Mystery Plays and Morality Plays


I. The nature and content of the mystery plays:

1. Definition of the term “mystery”: the spiritual mystery of Christ’s redemption of humankind.

2. The content of the mystery plays: dramatizations of the Biblical stories from the Creation through major Biblical events in the Old to the life of Christ.

(1) Old Testament: foretelling the Redemption.

(2) New Testament: realizing the prophecy and recounting the redemption.

II. Controversy over the origin of mystery plays:

1. From dramatization of liturgical rituals in the Church, esp. those on Easter morning.

2. From a tradition of vernacular religious drama.

III. The production and stagecraft of mystery plays:

1. Composed as cycles: four of which have survived complete—Chester, York, Wakefield, Coventry.
2. Produced in large towns by trade guilds, which were powerful in governance of the town.

3. Performed on Whitsuntide or Corpus Christi: summertime.

4. Performed on wagons as stages, which moved from one strategic point to another in a town several times in the day.
5. Originally acted out by guild members, gradually replaced by professional companies.

6. Plays usually written by clerics: providing entertainment and religious instruction.

7. Elements of boisterous comedy as well as social criticism often involved.

8. Constantly under revision.

IV. Importance of the mystery plays:

1. Paving the way for the professional theatre of the Elizabethan age: still performed in the late 16th century:

V. Discussion of the Wakefield Second Shepherds’ Play:

1. The Wakefield Master: probably a highly educated cleric, good at combining comedy and religion.
2. Deliberate Anachronism: Yorkshire shepherds passing for those near Bethlehem.

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