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Mystery Play

Early medieval religious dramas based upon some part of the biblical narrative were called “mystery plays.” In England the term is often used synonymously with “miracle plays,” but the latter term should be restricted to drama based upon the life or miraculous deeds of Christian saints. Perhaps the term “mystery” is derived from the Latin ministerium, in the sense of service or function. The earliest record of medieval drama is a simple Easter playlet consisting of four characters-one priest symbolizing the angel at Christ's tomb while three other priests similarly symbolize the Marys-and the dialogue consists of four Latin lines. The popularity of the plays grew and their use in church services at special occasions was expanded until they assumed a form and existence of their own. The plays were banished from within the church in the thirteenth century. The laity immediately seized the opportunity and began organizing performances and presenting them in the vernacular. Eventually the performances were given on movable stages that were drawn from place to place.

The plays, centering around various narratives, were popular all over Europe and especially in England. Soon they were molded into elaborate cycles consisting of thirty or more separate pieces based on principal biblical themes from the Creation to the Day of Judgment. These cycles were presented at the Feast of Corpus Christi, at Whitsuntide, and in other special seasons. Only four of these cycles are extant: The York Cycle (forty-eight plays), the Towneley (thirty-two plays), the Chester (twenty-five plays), and the Coventry (forty-two plays). The use of mystery plays gradually disappeared by the end of the sixteenth century. There has been a modern revival of this type of play, especially on the Continent. Probably the most famous of these is the Passion Play at Oberammergau.

C. Davidson, Studies in the English Mystery Play (1892); E.K. Chambers, The Medieval Stage (2 vols., 1903); K. Young, The Drama of the Medieval Church (2 vols., 1933); H. Craig, English Religious Drama of the Middle Ages (1955).