The York Mystery Plays, more properly the York Corpus Christi Plays, are a Middle English cycle of 48 mystery plays or pageants covering sacred history from the creation to the Last Judgment. They were traditionally presented on the feast day of Corpus Christi (a movable feast on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, between 23 May and 24 June) and were performed in the city of York, from the mid-fourteenth century until their suppression in 1569. The plays are one of four virtually complete surviving English mystery play cycles, along with the Chester Mystery Plays, the Towneley/Wakefield plays and the N-Town plays. Two long, composite, and late mystery pageants have survived from the Coventry cycle and there are records and fragments from other similar productions that took place elsewhere. A manuscript of the plays, probably dating from between 1463 and 1477, is still intact and stored at the British Library.
There is no record of the first performance of the mystery plays, but they were recorded as celebrating the festival of Corpus Christi in York in 1376, by which time the use of pageant wagons had already been established. The plays were organised, financed and performed by the York Craft Guilds ("Mystery" is a play on words, representing a religious truth or rite, and its Middle English meaning of a trade or craft). The wagons were paraded through the streets of York, stopping at 12 playing stations, designated by the city banners.
The cycle uses many different verse forms, most have rhyme, a regular rhythm with fairly short lines and frequent alliteration. The balance of critical opinion is in favour of several clerics being responsible for their authorship, one of whom is conventionally known as the "York Realist". It comprises 48 pageants that were originally presented on carts and wagons dressed for the occasion. In some accounts there are as many as 56 pageants. They told stories from the Old and New Testaments, from the Creation to the Last Judgement. The plays continued after the Reformation when in 1548, the feast of Corpus Christi was abolished in England. The plays were accommodated in to the new religious orthodoxy by cutting scenes honouring the Virgin, but were suppressed in 1569.
The authorship of the plays is unknown, but analysis of the style allows scholars to recognise where authorship changes. One group of plays, concerned with the Passion has been attributed to a writer called "The York Realist" and the name has come into general use. The eight plays concerned are
They are all written in vigorous alliterative verse as are other plays in the cycle. The distinctive feature, apart from the high quality of the writing, is the attention to incidental detail in the story-telling and in the subtle portrayal of the negative characters, Pilate, Herod, Annas and Caiaphas. Playwright Peter Gill expressed the view that "If it hadn't been for the York Realist, Shakespeare would have been a second rate writer like Goethe".
After their suppression in Tudor times, the plays remained little known until Lucy Toulmin Smith obtained permission from the Earl of Ashburnham to study the manuscript of the plays in his possession and publish her transcription together with an introduction and short glossary in 1885.
In 1909, the York Historic Pageant included a parade of guild banners accompanying a wagon representing the Nativity through the streets. In December the same year a selection of six plays was performed as a fund-raising venture for St Olave's Church, York. The play cycle was revived on a much larger scale in 1951 in the York Festival of the Arts, part of the Festival of Britain celebrations. It was performed on a fixed stage in the ruins of St Mary's Abbey in the Museum Gardens and directed by E. Martin Browne. The music, written for the occasion by James Brown, was directed by Allan Wicks. The part of Jesus was played by Joseph O'Conor, (although to preserve mystique he was not named in the programme) and other roles were taken by amateurs. In the interests of comprehensibility, the text was abbreviated and modernised by Canon Purvis who went on to lead the Borthwick Institute at the University of York, and produced a modernisation of the complete text.
Following the success of the 1951 production, said to be "the most widely applauded festival event in the country, with over 26,000 people witnessing the Plays", selections from the cycle were staged in the same location at three-year intervals, lengthening to four-year intervals, until 1988. They have aroused academic interest and publications. Usually directed by a professional and with a professional actor playing Jesus, the rest of the cast were local amateurs. Ian McShane played Lucifer/Satan in 1963. Some amateur actors such as Judi Dench became professionals. Directors included E. Martin Browne again (1954, 1957, 1966), David Giles (1960), William Gaskill (1963), Edward Taylor (1969, 1973), Jane Howell (1976), Patrick Garland (1980), Toby Robertson (1984) and Steven Pimlott (1988). The role of Jesus was played a second time by Joseph O'Conor (1954), then by Brian Spink (1957), Tom Criddle, (1960), Alan Dobie (1963), John Westbrook (1966), John Stuart Anderson (1973), local York man David Bradley (1976), Christopher Timothy (1980), Simon Ward (1984) and Victor Banerjee (1988).
