The History of Mystery Plays

A tradition that began in Medieval times, Mystery Plays (or Miracle Plays as they were sometimes also called) were one of the most popular formats of religious based plays.

Usually performed by a mixture of professional and amateur actors, these plays were based upon classic Bible Stories which the lower-class audience would be most familiar with.

Stories such as the tale of the Great Flood, Jesus’ Birth and Death as well as more theological stories such as The Fall of Lucifer and The Creation Story were performed by numerous actors. Although adaptation of the spoken words were strictly mimetic, the performers and directors had a great deal of freedom in blocking out movement and visually representing the world of the Bible.

mystery-play-5Although there were some productions that favoured a more stripped back approach to presenting the plays – for the most part, they were put on with lavish production values. Usually these kind of shows would cost huge amounts of money to mount, but because of the pious nature of the plays’, many local businesses were more than happy to help out with providing materials and labourers, to ensure that the plays would go ahead.

Medieval mystery playOften certain Craft Guilds would sponsor Plays that were in some way related to their business.

For example, a fishmongers would sponsor the story of Jesus feeding the multitude. Whereas a carpenter would probably favour sponsoring the story of Noah building the Ark. This way, local businesses could gain good favour with the Church and the community, whilst also getting away with some (virtually) free advertising.

Today, Mystery Plays are performed with the same vim and vigour that they so require.

They are still performed in Churches and Cathedrals, however, with the development of modern technologies , the production values of these mystery plays has sky rocketed. Modern productions of Mystery Plays, like the ones performed in Durham come complete with full light-show, special effects, dozens of cast members and full sound production.