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Mystery Plays

Some Background Information

"Mystery Plays" are dramatized scripture. They were used to teach salvation history to the illiterate masses who did not understand Latin, the language of the Church, and therefore could not read it for themselves. (Recall that even the literate in a pre-print, manuscript culture did not have the easy access to books which we do today. Manuscripts were expensive and relatively scarce. Most lay people, even those who knew Latin, did not have copies of scripture to read and study on their own.) Unlike the theater of later periods, medieval Mystery Plays were NOT primarily presented as entertainment-- they were pedagogical tools not unlike sermons. But the effectiveness of a sermon depends in large part on the ability of the preacher to engage the interest of his audience. Dramatizations have the advantage of being lively and engaging. Since Mystery Plays were performed in the streets by ordinary citizens (the Guilds), not professional actors or priests, they doubly engaged their audience: those who performed in them must have felt a part of the stories they were enacting, while the audience witnessed biblical narratives "coming to life" with a very familiar and human face. While Mystery Plays were undoubtedly fun to watch, the underlying purpose was serious: to engage the interest and understanding of the audience in order to help them be better Christians. Medieval theater is thus very different in its purpose from the theater of the Renaissance (and beyond), when plays were performed by troupes of professional actors whose primary goal was to support themselves by ENTERTAINING ticket-buyers.

Mystery plays came in CYCLES: a series of plays which together were meant to present ALL OF SACRED HISTORY, from the Creation of the world through the End of Time (the Last Judgment), with particular emphasis on human history: the Fall of mankind (Adam and Eve eat the apple in the Garden of Eden) and the consequences of that Fall (other Old Testament stories illustrating man''s sin or prefiguring redemption; ex: Noah''s Ark); the way Original Sin was redeemed through the Nativity, Incarnation and Passion of Christ (source: New Testament and apocrypha for, e.g., the Harrowing of Hell); finally, the end of the world, when humanity rises from the dead to face the Last Judgment. Our reading is a dramatization of the Nativity of Christ-- a New Testament event that dovetails nicely with the special reverence for Mary which we have noted in other works of the Middle English period (in particular, the Marian lyrics, but also e.g. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight).



The word mystery refers to the spiritual mystery of Christ's redemption of humankind, and mystery plays are dramatizations of incidents of the Old Testament, which foretells that redemption, and of the New, which recounts it. 

The English mystery plays can be divided into:

<I> Plays of the Fall: "The Fall of the Angels"; "The Fall of Man"; "Cain and Abel" 
<II> Types and Prophecies of the Redemption: "Noah"; "Abraham and Isaac"; "Moses and the Prophets" 
<III> Nativity Plays I: "Caesar Augustus"; "The Early Life of the Virgin"; "Joseph's Doubts"; "The Visit to Elizabeth";  "The Trail of Joseph and Mary"; "The Nativity" 
<IV> Nativity Plays II: "The Adoration of the Shepherds"; "The Adoration of the Magi"; "The Purification"; "The Massacre of the Innocents" 
<V>The Life of Christ between the Nativity and the Passion: "The Doctors in the Temple"; "The Plays of the Ministry"; "The Entry into Jerusalem"; "The Last Supper"; "The Agony in the Garden" 
<VI>The Passion: "The Trial before Annas and Caiaphas"; "The Trials before Pilate and Herod"; "The Buffeting and Scourging"; "The Crucifixion and Burial" 
<VII>Triumph and Eschatological Plays: "The Harrowing of Hell"; "The Resurrection and   Resurrection Appearances"; "The Ascension"; "The Coming of the Holy Ghost"; "The Death and Assumption of the Virgin"; "The Antichrist"; "The Last Judgment" 

The mystery cycles begin and end in the heavens, the opening play of the Fall of the Angels being on a subject never dramatized before and rarely since.  The story was reconstructed by the Fathers by the piecing together of a number of biblical texts.  The account of Satan''s Fall is now best known from the elaborate narrative in Paradise Lost, and present-day criticism of Milton has made everyone highly conscious of the pitfalls that await those who venture to treat this theme in literary rather than theological form.  Medieval authors largely evade these pitfalls by a concise and symbolic treatment of the subject, the most symbolic of the plays, that in the York cycle, being also the most successful.

Types and Prophecies of the Redemption: "Noah"; "Abraham and Isaac"

"Noah''s Flood":  the biblical story of the Flood shows a continuation of the Fall with the world become so wicked that God repents that He has made man  Imagine the spectacle in "Noah's Flood."   (The imaginative reconstruction of the story) Building of the ark (the ark was assembled from prepared sections rather than brought on to the stage complete); the embarkation animals; the waters of the flood (simulated by a painted cloth waved in front of the ark) around the ark; the "corpses of the drowned", both men and animals the exigencies of stage performance. 