In 1992, the York production was moved in a modern production to the York Theatre Royal, with Robson Green playing Christ and a script adapted by Liz Lochhead. The 1996 production in the same place was all-amateur, with the part of Jesus played by local solicitor Rory Mulvihill, and the script shortened by Lochhead. For 2000, the interest of the Dean of York, Very Rev Raymond Furnell, led him to offer the use of York Minster for the most ambitious production so far.
In 2000 a large-scale performance was staged in York Minster, as The York Millennium Mystery Plays. Directed by Gregory Doran, with a script adapted by Mike Poulton, and with Ray Stevenson in the role of Christ, the production was the most expensive and wide-reaching project in the history of the plays' modern revival. The first half began in heaven with the story of the fall of Lucifer, followed by the creation of the world, the fall of Adam and Eve, Noah's Ark (with impressive and memorable representations of the animals and the flood) and the story of Abraham and Isaac. From the New Testament there came the annunciation and nativity of Jesus, the massacre of the innocents, Christ's childhood, baptism, temptation and ministry, and his entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The second half concentrated on the capture and trial of Christ, and his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. The production ended, as is traditional, with the Last Judgement.
The production ran for a month, with a total audience of 28,000. Aside from the professional director and actor, Ray Stevenson, the cast was made up of amateurs, mainly from the York area. More than fifty children also took part. Original music was written for the production by local composer Richard Shephard.
For 2012 the Mystery plays returned to the Museum Gardens, their home until 1988. The script was adapted by Mike Kenny and direction was by Damian Cruden of York Theatre Royal and Paul Burbridge of Riding Lights Theatre Company. The show involved more than 1,000 local volunteers working alongside theatre professionals in all areas of the production, including 500 amateur actors organised into two casts who shared the 30-performance run. The combined role of Jesus and God the Father was played by Ferdinand Kingsley, and Lucifer/Satan by Graeme Hawley. Reviews for the production were generally positive, with praise for the spectacle and stage design as well as the efforts of the volunteers.
In 2016 the plays were performed in York Minster from 26 May, the feast of Corpus Christi, until 30 June. The director, Phillip Breen, had previously directed for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Writer Mike Poulton and composer Richard Shepard repeated their millennium production roles. The cast had about 150 amateur actors and the sole professional, Philip McGinley, played Jesus except for the last four performances, when owing to his sudden illness the role was taken by his understudy, Toby Gordon.
In 1994 the Leeds-based historian Jane Oakshott worked alongside the Friends of York Mystery Plays, the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of York and the York Early Music Festival to direct the first processional performance of the plays in modern times in York. The production involved nine amateur drama groups each taking one plays, and touring it to five playing stations in central York using pageant waggons.
A production in similar format in 1998 featured eleven plays, and for the first time the modern York Guilds were involved with some of the plays, either directly or as sponsors.
Following the production in York Minster in 2000, the Waggon Plays were the only regular cycle performed in the city until 2012 when the static plays were revived. The Waggon Plays also used the Museum Gardens as a performance station maintaining the link between St Mary's Abbey and the plays established in the 1950s.
For the 2002 production management transferred to a committee of the Guilds of York: the York Guild of Building, the Company of Merchant Taylors, the Company of Cordwainers, the Gild of Freemen, the Company of Butchers, the Guild of Scriveners and the Company of Merchant Adventurers. Ten plays were produced with the assistance of local drama groups.
Two plays (Creation and Noah's Ark) were performed on waggons at two stations in the York 800 celebrations in 2012.
The performances on waggons were performed by the Guilds in 2014 continuing the established four-yearly cycle. 2018 will see the plays return to the streets of York, with a selection of 11 plays.
Modern performances use some degree of modernisation of the text, either by a radical policy of replacing all obsolete word and phrases by modern equivalents, or at least by using modern pronunciations. An exception is the productions of the Lords of Misrule, a dramatic group composed of students and recent graduates of the Department of Medieval Studies at the University of York. Their presentations use authentic Middle English both in the words used and in their pronunciation. They have regularly contributed to one of the waggon play productions.