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2007 November - The York Mystery Plays at St Clement Eastcheap


Plays and people  |  Photographs  |  About the show

For our medieval ancestors in towns and cities throughout England, cycles of plays illustrating the bible stories from Creation to Doomsday were performed to celebrate the special festival of Corpus Christi. Only a few texts remain to us, and York’s text has the largest number of plays. These were organised and performed by the craft guilds of the city and formed a major festival linking spiritual instruction with a grand civic celebration.

But what do these plays mean for us in this century? As Players keeping the tradition alive of performing the plays for our fellow citizens, we feel they have a great power to inspire, uplift, entertain and move us. Even in our “sound-bite” era, I believe we can still access the message and respond to the set speeches and the alliterative poetry of these plays. Adapting the text to eliminate certain archaisms and anomalies of the medieval English wording, I hope that what emerges is a text and performance with the liveliness and simple certainty of its original – including words like “beledande” (a word half-way between beautiful and flourishing) and phrases such as “ding them down”, which are a joy to use. The scenes are linked and enhanced by music and carols/plainsong to convey the mood of each element. Each of us responds to the medieval certainties in our own way.

This year, the plays I have selected for our performance come from different parts of the cycle to include the beginning and end of the world, a play from the Old Testament, the central Christmas scenes of Christ’s birth as well as a play from his adult life. The message of the plays is, as I believe, highly relevant to the Christmas period – that of caring for others as far as we can in our own “sphere of life”.

The Barkers’ Guild “Fall of the Angels” play sees the creative process begun with the angels who soon separate into loyalty groups. The rebellious Lucifer and his cohort fall into darkness and re-emerge throughout the following plays to foment trouble. We represent the fall of man with a simple mime this year in order to focus on the Hosiers’ play of “Moses and Pharoah” in its entirety. This portrays the plagues of Egypt in a 15th-century context in which the Hundred Years War raged. An autocratic king surounded by evil counsellors gives way to political necessity by leting his peasants leave the land, then resorts to force to try to detain them against God’s plan.

The Spicers’ play of the “Annunciation and Visitation” brings the impact of the spiritual into ordinary lives as Mary receives the message of God’s plan for her, accepts it and rushes off to share the news with her favourite relative, Elizabeth. The Tilethatchers’ play shows that a bustling crowd hardly notices the arrival of Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem, but the angels and the star of light are there at Christ’s birth.

Three shepherds in the Chandlers’ play – old friends from childhood who work locally – receive the song of the angel fulfilling their wildest expectations and joyfully dance off to see the saviour.

In the Smiths’ powerful play of the “Temptation” we see the adult Christ (just entering his ministry and realising his power) confronting a wily and seductive Lucifer who uses all his power to have Christ admit the supremacy of evil by trying to persuade him to overcome hunger, demonstrate his power to call angels to his aid and finally to win over the people and riches of the world at a word. Christ resists these three temptations, banishes Lucifer and is then ministered to by God’s angels.

We reach the climax of our production with the Mercers’ play of the “Last Judgement” in which God sees that man has not turned back to him, even after the sacrifice of Christ’s life. Trumpets and angels call humanity to account for their actions in life and Christ speaks directly to each heart, exposing how it dealt with its fellow creatures in life and assigning it a fate accordingly.