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Reporter 452, 22 May 2000

The Mystery Plays 25 Years On

Richard Rastall

Twenty-five years ago, on 17-18 May 1975, an extraordinary event took place in the University precinct: a performance of the greater part of the York cycle of mystery plays, performed at three playing-places, or stations, over a two-day period. At the time, most people regarded it as a special occasion that it would be good, at some time to repeat: the general public visited the University in great numbers, to an extent that was thought very beneficial to the University's relations with the wider community. Those most closely involved, however, knew that a very important historic precedent was being set up, and indeed those two days paved the way for developments that are still continuing.

To understand why this was so we need to look at the twentieth-century revival of the medieval biblical plays in England. At the beginning of the century the blasphemy laws, which made it impossible legally to put the figure of God on the stage, effectively prevented any public performance of such dramas as the York plays. Some small-scale performances were staged by pioneers like Nugent Monk, but these were technically private and, perforce, indoors, so that the early drama did not properly break away from the more recent theatrical tradition. The drama director E. Martin Browne obtained special permission to stage a short version of the York Cycle for the Festival of Britain in 1951, and so began the history of performances in the grounds of St Mary's Abbey in York. Browne sought to make the plays more accessible by mounting a modernised version that cut the 14 or so hours of the original to less than a quarter of that time. In mounting the plays on a stage running along a surviving wall in the Abbey, Browne decisively took the plays out of doors and provided a spectacle that hundreds of people could watch simultaneously.

Browne based his set on the illustration of the Valenciennes Passion of 1547, but this was never a production mode in late medieval England, where performance in the round and processional performance had been the usual ways of presenting large-scale dramas. Throughout the 1950s and 60s much scholarly research centred on the medieval staging of the English biblical cycles and other plays. Many thought that it would be impossible to stage a full play, for two main reasons: first, because the logistics and resources needed to mount a drama taking 12 hours or more were beyond the capabilities of such groups as might wish to perform a medieval play; and, second, because it was thought in any case that audiences would not watch such a long spectacle. Some academics had more faith in the entertainment-value of medieval drama, however, and in 1969 - by which time the blasphemy laws had been repealed - the researches of Richard Southern and Neville Denny at Bristol University came together in a full performance of the late 14th-century Cornish cycle in one of the surviving playing-places, Pirran Round. Here, for the first time since the sixteenth century, a biblical cycle drama was played, out of doors and in full, to a paying audience. This performance taught scholars many things: but perhaps most importantly it confirmed the power of the late medieval drama to attract and hold an audience over a long period of time.

Some knotty problems remained unsolved, however. Most importantly, it was necessary to marshal and dispose the resources needed for the urban dramas of the west midlands and the north of England, which had been played not in the round but

processionally. Performance of the surviving cycles from York and Chester would have to tackle this very daunting problem. Fixed-stage performance demands a single cast performing the whole drama once only, although the play may be divided up across

several days' activity: while this is a large undertaking, its organisation is not radically different from that of other dramas. But processional performance is quite different: here the drama is split up into small episodes, each with its own cast, so that a role occurring in more than one episode may be played by several different actors through the cycle; each episode is mounted on a waggon that moves through the city streets; and the waggon stops at a number of stations, the episode in question being performed at each. Thus every episode is performed several times, in different places, to different small audiences. This poses huge organisational problems for the modern producer: the provision of waggons, the logistics and practicalities of moving a series of waggons from one place to another, and the problems of co-ordinating many independent drama groups.

