The York Mystery Plays, more properly called the York Corpus Christi Plays, are a Middle English cycle of forty-eight mystery plays, or pageants, which cover sacred history from the creation to the Last Judgement. These were traditionally presented on the feast day of Corpus Christi (a movable feast occurring the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, between May 23 and June 24). They were performed in the city of York, from the middle of the fourteenth century until 1569. It is one of only four virtually complete surviving English mystery play cycles, with the others known as the Chester Mystery Plays, the Towneley/Wakefield plays and N-Town plays. In addition to these, two long, composite, and late mystery pageants have survived from the Coventry cycle, and there are records and fragments from other similar productions which took place elsewhere. A manuscript of the York plays, probably dating from some time between 1463 and 1477, survives at the British Library.
There is no record of the first performance of the York Mystery Plays, but they are first recorded celebrating the festival of Corpus Christi, in York in 1376, by which time the use of pageant wagons has already been established. The plays were organised, financed (and often performed) by the York Craft Guilds ("Mystery" is a play on words, representing both a religious truth, or rite, and, in its Middle English meaning of a trade, or craft). The wagons would be paraded through the streets of York, stopping at each of 12 playing stations, designated by the City banners.
The cycle uses many different verse forms, but most have rhyme, a regular rhythm with fairly short lines, and frequent alliteration. The balance of critical opinion is in favour of the idea of several clerics being responsible for their authorship, one of whom is conventionally known as the "York Realist".
The cycle of plays comprise some 48 pageants, which were originally presented upon carts and wagons, dressed for the occasion. In some accounts, there are as many as 56 pageants. They told stories from both the Old and New Testaments, from the Creation to the Last Judgement.
The Plays continued after the Reformation, when in 1548 the feast of Corpus Christi was abolished in England. The plays accommodated themselves to the new religious orthodoxy, by cutting scenes honouring the Virgin, but were finally suppressed in 1569.
Traditionally, an individual guild would take responsibility for a particular play.
After their suppression in Tudor times the plays remained little known until Lucy Toulmin Smith obtained the permission of the Earl of Ashburnham to study the manuscript of the plays, then in his possession, and in 1885 to publish her transcription, together with an introduction and short glossary.
In 1909, The York Historic Pageant included a parade of the banners of the Guilds through the streets, accompanying a wagon representing the Nativity. In December of the same year a selection of six of the plays was performed as a fund-raising venture for St Olave's Church, York.The play cycle was revived on a much larger scale in 1951, in the York Festival of the Arts, as a part of the Festival of Britain celebrations. This was performed on a fixed stage in the ruins of St Mary's Abbey in Museum Gardens and directed by E. Martin Browne. The part of Jesus was played by Joseph O'Conor, with other roles taken by amateurs. In the interests of comprehensibility, the text was abbreviated and modernised by Canon J. S. Purvis. He later produced a modernisation of the complete text.
Following the great success of the 1951 production, which was the most widely applauded Festival of Britain event in the country, with over 26,000 people witnessing the plays, selections from the plays were staged in the same location at three-year intervals, lengthening to four-year intervals, until 1988. Usually there was a professional director and a professional actor to play Jesus, with the rest of the cast being local amateurs, though some of the latter, such as Judi Dench, later became professionals. Directors included E. Martin Browne again (1954, 1957, 1966), David Giles (1960), William Gaskill (1963), Edward Taylor (1969, 1973), Jane Howell (1976), Patrick Garland (1980), Toby Robertson (1984) and Steven Pimlott (1988). The role of Jesus was played a second time by Joseph O'Conor (1954), then by Brian Spink (1957), Tom Criddle, (1960), Alan Dobie (1963), John Westbrook (1966), John Stuart Anderson (1973), David Bradley (1976), Christopher Timothy (1980), Simon Ward (1984) and Victor Banerjee (1988).
In 1992 the production was moved to the Theatre Royal, with Robson Green playing Christ. The 1996 production, in the same place, was all-amateur, with a script adapted by Liz Lochhead. For 2000, the interest of the Dean of York, Raymond Furnell, led to the most ambitous production ever.
In 2000 a large-scale performance of the plays was staged in York Minster, known as The York Millennium Mystery Plays. Directed by Gregory Doran, and with Ray Stevenson in the role of Christ, the production was the most expensive and wide-reaching project in the history of the plays' modern revival. The first half began in Heaven with the story of the fall of Lucifer, followed by the creation of the world, the fall of Adam and Eve, Noah's Ark (with impressive and memorable representations of the animals and the flood) and the story of Abraham and Isaac. From the New Testament there came the annunciation and nativity of Jesus, the massacre of the innocents, Christ's childhood, baptism, temptation and ministry, and his entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The second half concentrated on the capture and trial of Christ, and his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. The production ended with the Last Judgement.
The production ran for a month, with a total audience of 28,000. Aside from the professional director and actor, Ray Stevenson, the cast was made up of amateurs, mainly from the York area. Over fifty children also took part in the play. Original music was written for the production by local composer, Richard Shepherd.
In 1994 the Leeds-based historian Jane Oakshott worked alongside the Friends of York Mystery Plays, the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of York and the York Early Music Festival to direct in York the first processional performance of the plays in modern times. This production involved nine amateur drama groups each taking one of the plays, and touring it to five playing stations in the city using pageant waggons.
A production in a similar format in 1998 featured eleven of the plays, and for the first time the modern York Guilds were involved for some of the plays, either directly or as sponsors of performances.
For the 2002 production overall management shifted to a committee of the Guilds of York, namely the The York Guild of Building, The Company of Merchant Taylors, The Company of Cordwainers, The Guild of Freemen, The Company of Butchers, The Guild of Scriveners and The Company of Merchant Adventurers. Ten plays were offered, again with the assistance of local drama groups.
A further waggon production is scheduled for 2010.
In general, modern performances of the plays use some degree of modernisation of the text, either by a radical policy of replacing all obsolete word and phrases by modern equivalents, or at least by using modern pronunciations. An exception is the productions of the Lords of Misrule, a dramatic group composed of students and recent graduates of the Department of Medieval Studies at the University of York. Their presentations use the authentic Middle English both in the words used and in their pronunciation. They have regularly contributed one of the waggon play productions.
The forty-eight York Mystery Plays, or York Miracle Plays, cover sacred history from the Creation to the Last Judgement. The York cycle was written in Middle English by a number of anonymous writers, reaching its final state around 1440. It was performed annually in the streets of York by the city guilds until the 16th century.
The translations used here are by Chester N. Scoville and Kimberley M. Yates.