A cycle of the passion from the medieval period

York Mystery Plays: A Selection in Modern Spelling - Richard Beadle, Pamela M. King

Okay, here I am sitting in an airport lounge at Hong Kong International Airport waiting for the boarding call for my flight back to Melbourne. Okay, some of you probably are not interested in knowing where I am when I am writing this commentary, but would rather me get straight onto it. If that is the case, then just skip this first paragraph. The only reason that I am doing this is because, even if only for myself, I like to make a note of where I am when I am writing some of these (though sitting in my bedroom is obviously not one of those places exotic enough to mention). Okay, I doubt it will be the last time I do this (particularly since I am probably off to Sydney in early May to see a performance of Henry IV) but for now (unless I write a commentary on the plane back) this will be the last one for a while.

Okay, the date and the author of these plays are not known. They are a collection of plays (I don't know why they are referred to as mystery plays, though I suspect that it has something to do with the plays re-inacting the passion of the Christ, which as Paul indicates, is a mystery in itself) that form a cycle that follow the life of Christ and culminate in his death and resurrection. They were generally performed by travelling bands of actors who would visit towns and villages and would act out all of the plays over a period of time. The majority of the plays focus on Christ's death and resurrection (which is why they are called passion plays).

The tradition has not really continued, but we still see this occur in musicals such as Jesus Christ Superstar (which is coming to Melbourne, and I so want to see it), or even in the local church at Easter and Christmas (and these are usually performed by the Sunday School children). I have been to some Church events where children and families are taken through various rooms were aspects of the passion are played out. However the idea of the passion play appears to have vanished, and this is most likely due to the development of the film and television industry (though I wonder whether industrialisation also had something to do with it). Plays are still performed (and I must admit that I do enjoy going to the theatre) but the time of the travelling minstrel has disappeared (though there are still those that travel from city to city for various festivals, and you would have seen this if you have been to the Adelaide Fringe Festival).

These plays are probably one of the earliest forms of English plays that we have, and this particular version is drafted with modern spelling and grammar (which makes it a much easier to read). However when these plays were performed it is highly unlikely that they were written down. It is more likely that the actors would have known the various plays really well and I also suspect that they would not have necessarily been literate. They most likely would have performed the plays from memory rather than memorising lines from a script. This was different in Shakespeare's time when actors would have had to have been literate, but then there are suggestions that not all of Shakespeare's plays were written down. Personally, I find that hard to believe, though there are suggestions that some of the plays that we do have were written down by people who were attending the play rather than having some draft that Shakespeare wrote.

Anyway, these plays are fascinating as they provide a window on early English theatre, as well as an insight into the culture of the era. In those days of superstition, pretty much most literature took the form of Christian literature. This it not entirely true since the earliest English work is an epic called Beowulf, however since the time of Theodosius anything that had an hint of pagan roots was considered evil and destroyed. Also, being an illiterate society, the only way the majority of the people could have understood the Bible was through either artwork on the walls of the church (which is why many of the churches are full of beautiful artwork) or through the form of Mystery Plays (since sermons were generally not preached in those days). In the end it was irrelevant that the Bible was not written in the vernacular because anybody that could read would have been able to read Latin, and even then, many of the vernacular languages did not have a written alphabet (as we can see that most of the vernacular languages of Europe have taken the Latin, or Greek, alphabet, and we even see this in modern times with Vietnamese taking the Latin alphabet as its written form).

Source: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/579309796