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Staging the York Mystery Plays

Staging the York Mystery Plays

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This essay, written for a class on Medieval and Renaissance drama, focuses on the York Mystery Plays and how I would chose to stage them, using details from several of the plays to support my staging ideas.
This essay, written for a class on Medieval and Renaissance drama, focuses on the York Mystery Plays and how I would chose to stage them, using details from several of the plays to support my staging ideas.

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Sep 01, 2012
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11/13/2013

 
1Much of what made the
York Mystery Plays
resonate with people has to deal with the way thatthe plays were staged. From documentation we know that these plays were performed on CorpusChristi day, that they were put on outside in broad daylight on moveable wagons called pageants, thatthey were set in current times, and that each play was performed twelve times around selected pointsalong a route within the city (Beadle and King xvii). One of the first questions that a director has to askhimself is whether or not to use these original staging ideas. In a current production of the
York Mystery Plays
I would chose to continue the tradition of performing the plays outside in broad daylightas well as keeping them in a modern setting. With these decisions other questions come up, questions,perhaps, that the original directors also had to ask themselves. The first issue that comes to mind is howdo you portray light and dark, two key concepts throughout the cycle, if the play is being performedoutside in full daylight? Another is how do you involve the audience and make the plays resonate withpeople, especially when society is considerably less religious today than they were in the Middle Ages.As the text itself cannot be changed, it falls to the staging to resolve these issues.Staging the plays out-of-
doors has been a key element since the plays’ creation.
It provides away to involve the audience and bring the biblical stories down to a more human level. Performing theplays outside makes the biblical characters appear more real, less anointed and distant. It allows theplays to come to life and brings the people a sense of closeness to previously distant topics. If the playswere performed on a stage away from the audience, that sense of distance would prevail.
The Entry into Jerusalem
is not the most exciting play in the cycle. It contains no angels being cast out of heaven,no Satan in the guise of a serpent, and no crucifixion, but, as its introduction
states it “initiates a
sequence of events
leading to the Passion”
(106). The excitement in this play lies in the excitement of the common people of Chri
st’s arrival in Jerusalem
. Although not as dramatic as
The Crucifixion
, thisplay can become one of the most resonating plays within the cycle if the excitement of the people onthe streets of Jerusalem can be transferred to the people in the audience. In order to achieve this I
 
2would make use of the audience, and would stage the scene with the actors hidden among thespectators. If the plays are held outside there is nowhere for the audience to hide, and through placingthe actors among the audience, the audience becomes a part of the scene. This play has the ability tobe a great transforming scene, for if the audience, being enveloped among the actors, can becomeimmersed within the scene, the actual surroundings can fade away, and the audience will betransformed into the crowds of Jerusalem. When Jesus comes, riding on a donkey, he will ride throughthe audience who have become the people on the streets of Jerusalem and must step aside to let himpass. An audience member would not know who was an actor and who was not, heightening the sense
of not knowing what is real, the play’s world or ours? Suddenly a man from the crowd would step out,
demanding of Peter and Philip who are in the process of taking a donkey
“Say, what are ye that make
here mastery, to lose these beasts without livery
(Beadle and King 109)? Is that man really upset,mistakenly thinking that the play is real and that they are taking the donkey without permission, or is heacting a part? Our reality and the world of the play become merged, the streets of Jerusalem become
our streets, and these biblical stories have a resonating effect for today’s populous, just as they did for
the people of the Middle Ages.Staging the
York Mystery Plays
in a modern setting helps the audience to connect with thecharacters, especially when the characters are biblical and carry a weight of religious connotations withthem. The original directors in the Middle Ages used this same technique to bring the plays down to amore human level and make them resonate with the audience. Although today the language of the
York Mystery Plays
might seem strange and closer to biblical language than to our modern language, the
plays were written in the ‘modern’ language of th
e Middle Ages, using the slang that would have beenfamiliar to the general population. As the language is not something that a director could or would wantto change, the use of modern costume and setting serves the same purpose, to add a sense of familiarity into the plays. One of the great challenges for a director of the
York Mystery Plays
is to
 
3separate the characters from their biblical baggage, to let the audience see the characters as Mary andJoseph, not as the Holy Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph.
The Crucifixion
is a play where it is necessary todistance the characters from religious connotations. Those with a religious upbringing are taught of thesuffering of Christ on the cross and of the evilness of the soldiers whose job it actually was to performthe crucifixion. One of the key elements of 
The Crucifixion
is the ordinariness of the soldiers. They aredefinitely not portrayed as being evil. They are desensitized from what they are doing. Crucifyingsomeone to them is simply a part of their job description and they perform the crucifixion as if theywere nailing together a bookshelf. To have these soldiers dressed in biblical garb would only serve todistance them for the audience, when it is essential to see these soldiers as normal men carrying ontheir normal job. To further disconnect the audience from their preconceived notions of the evil romansoldiers crucifying Jesus, the scene could be placed on a raised platform (or pageant wagon) so that theaudience cannot see exactly what it is that the soldiers are doing. They will know that they must becrucifying Christ, but not being able to see him will distance the men from the idea of crucifixion andallow the audience to connect with the soldiers, more so than if they were portrayed in the traditionalbiblical sense.The question of the portrayal of light within these plays is very important. Light and dark oftenprove to be key elements within the plots of the
York Mystery Plays
, such as in
The Harrowing of Hell 
 when Christ sends a light to tell those in limbo that he shall be coming soon. If the plays are performedoutside in broad daylight as originally intended stage lights cannot be used as in an ordinary theatre. In
The Harrowing of Hell 
the use of light is essential to the plot. Only the worthy have the mindset to seethe light. Neither Satan nor his followers can see it; they can only hear the excited clamour of thosewho are able to see the light. It is essential to demonstrate this division of those whose minds are still inshadow and those who can see the light. It would be unreasonable to skip over the light after Christ hassaid
“[a] light I will they have/[t]o show them I shall come soon”
(Beadle and King 238), unless it is the

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