Mystery plays are religious performances based on Biblical stories, such as the Fall of Adam and Eve and the Last Judgement. They were originally performed in churches and then moved out into public squares and marketplaces. The early directors and writers of mystery plays were monks or other religious figures. The word mystery is a derivation of the Latin ministerium. It references a connection to clergy from different religious groups and then was later used to describe the plays themselves.
Mystery plays originated as early as the 5th century when they were introduced into church services. They employed light embellishments of Biblical texts and eventually introduced chants that were inspired by the church services. The first mystery plays were performed in Latin, based on the church services at the time. It was not uncommon for the plays to be prefaced with a description of what the audience was going to see in vernacular language. The plays grew in popularity until travelling companies formed and began moving from town to town performing for everyday people.
The popularity of the plays meant that they moved outside the confines of the church and into the open. During the 13th century, various guilds began producing plays in the vernacular at sites removed from the churches. Under these conditions, the strictly religious nature of the plays declined, and they became filled with irrelevancies and apocryphal elements. Satirical elements were introduced to mock physicians, soldiers, judges, and even monks and priests. In England, over decades, groups of 25 to 50 plays were organized into lengthy cycles, such as the Chester plays and the Wakefield plays. In France a single play, The Acts of the Apostles by Arnoul and Simon Gréban, contained 494 speaking parts and 61,908 lines of rhymed verse; it took 40 days to perform. They died out in many areas with the Reformation.
At their height, the mystery plays were quite elaborate in their production. In England, they were generally performed on pageant wagons, which provided both scaffold stage and dressing room and could be moved about readily. In France and Italy, however, a production might take place on a stage 100 feet wide, with paradise represented at one end of the stage, hell at the other, and earthly scenes between the two. The plays did not attempt to achieve unity of time, place, and action, and therefore they could represent any number of different geographic locations and climates in juxtaposition. Mechanical devices, trapdoors, and other artifices were employed to portray flying angels, fire-spouting monsters, miraculous transformations, and graphic martyrdoms.
The form in which the mystery plays developed contributed to their demise at the end of the 16th century. The church no longer supported them because of their dubious religious value, Renaissance scholars found little interest in their great rambling texts, and the general public preferred professional travelling companies that were beginning to arrive from Italy. In England, the mystery cycles and miracle plays were suspected of Roman Catholic tendencies and were gradually suppressed.
Common Mystery Plays
- The Last Judgement
- Fall of Adam and Eve
- The Creation of the World
- The Story of Cain and Abel
- The Wise Men
- The Second Shepherd’s Play
- Birth of Jesus
- Flight into Egypt