Revival of the York Mystery Plays

I was excited to see this story at BBC News about a “revamped” revival of the medieval mystery plays in York, England. I got a feeling for these plays in a series of mystery novels by Margaret Frazer set in 15th century England, the first of which is called A Play of Isaac. They strike me as the kind of thing that Diarmaid MacCulloch talks about in the first chapter of his massive The Reformation: A History. He spends the first chapter trying to convey a feel for what it was like to be Catholic in those days, when Christian and Catholic meant the same thing in the West.

One of the points he makes is that people were relaxed enough within the religion to play within it, and some of that playfulness shows through in the descriptions of some of the stagings of the mystery plays in Frazer’s novels. This playfulness was not evidence of a lack of reverence or faith or spirituality (as also comes through in the novels): the playful scenes that elicited laughter were followed by reverent scenes that elicited sincere piety. But there seems to have been more room for a whole-body, whole range of life’s experiences within these religious plays.

Anyway, I’m thrilled to read about this wonderful production, with its heavy involvement of local amateurs because that’s true to the history of the plays.

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3 Responses to Revival of the York Mystery Plays

  1. erm, aunty beeb may have skewed the truth a bit there. the revival isn’t exactly a new thing as they’ve done it nearly every year for the last fifty years or so – judi dench took part as a child. re vamping the revivial might be a bit more accurate

    • Now that you mention it, the BBC story did say that but it didn’t really register — probably because this is the first time I’ve heard about it. 😉 I’ve updated the post accordingly – thanks for the clarification!

  2. My wife and I were in the days of our youth, singers of Benjamin Britten’s work. His second canticle, Abraham and Isaac is one we performed several times, once in the sanctuary c 1984 at St Barnabas parish in Victoria, with mime actors. It is a wonderful arrangement of the Abraham and Isaac story.

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