Literary significance

The York Mystery Cycle is cosmic in scope: it is set in heaven, earth and hell and in time past, present and future. lts blend of realism and the supernatural and its games with chronology anticipate modern cinematic techniques. The ‘plot’ concerns God’s plan to save the world He has created from the consequences of sin, and Satan’s attempts to thwart this plan. Within this general scheme of salvation the tension between good and evil is re-enacted by individual pageants and deepens as it approaches the supreme sacrifice of the Crucifixion and builds to a climax at the Last Judgement.

York Mystery Plays

The single manuscript of the York plays represents the only surviving text of a series of frequently performed plays that were probably often revised and updated throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It is probably the product of multiple authorship by anonymous clerics. These were highly literate men who composed stanzaic poetry of some complexity and great flexibility, perhaps designed for this type of pageant-waggon performance.

The 48 pageants use 20 different verse forms, matching their rhythms to the diverse moods and tones of a variety of dramatic action. This is, of course, a stylised form of discourse, but one that is equally adaptable to the eloquent grandeur of God’s speeches, the lyrical beauty of Christ’s lament from the Cross, the comedy of the simple shepherds and the brutal, fragmented speech of the torturers. Key words, such as ‘blys’ (bliss) ‘work’ help to bind together the disparate episodes. Originally combined with musical performance, the plays depicted an image of divine harmony conquering diabolical discord.

Communication with the audience was the playwrights’ priority, although their idealistic intention to ‘exhort the minds of the common people to good devotion’ was evidently sometimes undermined, since Brother William Melton complained in 1426 of ‘feastings, drunkenness…and other wantonness’ accompanying contemporary performances.

This was an accessible form of drama, designed to involve a community, and many of those involved in previous modern revived productions have testified to the power of the mystery plays in building a sense of corporate involvement. In the Middle Ages, most literature was aimed at an elite. Then, as indeed now, the medieval drama has a uniquely wide appeal.

– Karen Hodder, University of York

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