These perceived problems were actually of unknown magnitude because they had not been faced in practice: processional presentation leads to multiple simultaneous performances, which in theory seems vulnerable to accidental circumstances. For example, while play I is performing at station 3, play II may be performing at station 2 and play III at station 1: but as the three plays are of different lengths the actual situation will certainly be more complex than that. At York, where the

whole performance was apparently concluded within a day - starting at 4.30 a.m. and finishing around midnight - a total of 47 pageants played at a number of stations, usually around 12 but known to have been as many as 16 in some years. Room for confusion here, it was thought. And considering the time taken to move a waggon from one place to another, was it possible to play every pageant at each station? - and would the actors' voices hold out? Alan Nelson put forward the view that it was quite impossible, and many other scholars agreed with him. Perhaps the waggons were just shown as tableaux at most stations, with a single performance, perhaps indoors, for the city dignitaries? Or maybe each waggon played only a small number of the available stations, so that the audience at each station saw a selection of plays and the rest of the waggons as tableaux? Perhaps only a small number of pageants were played each year anyway, so that it took several years for the whole cycle to be performed? These, though they no doubt contain useful grains of truth, were thought by some of us to avoid the problems rather than solving them. The fact was that, both at York and at Chester, there was a huge body of documentary material that seemed to show unequivocally that - whatever the detail about numbers of plays and stations in any one year - the basic understandings were correct: the waggons did indeed take the cycle around the city streets playing each pageant at each station in use.

The processional problem might well have been shelved, with medieval drama specialists concentrating on those cycles and other plays known to have been performed in the round. But at this point a recent graduate of the Centre for Medieval Studies, Jane Oakshott, proposed a University performance of the York cycle, on waggons, to prove that waggon staging worked. Her proposal was to mount the performance in the University precinct, with various University departments and local drama and church groups performing the individual episodes. This, she suggested, would be very much in the spirit of the Centenary Celebrations, celbrating research and making the University more accessible to the general public. Faced with initial scepticism, she persuaded a group of colleagues in the Medieval Centre that it could be done, and the Centre set about persuading the University's Centenary Committee. The University eventually took it on board and the performance became the final event of the University's year-long centenary celebrations.

In the event, 36 pageants were played by 21 departments and other units of the University (two of them collaborating on one play) and 16 other local groups. Some attempt was made to match the University departments concerned with the plays that

they performed, as in medieval York: the Bakers, for instance, had originally played the Last Supper and the Vintners the Marriage at Cana, for which they had presumably provided the bread and the wine, respectively. At Leeds, the Department of Metallurgy made the crowns for their play of the Three Kings (originally played by the Goldsmiths), while the Department of Civil Engineering were entrusted with the tricky business of crucifying an actor safely.

17 May was a dull but mainly dry day: the University precinct looked its best, with the cherry blossom in full bloom outside University House. The waggons started from a preparation area in Cromer Terrace, from where they moved to the first station outside the Man-Made Fibres Building, the second just through the Beech Grove gateway, and a third further round the corner next to the grass outside Beech Grove House. These stations were rather close together, and speech and music from one

could be heard at the others: but the situation was manageable and probably the separation was no less than in some adjacent stations in York. Because the precinct has such wide areas, quite unlike the York streets, and in order to create a holiday atmosphere, Oakshott had had the pageant route outside the Union building lined with fair-stalls at which food and various types of souvenir were sold. Some stalls were hardly respectable (one could buy papal indulgences rather cheaply, and a group of

metallurgists sold lead charms guaranteed to turn into gold) while others sold rather unmedieval goods (the balloons on sale were certainly not made of pigs' bladders), but the fair was a great success. It was, in fact, very necessary to provide food and cups of tea on site, for the University had its largest ever influx of visitors. The collaboration of town and gown on this occasion was symbolised by a visit from the Lord Mayor, who watched some of the plays with the Vice-Chancellor.

The second day, 18 May, was bright and sunny, which encouraged the holiday atmosphere. One effect that one could learn only by mounting the plays was the sight of the Last Judgement, on its spectacular two-tiered waggon, performed with brilliant evening sunshine reflecting off the gold faces of God and the angels. In place of the Te Deum or other Latin hymn of praise that concluded the York cycle in the 15th and 16th centuries, the entire audience sang the hymn Ye watchers and ye holy ones in procession, with lighted candles and brass accompaniment - a fitting conclusion to an extraordinarily moving event.

