York Mystery Plays

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Staging the 1951 Play

In 1951 SPCK published an edition by J S Purvis: The York Cycle of Mystery Plays: A shorter version of the Ancient Cycle. The book contains Plays I, III, IV, XII, XIII, XIV, XV, XVII, XVIII, XXI, XXII, XXIV, XXV, XXVI, XXVIII, XXIX, XXX, XXXII, XXXIII, XXXIV, XXXV, XXXVI, XXXVII, XXXVIII, XXXIX, XLII, XLIII, XLVIII.  The book has a 12 page preface by Canon Purvis about the Plays and a two page note by E Martin Browne about the staging, reproduced here.  

A note on the production at York, 1951  
The York Mystery Plays were originally acted on a series of two-decker waggons called Pageants.  Each craft-gild owned and decorated its own Pageant to suit its play.  They were housed around Pageant Green where is now the railway station.  (It is pleasant, as one emerges from the station today, to imagine some of these gay carts standing against the ancient city wall, which is still there.)  On the great day each Pageant in turn trundled round the city to twelve "stations " at each of which the members of the guild (sic) performed their one-act play.  Thus a hardy spectator could stand at one of these street corners and see the whole cycle of forty-eight plays between 4.30am and dusk! 

A modern production cannot use this intimate and leisurely method.  It must allow a much larger audience to witness each performance, and it must compress the cycle into an evening.  The first need has been met by combining the English with the continental system of medieval stagecraft.  At Valenciennes, for instance, all the scenes were given on one large "multiple stage".  The various "mansions" (Heaven, Hell, the Stable, the Houses of Pilate, Caiaphas, Herod and the rest) were arranged in a row, with an open space in front which was unlocalised and common ground to all characters.  At York in the Festival production this background is provided by the ruined north wall of the nave of St Mary's Abbey Church.  "Heaven" is in the windowframes of the clerestory above.  A hill in the corner between north and west walls [of the church] represents the Garden of Eden and afterwards Gethsemane.  The Sepulchre is in a doorway in the wall.  But there are moveable stages too: Hell, for instance, is very like the original Pageant which the Saddlers' Gild must have used for the Harrowing of Hell.

To compress the cycle of forty-eight plays into three hours has meant quite a lot of cutting, but this has been done, with the utmost care, in such a way as to preserve the shape of the whole.  The great drama of man's history is shown in the same proportions as in the original script, with the Creation and Fall as its beginning, the Life of Christ as its climax, and the Last Judgement as denouement.  Much time is also saved by dovetailing the plays into one another, so that the story moves with amazing swiftness.  The big open stage allows of broad movement and sharp changes of focus.  The medieval producers loved sensational stage effects and these can be enlarged in modern production.

Costume is of the fourteenth century, when the plays were written.  It may seem strange for the first few minutes to see Biblical characters in doublet and hose.  But that is how the authors saw them.  The plays are full of touches that depend on medieval dress and behaviour for their authenticity.  To the first audiences this was "modern dress" and to a modern audience it will quickly seem natural for the plays.

Written for amateurs to act, these plays are not sophisticated and do not demand subtle acting.  Sometimes they are formal, at other times extremely realistic, but always they ask for a fine sense of rhythm in the speaking, strength in movement, and above all a direct and simple sincerity born of faith.

E Martin Browne, Director 1951