in the various incarnations that they take.
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 stands out as having 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.
In 1951, the Plays were revived as part of the Festival of Britain celebrations.
For some, the Mystery Plays are at home on the back of wagons, taking to the streets of York and presenting individual plays, free of charge to those that pass by. Others look to the larger scale, fixed staged productions that present a more complete cycle of the Plays. In recent years, these productions have graced the stunning York Minster, and have also been performed outdoors in the shadows of St Mary’s Abbey.
Both the Waggon Plays and the stage productions are an integral part of York’s heritage.
Whilst traditionally the Mystery Plays have been presented by the guilds of York, no single individual or organisation can truly claim outright ownership of the Mystery Plays. It is only the people of York as a whole who can call them their own– and they are something that they are correctly proud of. Both families who have lived in the city for generations and newcomers alike embrace the traditions of the Plays, whilst striving to add their own character and flair to each production. Together they have entertained thousands, generated a phenomenal local spirit and written their own line in the history books.
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).
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.
The turn of a new Millennium demanded an epic new staging of the York Mystery Plays which had been more recently seen in their fixed stage format at York Theatre Royal. York Minster, the largest Gothic Cathedral north of the Alps, certainly fitted the bill and, with Dean Ray Furnell’s support and drive, this truly remarkable and memorable production directed by Gregory Doran was seen by over 28,000 people.
Professional actor Ray Stevenson took the part of Christ and was joined by a company made up from local people, many of whom have long standing associations with York Mystery Plays and have continued to do so since.
Whilst some may feel the York Mystery Plays belong outside, with St Mary’s Abbey a popular venue, it is hard to argue against the splendour and significance of York Minster and it will surely be a venue for the York Mystery Plays again.
The Guild’s waggon plays have continued the tradition of the York Mystery Plays and have ensured their place in modern day York. In 2010, 12 waggons took to the Plays to the community, presenting their own segment of the biblical story in locations such as the Museum Gardens and Deans Park. As always this was a huge undertaking and included volunteers from across the city joining forces with the Guilds and their creative team.
To coincide with the production, York Festival Trust organised the return to the city of the only surviving copy of the original Plays which they displayed as part of an exhibition, The Art of the Mystery Plays, at the City Art Gallery.
A 15-page colour souvenir booklet describing the pageant waggons’ route through the city streets with illustrations from the exhibition was also produced alongside a DVD of the production. More details at yorkmysteryplays.co.uk.
Whilst the Guilds had performed in front of the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey on their waggons more recently, this was to be the first large scale, fixed staged production there since 1988 – and York Mystery Plays 2012 didn’t disappoint.
In a 1,400 seat purpose built open air theatre, York Mystery Plays 2012 was presented as one piece by a team made up from York Theatre Royal, Riding Lights Theatre Company, York Museums Trust and the City of York Council.
With the combined talents of over 1,500 volunteers, the production was considered a huge success – although its 1940/50s setting did raise a few eyebrows. The community cast were led by professional actors Ferdinand Kingsley (God/Jesus) and Graeme Hawley (Satan) and were seen by a total audience of over 32,000. The production was also streamed on the internet as part of the BBC’s The Space. For more information, watch the cinematic trailer here.
The Guilds have presented Waggon Plays every four years since 1998. Some things have changed while others have remained constant. Dedication and hard work, frustration and fun, are behind every production but change keeps the tradition vibrant.
The Guild of Building continued to use the pop-up set assembled for their 1998 Creation play but those watching the wagons in 2014 saw innovation as well as familiar favourites. As always, the Company of Merchant Adventurers was responsible for the grand finale, the Last Judgement. This play has been performed in different styles by different performance groups since 1998, originally York Settlement Community Players and in 2014 by Pocklington School and their guests, Ravens Morris from Shiptonthorpe.
A number of schools, church communities and community theatre groups helped to make the wagons a success. In 2014, two new groups took party whose origins were in previous productions: the HIDden Theatre group founded by members of the Lords of Misrule following the 2010 Waggon Play production and York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust, founded after the Museum Garden Mysteries of 2012.
As in 2010, two separate plays from the medieval script were amalgamated- the Crucifixion and the Death of Christ. This change, as well as changes in performance groups and set design, was completely in line with medieval practice as detailed in the York civic records.
Perhaps the most exciting change in 2014 was the addition of the Chorus, scripted by Ged Cooper, a local scriptwriter and member of York Settlement Community Players and the Supporters Trust. The medieval Chester Mystery Plays and the N.Town collection both feature an “expositor” whose functions include calling for attention from the audience, explaining the significance of what they have just seen, looking forwards and backwards in the narrative, and occasionally detailing biblical material that has been omitted. Apart from some experiments in the 1980 and 1984 Museum Garden productions, York has had no such figure. The Chorus in 2014 added voices that mediated sensitively between the audience and the play , sometimes echoing the actors or taking the roles of actors who did not appear in the performance itself, sometimes reminding the audience of the underlying religious message, sometimes standing outside the play like Shakespeare’s Prologues and Epilogues.
