2003 November - The Chester Mystery Plays at St Clement Eastcheap
Plays and people | Photographs | About the show
As in all towns and cities of England in medieval times, when the various trade guilds of Chester took over the mounting of these plays (which originated as acted-out sections within church services) they developed into a great city event, popular with all the local people and visitors who flocked into the city to enjoy the three-day festival, with its mixture of religious fervour, moral message, colourful (and expensive) pageantry, striking poetic drama, civic pride, delight in local jokes and jibes and associated holiday atmosphere.
My adaptation for this year’s production starts with guild members gathering to perform, led by Goobett, the streetwise narrator, leading into a short Prologue (taken from passages in the Tanners’ and the Drapers’ plays) outlining – from God’s viewpoint – his creation and his regret at the fall of mankind from grace.
The episode of Cain’s jealous bullying and murder of his brother Abel (from the Drapers’ play) shows how God abhors killing, while in the Commandments scene (from the Cappers’ play) the basic laws of society set out how we are to respect and care for one another.
Prophecy leads us into the Wrights’ multi-scened play of the nativity, including the story of the disbelieving midwife and the medieval tradition of the Sybil’s giving of a vision of Christ to the Roman emperor who – though ruler of the known world – realises he cannot claim to be a god. His census decree brings Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, where local shepherds and foreign kings come to find Christ.
The famous Chester Shepherds’ play features 15th-century characters comparing rival cures for sheep disorders like expert cooks, and later sitting down to a picnic of home-cooked delicacies and a bout of wrestling with their apprentice before the news of Christ’s arrival bursts upon them and their lives are changed for ever.
The plays of the rich guilds of Vintners, Mercers and Goldsmiths bring in the splendour of Kings coming on pilgrimage, following a star in long-awaited fulfilment of a prophecy and choosing rich and mystically significant gifts to offer to the Saviour.
News of a new boy-king alarms Herod to the point of madness, which precipitates the massacre of the innocents as he seeks to eliminate the threat to his throne. The village women turn out to be no mere victims and defend themselves and their children stoutly, but they cannot prevent murder, which rebounds in the end on Herod himself. The play ends with the return of Jesus and Christmas hope as we all sing the carol together.