Reporter 452, 22 May 2000

The show goes on - after an interval that lasted four centuries

Plans now being drawn up for an authentic open-air performance in York of the local cycle of medieval mystery plays owe everything to an extraordinary experiment at the University, 25 years ago this month.

All aboard: the University Library’s own Brotherton Players enact the Noah’s Ark episode in a 1983 performance in The Rows, Chester

Fair stalls selling fake papal indulgences and lead charms ‘guaranteed’ to turn into gold were among the sideshows when the York cycle was staged aboard a number of highly-decorated wagons stationed on campus. The staging, a highlight of the University’s centenary celebrations, was a milestone in the revival of an English art form that had all but disappeared - proving that it could be recreated authentically.

A job for the experts: Civil Engineering students applied their technical skills to the crucifixion scene when the York Cycle was triumphantly staged on campus in 1975

For several centuries, blasphemy laws forbidding the portrayal of God on the stage effectively banned the public performance of plays like the York and Chester cycles, which marked the peak of the social calendar in the Middle Ages.

This left modern-day scholars in the dark as to the practicalities of how medieval trade guilds organised the staging of open-air dramas which might easily last for 12 hours - demanding a lot from the audience as well as the cast.

Jane Oakshott of the Centre for Medieval Studies took the initiative in organising the York cycle performance over two days in May 1975. It was no small undertaking: 36 separate pageants were enacted by 21 departments and other units of the University, supported by 16 other local groups.

Some attempt was made to match the University departments concerned with the plays that they performed, as with the guilds in medieval York: the Bakers, for instance, had originally played the Last Supper and the Vintners the Marriage at Cana, for which they 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 Civil Engineering was entrusted with the tricky business of ‘crucifying’ an actor safely.

The event not only brought the largest-ever influx of visitors onto campus, but also succeeded in answering some of the technical questions that had puzzled researchers. In northern England and parts of the Midlands, the mystery plays were traditionally performed in procession rather than in the round. Performance on a fixed stage demands a single cast performing the whole drama once only, although the play may be divided up across several days. But in processional performance, 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 wagon that moves through the city streets and stops at a number of stations. Thus every episode is performed several times, in different places, to different small audiences. Some scholars reckoned that the logistics would have been so complicated that it would have been impossible to play every pageant at every station. The campus experiment proved otherwise. The York cycle at Leeds was a technical and artistic triumph, paving the way for other processional performances.

Jane Oakshott again enlisted University and local groups to stage the Towneley cycle outside Wakefield Cathedral in 1980 and the complete Chester cycle, also performed in the University precinct, three years later. Eight plays and their wagons were then taken to Chester for performances at the High Cross and Eastgate - bringing the local play cycle ‘home’ for the first time since the sixteenth century.

Historical musicologist Richard Rastall (whose detailed account of the mystery plays at Leeds is available on the Reporter website) said these productions, and later ones on the streets of York, helped restore ‘ownership’ of the plays to the community. York’s guilds - the Merchant Adventurers, Merchant Taylors and Butchers, in continuous existence since the Middle Ages, and four others of more recent vintage - have been persuaded to take an active interest in the revival of the tradition, each one taking responsibility for a specific play.

"With the first processional wagon performance in modern times, this University started something in 1975 that is still a dramatic, spiritual and social force to be reckoned with," said Dr Rastall.

This summer’s York mystery plays will be indoors at the Minster. But in 2002, thanks to the lessons of the Leeds experiment, the city will once again see a wagon-based processional performance.

A detailed account from Richard Rastall is available: mysteryp.htm

Further information is available on the mystery plays on the following websites:
Richard Rastall's homepage
Centre for Medieval Studies -
relevant York websites:
York Doomsday project at
York Early Music Festival at

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