Mystery play

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Mystery plays and Miracle plays (which are two different things) are among the earliest formally developed plays in medieval Europe. Medieval mystery plays focused on the representation of Bible stories in churches as tableaux with accompanying antiphonal song. They developed from the 10th to the 16th century, reaching the height of their popularity in the 15th century before being rendered obsolete by the rise of professional theatre. The name derives from mystery used in its sense of miracle,[1] but an occasionally quoted derivation is from misterium, meaning craft, a play performed by the craft guilds.[2]

Contents

Origins

The plays originated as simple tropes, verbal embellishments of liturgical texts, and slowly became more elaborate. As these liturgical dramas increased in popularity, vernacular forms emerged, as travelling companies of actors and theatrical productions organized by local communities became more common in the later Middle Ages.

The Quem Quaeritis? is the best known early form of the dramas, a dramatised liturgical dialogue between the angel at the tomb of Christ and the women who are seeking his body. These primitive forms were later elaborated with dialogue and dramatic action. Eventually the dramas moved from church to the exterior - the churchyard and the public marketplace. These early performances were given in Latin, and were preceded by a vernacular prologue spoken by a herald who gave a synopsis of the events.

In 1210 the Pope forbade clergy to act in public, thus the organization of the dramas was taken over by town guilds, after which several changes followed. Vernacular texts replaced Latin, and non-Biblical passages were added along with comic scenes, for example in the Secunda Pastorum of the Wakefield Cycle. Acting and characterization became more elaborate.

These vernacular religious performances were, in some of the larger cities in England such as York, performed and produced by guilds, with each guild taking responsibility for a particular piece of scriptural history. From the guild control originated the term mystery play or mysteries, from the Latin misterium meaning "occupation" (i.e. that of the guilds). The genre was again banned, following the Reformation and the establishment of the Church of England in 1534.

The mystery play developed, in some places, into a series of plays dealing with all the major events in the Christian calendar, from the Creation to the Day of Judgment. By the end of the 15th century, the practice of acting these plays in cycles on festival days was established in several parts of Europe. Sometimes, each play was performed on a decorated cart called a pageant that moved about the city to allow different crowds to watch each play. The entire cycle could take up to twenty hours to perform and could be spread over a number of days. Taken as a whole, these are referred to as Corpus Christi cycles.

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