mystery plays

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mystery plays. Best preserved of the vernacular religious drama which flourished in England, as on the continent, in the high Middle Ages, the mystery plays were known as ‘the play of Corpus Christi’, since originally performed at that festival. They versify and dramatize the biblical and apocryphal narrative of man's fall and salvation from Creation to Doomsday, with emphasis on Christ's trial, death, resurrection, and harrowing of hell. The plays offered religious instruction, entertainment, and a boost to civic pride and commercial interests. Their dramatic impact was enhanced by music, special effects, and moments of comedy, and their contemporary relevance by the presentation, for instance, of high priests as bishops, and shepherds as medieval Yorkshiremen.

Major cycles survive from York (51 short plays) and Chester (25), together with documentation about their performance by trade guilds or ‘mysteries’ on wagons in the streets. The 32 ‘Towneley’ plays are plausibly associated with Wakefield, and the 42 N-Town plays (formerly ‘Hegge’ plays or, misleadingly, Ludus Coventriae) tentatively with Lincoln or Norwich. One or two plays each survive from Coventry, Newcastle, Norwich, and Northampton, and records, but no texts, from several towns from Aberdeen to Canterbury. Suppressed by the protestant hierarchy around the 1570s, performance of the plays has enjoyed a revival since 1951.

D. C. Whaley

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mystery play (miracle play) Medieval English drama based on a religious theme. Mystery plays were originally used by the clergy to teach their illiterate congregation the principal stories of the Bible. By the 14th century, they had become a popular entertainment. Each year, the plays were performed by the various craft guilds in a town. In England, mystery plays from four towns have survived: Chester, York, Wakefield, and Coventry.

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Mystery plays (Christian): see THEATRE AND DRAMA.

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mystery play: see miracle play.