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Playing a Part in History

Playing a Part in History: The York Mysteries, 1951 - 2006

  • Book Info
    Playing a Part in History
    Book Description:

    Playing a Part in Historyexamines the ways in which the revival ofThe York Mystery Playstransformed them for twentieth- and twenty-first-century audiences.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8880-3
    Subjects: Performing Arts

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-1)
  6. [Illustrations]
    (pp. 2-2)
  7. Prologue
    (pp. 3-17)

    During the 1951 Festival of Britain the citizens of York made history by staging the first major production of their mystery plays in nearly four hundred years. There had been previous twentieth-century ‘revivals’ of medieval plays in various places, but while these were important in the process of bringing early theatre to the notice of modern audiences, they were on a much smaller and much less public scale than what was being ventured in York in 1951.¹

    York was certainly not alone in reviving its mysteries for the nationwide festival. Chester and Coventry, communities with a similar medieval performance tradition,...

  8. 1 From Medieval Religious Festival to the Festival of Britain
    (pp. 18-38)

    The enthusiasm that greeted the 1951 revival of the mysteries in York established them overnight as the centrepiece of the local contribution to the Festival of Britain. Nearly 26,500 people from eighteen different countries came to see them and ticket sales reached £9,000, far in excess of the £5,000 expended on the production. For 1954 the ‘York Festival of the Arts’ was renamed the ‘York Mystery Plays and Festival of the Arts’ to give the mysteries their well-deserved top billing; and while other post-war festivals such as those at Malvern and Bath ‘flickered and faded,’ the York Festival, playing the...

  9. 2 Dramatic Transformations: Performance Spaces and Scripts
    (pp. 39-60)

    Although the splendour of the individual wagon stages would have varied according to the needs of the episode to be presented and the wealth and inclinations of its presenters, the performance space for the York mysteries was fairly constant over the two hundred years of their medieval history. The wagons, transported by manpower provided by the guilds, kept to their customary route, although there were variations in the number of playing stations: usually twelve, but sometimes as few as ten or as many as sixteen. Each station had its own unique configuration, but the cityscape remained as the permanent backdrop...

  10. 3 A Leap of Faith
    (pp. 61-81)

    The decision to stage the Museum Gardens mysteries in 1951 was a spectacular leap of faith. The York Festival Society risked the success of their enterprise by abandoning safe options such as Shakespeare or a local historic pageant, while the mystery play director, E. Martin Browne, staked his professional reputation on a virtually unknown dramatic text and a largely amateur cast.

    Browne trusted in the power of the mysteries and in the dedication of his team not just to put on an entertaining show but also to convince church authorities that Christianity ‘might find a new dimension’ through theatre.¹ His...

  11. 4 Theatre of Cruelty
    (pp. 82-100)

    Writing between the wars, French surrealist Antonin Artaud insisted that the twentieth century needed a theatre to wake the ‘nerves and heart’ with ‘immediate and violent action.’¹ Moving away from the passive voyeurism encouraged by the ‘ordinary psychological theatre’ he proposed a ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ that would ‘resort to a mass spectacle … [and] seek in the agitation of tremendous masses, convulsed and hurled against each other, a little of that poetry of festivals and crowds when … people pour out into the streets.’² He rejected the conventional separation of audience and actor, and envisaged the spectator absorbed into the...

  12. 5 Theatre of the People
    (pp. 101-121)

    The mysteries of medieval York were fundamentally ‘Theatre of the People,’ although not in the sense of ‘naive’ working-class theatre as William Gaskill and others have imagined them. Gaskill’s Brechtian approach to the plays in 1963 focused on the idea of an underlying opposition between the poor and their rulers; Sister Bernarda Jaques comments that the director ‘traced this strong dichotomy in whatever dealings Christ and his disciples had with authority whether it were political or religious.’¹ But in the Middle Ages, the guilds presenting the plays on Corpus Christi Day were not operating from beneath; as discussed in chapter...

  13. 6 Storm Clouds over the Museum Gardens
    (pp. 122-141)

    Theatre in the open air is desperately reliant on the weather, and – as every outdoor event manager knows – the English weather is extremely unreliable. In 1958 E. Martin Browne, by then the veteran of three Museum Gardens productions, extolled the ‘ancient magic’ of ‘acting in the open air,’ praising the efforts of ‘hundreds of English men and women’ who put on plays alfresco and heroically confront the ‘hazards’ of the climate, risking a drenching and the loss of ‘all their labour’ in pursuit of the special magic that comes naturally with ‘a good evening.’¹

    A perfect midsummer night in the...

  14. 7 Indoor Mysteries
    (pp. 142-160)

    Bill Anderson, commenting in theStage, described the 1988 mysteries as ‘Pimlott’s masterpiece,’ declaring that the only thing ‘needed to seal perfection’ was an ‘extra 15 degrees rise in temperature.’¹ Temperatures and tempers were indeed rising as preparations got underway for the 1992 production, but when summer finally arrived, the warmest for many years, the mysteries and the Museum Gardens had parted company and the Theatre Royal had taken the plays indoors, thus providing the players and their audiences shelter from whatever the weather might bring and mopping up in the aftermath of the storms of controversy. Despite the potential...

  15. 8 Theatre of the Streets
    (pp. 161-194)

    Raising the curtain on a biblical stage show was a risky business in 1951 and E. Martin Browne was cautious not to allow any scholarly sympathy for medieval practice to seduce him towards the even greater hazards of wagon production. In his view the revival of the drama of the Middle Ages must err in the direction of conformity to current theatrical norms and the life of the modern city must take precedence over historical accuracy; so it was that the abridged mysteries went on in the Museum Gardens without any untoward disruption to traffic or commerce. All the same,...

  16. Epilogue: Ongoing Mysteries
    (pp. 195-204)

    Academics like myself with an interest in the theatre of the Middle Ages customarily ask themselves what they have learned as audience members at modern productions of mystery plays. In the years spent on this study I have learned a great deal, even from the many mysteries that I have seen only through the eyes of others. In some ways what I have learned seems almost too obvious: that a community like York, modern or medieval, must adapt its theatrical traditions to suit changing times and changing enthusiasms; that continuity depends on infrastructure, money, and active participants with a real...

  17. Appendix 1: Music in the Outdoor Mysteries
    (pp. 205-208)
  18. Appendix 2: Biographies
    (pp. 209-215)
  19. Appendix 3: Digest of Plays, Directors, and Performers
    (pp. 216-224)
  20. Notes
    (pp. 225-262)
  21. Works Cited
    (pp. 263-278)
  22. Index
    (pp. 279-293)