The York cycle at Leeds taught scholars a great deal about the processional performance of biblical plays, and the success of the event paved the way for other such performances. Two years later, in 1977, the Medieval Centre at Toronto University played the whole cycle on newly-built waggons. The next step was to return a cycle to its city centre context, and the chance for this came in 1980 when Wakefield agreed to let the Towneley cycle (then thought to have originated in Wakefield) to be performed in the precinct by the Cathedral. For this Oakshott used University and local groups, as before. On this occasion waggons were not allowed, however, for security reasons: each cast processed to play on fixed stages at three stations. We can now be fairly sure that Wakefield was not the home of this cycle, so that the reason for playing the Towneley cycle there is no longer valid. It was useful, just the same, to start removing the plays from the exclusive orbit of the academic world: the late medieval drama is essentially community drama, and the community as a whole was unable to take a full part in what was widely seen as an academic research project. The Towneley plays at Wakefield began the process of letting the community take responsibility for the production.

In Wakefield the Leeds Medieval Centre played the Pharaoh play, which they had already performed at a medieval drama conference in Alencon in 1977. This play is now in the scholarly literature, with Peter Meredith and Richard Rastall (Pharaoh and Moses, respectively) noted as a good example of academics engaging in practical research. American scholars still sometimes ask how Moses' wand was made to turn into a snake and back again: the medieval technique put into action by Meredith was a highlight of the performance.

The University again mounted a cycle in 1983, once more under Oakshott's direction, when the complete Chester cycle was performed as part of a Renaissance Festival. Once again waggons were used for performances at three stations in the University precinct, but this time bad weather drove a few of the plays indoors. The great majority, however, were played in the open, as before. This time, three particular innovations were put into practice. First, Meg Twycross produced designs for a complete set of costumes - more than 400 in all - to dress the production in a manner appropriate to the year 1554. This was the ideal solution to the problems of authenticity, of chronological consistency, and of appropriate colours and materials for the characters played. The magnificent set of costumes that resulted is now deposited with the Workshop Theatre. Second, we tried the end-on disposition for some waggons. There has been considerable controversy about whether the waggons should be used side-on (i.e. with the long side of the waggon facing the audience) or end-on (with the waggon playing towards the direction of motion, and audience on three sides). This controversy is still alive.

Third, we at last returned some medieval plays, for the first time since the sixteenth century, to their original playing-place. Following the Leeds performance eight plays and their waggons were transported to Chester for performances at the High Cross (the original second station of four) and Eastgate. Although the facades of the Rows have been modified in the intervening centuries, and St Peter's Church has lost the Pentice formerly on its south side, the acoustic and spatial conditions in which we performed were probably similar to those obtaining in the late sixteenth century. The performance showed the station at the High Cross to have been a very suitable space for dramatic performance: audience sight-lines proved to be good, and the acoustic was advantageous to both singing and speaking voices, which were supported by ample feed-back from the buildings.

The next target is to perform a complete cycle at one or more of the original stations. Given the survival of so much of the medieval facades at York, it seems that York rather than Chester may be the place to do this. In 1988, and again in 1992, a group of academics from different institutions, including Bretton Hall, played a small number of pageants, on waggons, in Stonegate and at the Minster Gates in York. These were dramatically successful, with large audiences showing how a medieval audience might have behaved in the confined spaces involved; they tested the streets acoustically, again with great success; and they confirmed our 1975 findings about how a closely-packed audience can become the stage crowd for scenes such as the Crucifixion. In other ways, however, these performances set the process back a considerable way. The police and city management had not realised the full security implications of attracting a large audience to watch plays in a confined space, and local shop-keepers saw the crowds as a danger to their property that prevented potential customers from entering their shops. After these performances it seemed likely that the plays would be banned from the streets of York.

At this point Oakshott, who saw the performance of a complete cycle in the streets as the dramatic objective for early in the new century, began negotiations with the city management, the police, the guilds, the York Early Music Festival and the Friends of York Festival. As a result, nine plays were performed processionally in York on 10 July 1994, under the auspices of the York Early Music Festival, with the active co-operation of the city authorities and supported by the Friends of York Festival. Most importantly, Oakshott returned the plays to the citizens of York by inviting participation only by local drama and church groups. The 'ownership' of the plays by the citizens had, after all, been the great strength of the now-discontinued performances in the grounds of St Mary's, as it had of the late-medieval productions.

