Press Cuttings : Rita Freedman: History of York's Mystery Plays
1984 and 2015
A two page typescript about the History of the Plays, by Rita Freedman, City of York Archivist, in 1984. It is stored with Press material from that year. See below for a 2015 photo of Rita Freedman holding a 1433 inventory of the Merchant Adventurers material for their pageant.
"The York Mystery Plays
The York Festival has a particular asset exclusive to the city of York, but with more than a local fascination - the York Cycle of Mystery Plays. This epic of medieval drama relating the Bible from the Creation to the Last Judgement is performed in the open air, in the magnificent setting of the ruins of St Mary's Abbey, where the audience sits for some three hours in the evening with the sun going down and the sky darkening appropriately for the scenes leading to the Crucifixion. The actors today, as originally, are mainly local amateurs and since the revival of the Plays in 1951 new generations of families participating have been introduced to the event. It has been customary to use a professional actor to portray Christ. As much of the medieval text in verse as possible has been preserved, although the cycle is very much pruned from the fifty or so existing plays. The original audiences watched the plays for entertainment as well as for religious edification, and humour is to be found in the texts. Noah has a sharp-tongued wife who refuses to go into the Ark and gives Noah a clout and a piece of her mind when forced to board it.
The plays were performed on Corpus Christi day, which was moveable and fell between the third week in May to the same in June. The word 'Mystery' comes from 'mistery', a trade or craft. Each craft guild was responsible for the staging of its own play or pageant (called pagina in the city's Latin records) closely supervised by the Mayor and Council. The origins of the plays are unrecorded. They are noted as being ancient in 1394. Theories have been put forward to explain their development into the greatest Cycle, lasting all day, and how they were allocated to each guild, but firm evidence is lacking. Some plays are performed by appropriate guilds, eg the Shipwrights perform Noah's Ark, and the Goldsmiths the Three Kings. There are four known Cycles in England but most evidence for their performance comes from York.
The original performances took place not on a fixed stage but on pageant wagons, curtained on three sides and bearing scenery. The only description of the scenery and the props comes from two surviving inventories of the Merchants' Guild, held by York Merchant Adventurers. This was the wealthiest guild and their play of the Last Judgement brought the cycle to a triumphant close. The wagons were pushed by men through the streets of York, stopping at about twelve 'stations' to give a performance. The City Council rented out these stations by allocating the stopping places to people prepared to pay for the privilege. Indeed so successful was this that in 1417 the Council ordered that those people who had erected stands outside their properties for the audience to sit on to watch the plays must hand over one third of the profits to the City.
The annual performance of the plays continued until 1569. Both visitations of the plague and the religious troubles of the sixteenth century led to a cautious approach on the part of the City authorities, who were aware of the imminence of the Archbishop. From 1548 the plays concerning the Virgin Mary were dropped and the relevant guilds had to contribute their pageant money to be put towards other performances, where needed. It is interesting to note that even as late as 1580, eleven years after the last performances of the plays, the York commons sent a petition to the new Mayor asking for their reinstatement.
In 1951 the City revived thirty of the plays in the York Festival, as a contribution to the Festival of Britain, the festival that showed the world that the country had risen from the ashes of war. For the next three decades they were performed every three or four years as part of what became York's own Festival, now  only second in status to Edinburgh's.
Being still essentially medieval in layout and character, York is the ideal place to appreciate this dramatic heritage.
The Mystery Play performances for the 1984 York Festival commence on 8 June and finish on 1 July. Between these dates there are nightly performances (except Mondays) and matinees on Sundays. There are also a few separate performances of individual plays staged on a wagon in the streets, in the traditional way, so that it is still possible to stand shoulder to shoulder in a crowd watching the actors and trying to recapture something of the original atmosphere of a past age. Further details are available from York Festival Office, 1 Museum Street, York. Telephone: York (0904) 26421.
Archives Department" Below is a cutting from March 2015 in the Merchant Adventurers' Hall, where Ms Freedman is Honorary Archivist.