In the beginning: the creation of a new mystery plays tradition

York Mystery Plays

Jane Oakshott MBE: keynote speaker at the 2015 York Mystery Plays conference

With the 1st August fast approaching, it’s time to start giving you a taste of what we have in store for you at our 2015 conference; Performance in the Changing City: Taking the Plays to the Next Generation. So, to start us all off, and get us excited, Jane Oakshott MBE has written a short piece about how the York Mystery Plays, as we know them today, came to be.

Scene: autumn 1992, a Scottish Dance in Leeds,

         During a pause for breath

Louise:     So, what’s your day job?

Jane:         Three children — and theatre research. Medieval.

                   A Jig and two reels later…

Louise:     I’m one of the Friends of York Festival. You know, Mystery Plays.

Jane:         Ah!! (no breath for speech)

                   Two more reels further on…

Louise:     Would you give a talk for the Festival Friends’ Committee?

Jane:         Love to!

So I did.

1992, eh. That was the annus horribilis for the Mystery Plays. The 40 year-old Museum Gardens tradition came acrimoniously to grief, in unfortunate circumstances; and the Theatre Royal stepped into the breach at short notice. After that, battle raged — in drama circles anyway — between indoor and outdoor production. “Or perhaps,” some said, “was it time to call a halt to Mystery Play production altogether?”

Strong feelings erupted over the 400-year-old plays, and knives were out.

Amazing, wouldn’t you say, in a secular age! — amazing, and perversely exciting, inspiring, that such fury could be generated over 30,000 lines of medieval verse — 48 playlets that tell the Christian history of Mankind from Creation to Doomsday. What some were seeing as cold meat suddenly became a very hot potato.

At that time, the Friends of York Festival, like most Friends’ organisations, had a vital but backseat role — fundraising and biscuits. But all that was about to change.

In my 40 minute talk I told them about the wonderful Mystery Play productions in medieval York — how there was no space big enough in the marshy city for a large audience to congregate…..

…how the Council got round that by giving each Guild responsibility for a different episode of the story. The Guilds “brought forth” their short plays on pageant wagons, moving in procession round the streets to small audiences at different watching places — “stations”.

…they used simple devices — pulleys, cams, masks, and misdirection — to produce highly theatrical effects.

…of course, all 48 plays were never all done in any one year. Each year the Council sent round “billets” to the lucky Guilds chosen to play, with an instruction to get its wagon out of storage, make any script changes, spruce up their props, get a cast together, and buy in the pageant ale.

A good place to end my talk and accept a cup of modern tea. The Friends Committee buzzed with questions. The final exchange was brief and to the point.

EW   “How would we, The Friends of York Festival, set about doing a proper, medieval production? On wagons!”

JO   “You’d invite someone like me to come and direct it”.

And it was me they invited.

The resulting production of the Plays in 1994 was groundbreaking — the first complete version of the Cycle since 1567 to parade its wagons through the streets of York. The Friends of York Festival — led by Chairman Edna Ward, Treasurer Ursula Groom, and Louise Kegan, my Scottish Dance colleague — were responsible for saving the Plays from dissension and possible disappearance from York.   In this they were given vital help by the York Early Music Festival, and — most significant of all — by the Guilds of York.

More of the Guilds anon.

That’s where the future begins!

 by Jane Oakshott MBE