The plays were performed on waggons at five stations. The sponsorship of the York Early Music Festival led to an agreement that music should be a special part of the performance, so plays were chosen in which music was an important feature. More radically, a large proportion of the budget was set aside for music. Four members of the Tallis Singers performed the written polyphony in the Assumption play, and professional singers were used for four other plays, with well-rehearsed cast-members singing in two more; minstrels accompanied every play in procession and performed at each station.

The performance was dramatically and academically successful: but, more importantly, Oakshott had gained the confidence of the police and city management. Not every objective had been won: by mounting the plays on a Sunday she removed the main concerns of local shop-keepers, but playing in the confined spaces of Stonegate and other original playing-places was still not permitted. But as the preparations progressed and the authorities realised the seriousness of Oakshott's intention not to cause problems, they gradually relaxed some of the constraints initially placed on the performance. This, added to their willing co-operation throughout, enabled the plays to go ahead with a minimum of friction. In the event, the authorities were delighted with the management of the plays and were very willing to think positively in terms of another performance in the future.

This took place in 1998, again under the auspices of the Early Music Festival. Oakshott now set in motion another stage of her plan for returning to the original production methods by bringing in the seven York guilds to mount the plays. Some of the guilds had been involved in a supporting role in 1994: now, Oakshott reminded them of the major role played by the guilds in medieval times and offered the city's guilds the chance to produce their own plays as before. Of all the medieval guilds only three - the Merchant Adventurers, the Merchant Taylors and the Butchers - could boast a continuous existence to the present, and they all took charge of the plays originally assigned to them: the Last Judgement, the Ascension and the Death of Christ, respectively. Several other guilds had ceased to exist but had then been revived in the 20th century, and four of these took responsibility for plays: the Guild of Building, which took the Plasterers' play of the Creation of the World; the Guild of Freemen, with the Smiths' play of the Temptation of Christ; the Cordwainers, with their own play of the Agony and Betrayal; and the Scriveners, who presented their own play of Doubting Thomas. Finally, four drama groups from the local communities presented plays to make a total of eleven, played at the five stations used in 1994.

The guilds were free to perform a play themselves, to be active in collaborating with a local group to perform it for them, or simply to provide financial and other aid for a performance by a local group. One guild employed a professional director for their play, which was performed by York's oldest amateur drama group, and three others chose to support a performance by a local group. In all cases the guilds set aside a budget to support their play, with someone deputed to liaise with the group concerned if they were not performing the play themselves. In effect, this was not so far away from the kind of involvement found in the 16th century, and all the guilds concerned found that they had, and were proud of, a sense of ownership of their plays and the preparation and performance of them.

The York plays of 1998 were not blessed with good weather: in fact, it poured with rain several times. The power of medieval biblical drama was however clearly demonstrated, for the great majority of the audience simply stood fast through even

the worst of the rain and continued to watch the plays. Productions along medieval lines do seem to show that glitz, big-name actors and tens of thousands of pounds spent on high-tech lighting effects are not the most efficient way to present large-scale biblical drama, despite several attempts to do just this in recent years. No 'modern' production could have the effect that I witnessed in Wakefield in 1980, when a harrassed mother walked out of Marks and Spencers with her shopping, evidently having no idea that the plays were on, and was confronted by a man being crucified a few yards away. The look of open-mouthed shock on her face was something that I shall never forget. When she recovered, she put her bags down on the ground and she and her children watched the rest of the play with concentrated attention. Medieval drama does that to you.

With the first processional waggon performance in modern times, this University started something in 1975 that is still a dramatic, spiritual and social force to be reckoned with. Large-scale outdoor performances elsewhere have added to our knowledge and understanding of these dramas meanwhile: among other productions, the Medieval Centre at Toronto has mounted The Castle of Perseverance - a four-hour play from the fifteenth century - as well as another full performance of the York Cycle, while a group at Durham University has staged the fifteenth-century Mary Magdalen out of doors in the round. Another waggon performance is planned for York in 2002, with the guilds again taking a major role in the production. Oakshott thinks that about every four years is right for such a venture, and in intervening years other types of staging take place: 2000 is being celebrated with a lavish production of plays in the Minster.

