The Chester Mystery Plays: Medieval Drama and the Biblical Narrative

This past weekend I was blessed to be in the audience for a staging of the Chester Mystery Plays at Victoria College at the University of Toronto (the production’s website).  These plays were performed at Chester in England every year at Whitsuntide (ie. Pentecost) until 1572, when they were banned for fear of being a potential source of Catholic rebellion against Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth I.

The plays took place over the course of three days from Saturday through Monday (Monday being Victoria Day).  They begin with the Fall of Lucifer and move on to Creation and the Fall of Man, thence to certain important pieces of Old Testament history such as Cain & Abel, Abraham and Melchyzedeck, Abraham and Isaac, the giving of the Law.  Then the audience gets a taste of the life of Christ, from Nativity and the Shepherds at the end of Saturday to Crucifixion at the end of Sunday.  Monday took the audience from the Harrowing of Hell through the Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost, Antichrist, and Last Judgement.

That is to say, over the course of a single weekend, your average late-medieval theatre-goer in Chester would have seen the entire sweep of the biblical narrative played out before her.  This is a very important fact.  On Sunday, our priest was encouraging us to engage in the oft-recommended practice of daily Bible reading as a way to stay connected with the Holy Spirit.  For most of Christian history, this was not possible for most of the population.  Thus, for the Church in the Middle Ages, the public proclamation and performance of Scripture was important, for such was how the people would encounter the Bible on a regular basis, being unable to read it for themselves.  This is also why icons and stained glass were vital.

And in the Chester Mystery Plays one is not simply viewing a bunch of Bible stories acted out as so often occurs in ecclesiastical drama today.  In “Cain and Abel“, Adam proclaims:

Whyle that I slepte in that place /my gost to heaven banished was; /for to see I them had grace / thinges that shall befall. . . .  Alsoe I see, as I shall saye, /that God will come the laste daye / to deeme mankynde in fleshe verey, / and flame of fyer burninge, / the good to heaven, the evell to hell. / Your childrenn this tale yee may tell.

In my mind, God coming “to deeme mankynde in fleshe verey” is a reference to the Incarnation.  Indeed, the Old Testament plays, all of which I viewed, have Christ all over the place, in Abraham and Melchyzedeck, Abraham and Isaac, Moses and the Law.  Even when Balaam blesses Israel against Balaack’s wishes, there is content about Jesu.  The Medieval mind saw Christ everywhere, and rightly so, for he permeates the fabric of Scripture if we have eyes to see Him there.

I missed Sunday, but I caught the end of the Resurrection through the Last Judgement.  Here we see Christ in action.  He is appearing and disappearing in the Upper Room.  He is blessing St. Peter and the Apostles.  He is sending His Holy Spirit, Who gives to the Apostles the ability to understand different tongues as well as boldness to proclaim the Gospel.  He defeats Antichrist and judges the peoples with justice.

If you have the opportunity to view a staging of the Chester Cycle (such as that in Chester, England, in 2013), you should.  It is a shame that they have fallen out of the tradition of English drama and of Anglican Christianity.

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