A simple story from the Bible. A moral lesson. A social commentary. A comedy. A musical.
Mysterium: (Latin) a divine miracle
Mystery plays are dramatic representations of scriptural incidents or the anecdotal lives of saints which developed and flourished from the 10th to 16th century in both England and continental Europe.
Originally, mystery plays were presented on church premises by clergy, and consisted of tableaux alternating with Latin chants. During the latter part of the 11th century, lay people began producing their own plays in the common language at sites removed from church property. Under these conditions, the plays became less strictly structured, much more colorful, and often contained additional apocryphal stories and contemporary commentary or interpretation. Original music for the plays were widely composed, but just as commonly, popular secular melodies were adapted.
At their height in the 15th century, mystery plays could be quite elaborate in their production. Mechanical devices, trapdoors, and other artifices were employed to portray flying angels, fire-spouting monsters, miraculous transformations, and graphic martyrdoms. Almost every town of some size held week-long festivals of plays, with the town craft guilds each producing their own play.
In the years following the Reformation, the plays were banned, both in England and in most of the continent. To the Protestants, they belonged with the Catholic theology that the Reformation had rejected: they represented God on stage, and elaborated in imaginative and even comic ways on the pure Word of God as contained in the Bible. The ruling governments wanted them suppressed because they depicted the intermingling and equality of all social classes from kings to shepherds and often contained unwanted social commentary. And the emerging humanist movement scorned them because of their irrational depiction of time and space, and their pervasive themes of supernatural powers.
It took several decades to thoroughly stamp out the mystery plays, which were much loved by the people, but the influence of these plays had already made a profound mark on the future development of theater, oratorio, and opera.
Perhaps the most important thing that Shakespeare and his artistic contemporaries inherited from the mysteries was the readiness to stage anything and everything, and to enlist audience complicity in the make-believe that the stage could show the impossible. The invisible fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream were no problem to an audience familiar with the idea that God could be put on stage, nor the shifting between Egypt and Rome in Antony and Cleopatra to anyone accustomed to a drama that could encompass Heaven, Earth and Hell.
The characters in mystery plays encompass the whole of humanity– a stage where princes and artisans –indeed, even saints and demons –belong side by side, and participate equally in joy and disaster, coming eventually to a common Judgement. Mystery plays offer themselves not as comedies or tragedies, but simply as ‘plays’: as imaginative recreations of whatever in heaven or earth can be imagined.