Twenty-five years on, this 'first' is still worth remembering, for today's productions in York and elsewhere are partly a monument to the University's foresight in supporting Oakshott's enthusiasm and ability to motivate large numbers of people. It is interesting to remind ourselves how small an investment the University actually made for these artistic returns. In cash terms, the University offered 300, which even in 1975 was not much; indirect support included the use of a room, a telephone and the necessary postal facilities, while individual departments and services used their own resources and facilities in the venture. All this aid was gratefully received, and it allowed the project to go ahead. Such investments cannot always be justified in financial terms, although most Arts academics would justify them in quite other ways. Since the RAEs started, of course, even a financial justification is much easier than it was: and the Centre for Medieval Studies can point to publications, as well as productions, as evidence of research activity in drama over the last 25 years.


1 For this history see Glynne Wickham, The Medieval Theatre (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1974), 221-6; John R. Elliott Jr., Playing God: Medieval Mysteries on the Modern Stage (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989), passim; and John Marshall, 'Modern productions of medieval English plays' in Richard Beadle, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 290-311.

2 See Neville Denny, 'Arena Staging and Dramatic Quality in the Cornish Passion Play' in Neville Denny, ed., Medieval Drama (London: Edward Arnold, 1973), 125-54; and Richard Southern, The Medieval Theatre in the Round (London: Faber, 1957;


3 Alan Nelson, The Medieval English Stage (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1974).

4 The centenary of the University had actually fallen in 1974. The production was overseen by a committee chaired by Lynette Muir and including, among others, Peter Meredith and Jane Oakshott. For details of the organisation and the event itself, see Jane Oakshott and Richard Rastall, 'Town with Gown: an Account of the York Cycle of Mystery Plays at Leeds, 1975' in David C.B. Teather, ed., Toward the Community University (London: Kogan Page, 1982), 213-29.

5 See Oakshott and Rastall, op. cit., 217-19.

6 In particular, the theoretical timetable developed by Margaret Rogerson (nee Dorrell), a recent PhD graduate of the University, was shown to be basically correct: we confirmed Rogerson's contention that only a very short time was needed to set up a waggon at any station and to make it ready for removal at the end of the play.

7 The complete cycle was played in 1980, except for the First Shepherds' Play, which is an alternative to the more famous Second Shepherds' Play. This production was part of the Wakefield Festival.

8 Again, the production was overseen by a University committee.

9 This is appropriate, since many of the most spectacular costumes were made by Kitty Burrows, who supervised the entire costuming operation. The simpler costumes were mainly produced by the groups themselves. Many of Twycross's designs are in a

colouring-book published for sale at the time; four were printed in colour as University postcards.

10 Traffic problems prevented performance at the other original stations, outside the Abbey gates, in Watergate Street and in Bridge Street.

11 The Poppleton Players eventually decided to play The Way to Calvary entirely on foot, without a waggon. The first station was in fact in Dean's Park, the other four being in King's Square, York Market, St Sampson's Square and Parliament Street.

12 I have in mind particularly Tony Richardson's commercial indoor production The Mysteries, which was very successful in the 1980s. Most recently, a puppet film of the biblical story has been hailed as ground-breaking in its ability to draw the general public.

13 The following are among publications deriving from collaborative research activity in the Centre for Medieval Studies: Peter Meredith and John E. Tailby, eds., The Staging of Religious Drama in Europe in the Later Middle Ages (Kalamzoo MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1983); Oakshott and Rastall, as in n. 4; David Mills, ed., Staging the Chester Cycle (Leeds: University of Leeds School of English, 1985), with essays by Meredith, Rastall and others; Lynette R. Muir, The Biblical Drama of Medieval Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); and Richard Rastall, The Heaven Singing: Music in Early English Religious Drama (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1996, 2000).