Mystery and Miracle Plays

Mystery Plays: Mystery Plays originated in the Middle Ages, during the twelfth century, from the lack of interest from the churchgoers in the typical church services and their ignorance of the Latin language. This problem prompted the elaboration of certain services. It began with subtle changes to the services for religious holidays such as Easter and Good Friday, which involved bringing down the cross for all to see; and expanded to the Christmas service with the scene of Christ’s birth in the manger. One of the first liturgical performances was Quem Quaeritis (“Whom Seek Ye”) in 925 Citation. As the theatricals became more popular they were moved out of the church to accommodate the growing audience. During the thirteenth century Mystery plays gained less support from religious figures due to their questionable religious values, they started to be performed in the vernacular and were starting to drift away from being performed in the church. Once this happened and the performances were free from the church the strong religious themes started to disappear. In 1210 A.D. there was a ban of Mystery Plays by Pope Innocent III, which caused the plays to began to be performed in small- town guilds, this act officially cut ties between the plays and the church and they were exclusively performed by town-guilds. With an ever-growing audience to please, the town-guilds found that a perfect opportunity to showcase their works with the introduction of the Corpus Christi festival, in 1311, which takes place 57 days after Easter. The performances were grouped together and consisted of plays such as Noah and the Flood, and The Creation of the World and the Fall of Adam. From these small groups came the four most prominent collections of mystery plays, the York cycle with 48 pageants, the Towneley plays with 32 pageants, the Chester cycle with 24 pageants, and the Wakefield own) plays with 42 pageants. The term “Mystery” did not come from cur term and the way it is used in the present day. It was derived from the Latin word ministerium, meaning an association of clergy from different religious groups. This was the term used to describe the guilds which performed these plays, which is why it was used to name to describe the actual plays being performed. By the time of the end of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the Reformation, in England, the Mystery plays started to die down and were replaced in popularity by Morality plays.

Mystery plays were dramatizations of both the Old and New Testament miracles. Another popular topic was Christ and his crucifixion and resurrection. In the beginning of the popularity of Mystery plays the parts in the performance were played by clergymen and other members of the church. During their peak, Mystery plays were moved out of the church and performed on wagons and moved about the different towns. Due to the separation from the church, the plays tended to have more of a sarcastic tone to them and sometimes even went as far as mocking priests and monks, the people who had a big part in the creation of the plays. Another change that came with the separation of the church was the switch from clergymen as performers to members of guilds and craftsmen. A huge aspect of Mystery plays was that they neglected to utilize the three unities; place, time, and action. Because of this the plays could represent any location or time and were not tied down by each story they were performing and could pose two time periods or locations together that are not cohesive. Also, they did not limit their performances, they used technologies, such as trap doors and mechanisms to create the illusion of flying, to get the most realistic effect and please the audience.

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One of the most widely known Mystery plays is The Second Shepherd’s Play, which puts three shepherds at the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. It emphasizes everyday life during the middle ages and juxtaposes the shepherd’s story with that of Christ’s, setting the secular and religious world side by side.

Miracle plays: Miracle play, also called Saint’s Play, is one of three principal kinds of the vernacular drama of the European Middle Ages (along with the mystery play and the morality play). A miracle play presents a real or fictitious account of the life, miracles, or martyrdom of a saint. The genre evolved from liturgical offices developed during the 10th and 11th centuries to enhance calendar festivals. By the 13th century, they had become vernacularized and filled with unecclesiastical elements. They had been divorced from church services and were performed at public festivals. Almost all surviving miracle plays concern either the Virgin Mary or St. Nicholas, the 4th-century bishop of Myra in Asia Minor. Both Mary and Nicholas had active cults during the Middle Ages, and belief in the healing powers of saintly relics was widespread. In this climate, miracle plays flourished.

The Mary plays consistently involve her in the role of deus ex machina, coming to the aid of all who invoke her, be they worthy or wanton. She saves, for example, a priest who has sold his soul to the devil, a woman falsely accused of murdering her own child, and a pregnant abbess. Typical of these is a play called St. John the Hairy. At the outset, the title character seduces and murders a princess. Upon capture, he is proclaimed a saint by an infant. He confesses his crime, whereupon God and Mary appear and aid John in reviving the princess, which done, the murderer saint is made a bishop.

The Nicholas plays are similar, an example being Jean Bodel’s Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas (c. 1200), which details the deliverance of a crusader and the conversion of a Saracen king. Few English miracle plays are extant, because they were banned by Henry VIII in the mid-16th century and most were subsequently destroyed or lost.



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