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2001 November - The Wakefield (Towneley) Mystery Plays at St Clement Eastcheap


Plays and people  |  Photographs  |  About the show

After last year’s special selection of plays for AD2000 we return to our regular tradition of performing plays from one particular cycle annually – for 2001 our choice is Wakefield.

The Wakefield text has mysteries all its own. Only one manuscript of it remains; this has gaps and missing pages and was written out by a single scribe in the fifteenth century.

Wakefield itself is only referred to in a small number of the plays and only four plays are directly linked with a particular craft guild. So it is uncertain whether this cycle of plays was organised by indifvidual guilds on pageant wagons or as a central production at a fixed location.

The Second of the Shepherds’ Plays (the one we have chosen to perform) calls for a range of scene settings within its text – from the cold Yorkshire moor to the “crooked thorn” near Horbury village to the house of Mak and Gill to the Bethlehem stable and beyond – a challenge for the scope of a small church! The textual breaks and gaps present other challenges – for example, to replace the missing Fall of Man text I have set a mimed scene using words from the opening of another play in the cycle, taking advantage of the textual reptitions intrinsic to street drama.

The fact that Wakefield has no actual Birth of Christ play puts an emphasis on the reaction of characters to Christ in the plays that do exist. With this in mind we use all the dialect words we can referring to the Child – from Caesar’s contemptuous “snookhorn” to the shepherds’ “little tyné mop”. Other original phrases such as “dillydown” (Gill), “ye two are well-weft” (Gib), she’s a “foul douse” (Mak), are too expressive to need translation – they are there to be used and enjoyed.

Music adds an enlivening element to link and to allow us to contemplate the action of each play. This year we are making a special feature of traditional English folk songs and carols, especially in the Shepherds’ play, to contrast with the sacred music tradition, which symbolises the perfection of heaven.

Our scene selection opens with a sung prologue leading into the Creation in which Lucifer’s rebellion disrupts God’s harmony and leads to the fall of humanity from grace.

Abraham is then tested by God to make a great moral and emotional decision. He heroically opts for loyalty to God and then tries to cope with the human cost. In accepting the act of sacrifice, his son Isaac becomes a Christ-like figure, as we know God will ultimately bring about the redemption by sacrificing his own son in time, a process which we see starting with the prophets’ announcements and in the Annunciation play.

The sycophantic court of old Caesar Augustus and the decadent court of the superstitious Herod, where Christ’s arrival is violently resented, contrast with the loving domestic home in which Mary meets her aunt Elizabeth, and with the company of wise magi/philosophers who follow their star from the east to meet the Prince Redeemer.

The plays are both of their time in the fifteenth-century England of downtrodden, exploited shepherds and deceiving sheep-stealers, and of all time in terms of human fallibility and generosity. The shepherds are called, fresh from their finding of their stolen sheep and their generous dealing with Mak, to the crib where God’s Son is lying.