The mystery plays and morality plays of the 15th and 16th centuries were very different from modern drama. They were performed in public spaces by ordinary people, and organised and funded by guilds of craftsmen and merchants. Hetta Howes takes us back in time to show how these plays portrayed scenes from the Bible, conveyed religious doctrine and encouraged their audiences to lead Christian lives.

The words ‘theatre’ and ‘drama’ conjure a specific set of ideas, writers and images for us today. Shakespeare may well be the first name to spring to mind – followed perhaps by Ibsen or Chekhov. Then, most likely, comes the image of a fixed stage, a darkened room and a reverent hush as the lights go down and the curtains go up. What kind of stories do we expect to be performed for us? Tragedy, often, as well as romance, explorations of the meaning of humanity, or, at the other end of the spectrum, slapstick comedy. Theatre may be rich in variety, but it nonetheless comes with its own set of associations and expectations attached.

While modern theatre undoubtedly finds many of its origins in medieval drama, the mystery plays, pageants and morality plays of the 15th and 16th centuries are actually a very different animal, with quite a different set of associations. Imagine not a fixed stage and a darkened room, but mobile theatre out on the streets. Some people are watching carefully, but others are chatting with their friends, or buying food and merchandise from nearby vendors – keeping only one eye on the stage. Instead of the latest big name from an HBO series, you may well recognise a number of the actors from your own daily life. And instead of a focus on the individual and human relationships, you’re treated to scenes from the Bible, about Christianity and the history of salvation. Medieval drama took many forms, but the most spectacular of all was the religious drama of towns such as York, Chester, Coventry and Wakefield, known as the ‘mystery plays.’

York Mystery Plays

Text from the York Plays manuscript
Manuscript of the York Plays, one of the four complete surviving medieval play cycles. The plays were performed together in a sequence to form a narrative that begins with the story of Adam and Eve and ends with the Last Judgement.

The mystery plays

The mystery plays are sequences of performances, sometimes referred to as ‘cycle plays’ because they make up a cycle of 48 surviving short playlets. Throughout the 15th and into the 16th century, around 300 years before the building of the London playhouses, these cycles were the most popular and enduring form of theatre in Britain, performed annually in the biggest towns and cities of the country. They are most commonly known as the ‘mystery plays’ for two reasons. Firstly, they took the mysteries of God as their primary theme. They aimed to show, in the course of a day, the whole history of the universe from the creation of Heaven and Earth to the Last Judgement – the end of the world, when everyone on earth will be judged by God and divided between Heaven and Hell, salvation and damnation. Secondly, these plays were organised, funded and produced by guilds, which were also called ‘mysteries’ in the Middle Ages. Guilds were associations of craftsmen or merchants, who were in charge of regulating and teaching their trade; they were often wealthy and wielded considerable power.

Holkham Bible Picture Book

Illustration of God surrounded by beasts, birds, water and plants, from the Holkham Bible Picture Book
God’s creation of living creatures: a scene from the Book of Genesis found in the richly illustrated Holkham Bible.
The mystery plays gave guilds the opportunity to advertise and show off their wares. A play about Noah’s Ark and the Flood would be sponsored by the Shipbuilders, who provided the ark itself, and the Goldsmiths would be in charge of the play of the Magi, donating lavish gifts as props. According to a surviving public proclamation from York, the guilds were also in charge of sourcing ‘good players, well arranged, and openly speaking’. Significantly, these players weren’t usually professionals. They were ordinary people with a taste for drama – so you might well see your friend, neighbour or local butcher in the cast, as Herod, Noah or even Jesus.

Holkham Bible Picture Book

Illustration of Noah in the ark and holding two birds, from the Holkham Bible Picture Book. Flood waters rise below, where there are drowned animals and people
Noah’s Ark and the Flood: a scene found in the Holkham Bible.

Another detail which sets these plays apart from modern drama is their mobility. The plays were usually performed on separate pageant wagons, with wheels, so that they could be moved. The wagons would proceed, one after another, and the players would perform on them at various fixed stations around the town or city. The audience could pay a bit more to have a seat at these various stations, or they could stand – and this gave them more autonomy over their experience. They could either stay at one station and watch every play, or dip in and out, wandering between the different stations – something more akin to the immersive theatre which has found such popularity in recent years, than a West End show or a play at the National. The players performed their historical stories in up-to-date settings, making references to local landmarks, disputes and characters in order to root the action not only in the contemporary moment, but in their particular location. In this way, the players drew their audience into the playworld, making the mysteries of God and the history of Christianity feel more present and accessible.

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