It is this combination of old and new that has enriched the different wagon productions over the years, building on tradition, experience and expertise while, at the same time, involving new ideas, participants and forums. In 2014 the relationship between old and new continued and flourished.
Dr Margaret Rogerson, Associate Professor, Department of English, University of Sydney
For York Festival Trust
2016 saw the return of the Mystery Plays to York Minster. In accordance with medieval tradition the Mystery Plays opened on the feast day of Corpus Christi on 26 May and ran for five weeks. It was the first time in 16 years and only the second time in their near 700 year history that the Mystery Plays were performed at York Minster. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q_IE4izf_6c
Director Phillip Breen of the Royal Shakespeare Company headed up an artistic team comprising Producer, Nicky Corp, Designer Max Jones and the script writer and musical directors from the 2000 production, Mike Poulter and Richard Shepherd. They were joined by a cast of 150 volunteer actors from the York community, supported by an army of backstage and front of house volunteers. In keeping with the tradition for staged performances, the role of Christ was taken by a professional actor, Philip McGinley.
The Minster’s magnificent Nave was transformed into a 1,000-seater auditorium for the Mystery Plays. The spectacular stage, the vision of multi-award winning designer Max Jones, had an area of 1,700sqm, weighed over 60 tonnes and took more than 2000 man-hours to complete, and that was before lighting, seating and sound were installed. A Yorkshire based company, Raise the Roof were tasked with the epic stage build. Dusty Rhodes, Managing Director comments, “If we laid the system scaffold used in building the stage and lighting towers end to end, it would go on for 10 kilometres, that’s about three times the length of the city’s walls.”
Phillip explained why he was attracted to the Plays:. “I’ve been on a spiritual journey myself in the last few years and this just came along at the right time. Being asked to direct the Mysteries is a thrill, at its root, they are every story ever told. Love, hate, tragedy, comedy, sacrifice, redemption… But in 2015 we have to focus on what comes through each play, not just the words on the page, what part of being alive today does this story resonate with? This is why the Mysteries continue to be done – because they evolve, they always have, they’re somehow permanent and contemporary.”
In 2018 the Waggon Plays were held on the Sundays 9th and 16th September, with a midweek lighted evening performance of selected plays held in the Shambles Market for the first time on Wednesday 12th . The intended medieval fair in St Sampson’s Square didn’t happen, but as in 2014 the final Sunday performance was in front of Kings Manor.
The Festival Trust’s pageant master for 2018 was Tom Straszewski. He described it as being closer to a curator than a traditional theatre artistic director. Although he picked the plays and assigned the format and overall themes, the individual plays designed and performed by the groups contained the most radical range of interpretations yet: some aspiring to being traditional and medieval, some very modern, with a female Christ in two of the plays – a first in their history (although Ruth Ford as God at the Theatre Royal in 1996 was also a first).
A sense of partnership was his theme for 2018. As a structure he took up the idea of typology, in which people, events and images of the Old Testament prefigure those of the New Testament. So the more traditional Moses and Pharaoh was paired with our futuristic Harrowing of Hell under the theme of ‘liberation’, just as Abraham and Isaac was paired with The Crucifixion as parallel stories of ‘sacrifice’. On the day, perhaps the pairing wasn’t so obvious to onlookers if they hadn’t read their programmes diligently. The introductory scripts written for the plays in 2014 were not used.
The aim was to emphasise some of the common themes, and to point to where the stories diverge. An act of betrayal in one play might be paired and mirrored by an act of repentance. A father’s sacrifice in one might become a joyful victory in another. A further partnership was between the medieval and modern, so the Old Testament play was performed in a traditional format, while the New Testament one (like ours!) was modern or futuristic.
Says Tom: ‘The plays are medieval, and take place on the same form of waggons that the Corpus Christi plays once used. The medieval churches and streets of York form a backdrop to our playing stations, much as they did when newly built. The alliteration, language and rhymes of the scripts are still found in the Yorkshire dialect. Yet they are also a product of our own time.
A few groups may owe more to modern street theatre than they do to the medieval. Others incorporate modern music, technology and language to refresh their performances. All have taken some form of inspiration from the temptations, delights and wonders of modern society, much as our medieval predecessors found inspiration in their own lives.
The modern guilds are a partnership of medieval traditions and modern innovations. This year, smartphones join handsaws and scribes as the newly-founded Guild of Media Arts joined their fellow Guilds to produce the Annunciation, a modern partner to the Builders’ Creation play. As the plays offer a way for us to examine our own society, York’s medieval guild system provided a modern structure for professional communities. The medieval carpenters, butchers and saddlers might not recognise some of our modern trades, but the instinct behind them would be familiar.
We have formed new partnerships between guilds and theatre groups, town and gown, companies and charities, between young and old. I hope that some of these will continue to be strengthened. Our Mysteries are formed by a “community of communities”- some of which you might belong to.̔