English Mystery Plays

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The English Mystery Play developed in the medieval period as a means for the Christian church to put over the stories of the bible to an almost entirely illiterate congregation. They began as playlets performed by monks, or the priest in the church. Then, as they became more established the local trade guilds began to sponsor performances of a particular story such as shipwrights sponsoring the story of Noah and the flood. Eventually the guilds took over the performance of these plays moving them out of the church and onto the streets as part of the great Corpus Christi celebrations. The Guilds described themselves as Mystery Guilds as they protected the mysteries of their craft and so the plays became known as “Mystery Plays.” Full cycles were written in several major cities in England and although in many cases only fragments of the play cycles exist, four full cycles have come down to us. These are from York, Chester, Wakefield and somewhere in the East Midlands which is often attributed to Coventry. The reformation put paid to the Mystery Plays and English theatre took off in a more secular direction propelled by the likes of "Kit" Marlow and Shakespeare. Mystery Cycles are still being written and performed. One of the best modern renditions is by Tony Harrison and well worth a read.

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