Noah's building the ark: their use of technical terms--having practical function of serving to cover the time required for the assembling of the ark in front of the audience. 

* Noah: a type of Christ; the ark a type of the Cross and more importantly of the church; occasionally in Noah's wife, a type of the Virgin (in this interpretation conflict b/w virtue and vice is absent; the story-->sorely a foreshadowing of the Redemption. 

* Noah's obedience to God's will:  Noah's being instructed to his own advantage and in a way that he could readily see to be to his own advantage, and since obedience seems scarcely meritorious, one may pass too lightly over the explicit profession of obedience to God's will which Noah makes in all the plays. 

We should bear in mind that God's command did not seem immediately attractive: 
1) the flood was not an apparent danger 2) the building of the ark was a long and burdensome duty  3) in some versions of the tale in which N''s wife and one of his sons mock for building a ship when living far inland. 

Ex. The Wakefield Master has skillfully indicated that God's command was not an easy one for an old man to execute (p 107 (30)). Whereas in the Towneley paly the idea that the building of the ark will be a back-breaking labour is introduced only when Noah is at work.( retrospective light upon his earlier obedience). 

Speeches: Noah's opening prayers: do God's will-->echoed by Noah's wife ?Noah's three sons and their wives, each having an individual quatrain. Balancing this set passage is similar series of speeches spoken by Noah and his family in the ark, in which they mourn the sin that led to the destruction of the flood and thank God for saving them.-->play ends in triumphant gratitude-->after the crow and the dove have been sent forth, the dove (Holy Ghost) returns. 

* Noah's wife: shrewish and obstinate--contrast with Noah's obedience. In the medieval period, that women are greedy, deceiving, disobedient, angry and evil-tongued is a proposition well exemplified by Noah's wife. Also the miseries of marriage; the subject of the malicious, shrewish wife and the suffering husband… 

She does not wish to be in the ark when the flood comes-->represents the recalcitrant sinner, perhaps even the sinner on his deathbed, who refuses to repent and enter the church.  But in fact the moment on board she becomes meek and submissive both to Noah and to God's will: a psychologically unmotivated change of heart signals the allegorical meaning.

In York play she wants to go back to collect her belongings and she insists that her friends and relations must come too; in Chester she wants to stay drinking with her "gossips"; in Towneley she wants to finish her spinning. These excuses are on a par with those in the parable suggesting all worldly concerns.  ["Gossips" of Noah's wife (Uxor: wife in Latin) who appear fleetingly in the Chester play are introduced to suggest the worldly pleasure which Noah's wife refuses to forsake rather than the wickedness of the world which led to the Flood.] 

In Chester play, when Noah calls to his family for help after hearing God's command , his wife with the others co-operates benevolently in the labor. But when a little later the ark is built and Noah summons his family in, Noah's wife has turned into the perverse shrew (p 40, l. 99 Cawley) and (p 43, line 197 Cawley). 

The Wakefield Master shows Noah's fear [p 104, (21)] when learning God's command. Abuse and brawling continue for two hundred lines except for the stylized inset of the des. of the building of the ark. The Wakefield Master developed the character pattern of Noah's wife at the cost of obscuring the allegorical significance of Noah. Three battles: before the building of the ark; Noah's wife will not enter; either at the door or inside it [p 111, (42)]  In the plays of the Flood: the pattern was flawed by the disobedience of Noah's wife. 

<IV> Nativity Plays II: The Second Shepherds'' Play 
In The Second Shepherds'' Play, by linking the comic subplot of Mak and Gill with the solemn story of Christ's nativity, the Wakefield Master has produced a dramatic parable of what the Nativity means in Christian history and in Christian hearts. 

The parallelism: the stolen sheep, ludicrously disguised as Mak's latest heir, lying in the cradle, and the real Lamb of God, born in the stable among beasts.
The charity shown by the shepherds--in the first instance to the supposed son of Mak and in the second instance to Mak and Gill when they decide to let them off with only the mildest of punishments--is rewarded when they are invited to visit the Christ Child, the embodiment of charity.
The bleak beginning of the play, with its series of individual complaints, is ultimately balanced by the optimistic ending, which sees the shepherds once again singing together in harmony. 
Mak is perhaps the best humorous character outside of Chaucer's works in this period.  A braggart of the worst kind, he has something of Falstaff's charm; and he resembles Falstaff also in his grotesque attempts to maintain the last shreds of his dignity when he is caught in a lie. 

(external)  English Literature I: the Medieval Period;English Literature and Culture From Medieval Period to the Eighteenth Century



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