English Mystery Cycle Dramas Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

English Mystery Cycle Dramas

The English mystery cycles, also known as Corpus Christi plays or miracle cycles, dominated the English stage throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and are regarded by many critics as the most genuinely popular theater in English history. Reflecting the central role of the Church in medieval society, the plays dramatize the biblical stories and apocryphal legends that form the foundation of Christian faith, from the Creation story through the Last Judgement. Critics have observed that performances of the dramatic sequences may have served a combination of social purposes in medieval society, helping to promote local guilds while also educating the public in the Christian tradition. Community participation was a fundamental characteristic of the performances: the plays were written by local clergy, supported and staged by local crafts guilds, and acted by townspeople. Their accessibility to unlettered citizens was also a key feature of the plays, which were written in the vernacular rather than Latin.

Four cycles of plays survive—the York Plays, Chester Plays, Towneley Plays (also known as the Wakefield Cycle), and N-Town Plays (also known as the Ludus Coventriae, or Hegge Cycle). Each of these four cycles dramatizes important scenes from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible and incorporates elements of apocryphal religious legends in order to illustrate the expansive Christian theme of man's fall and redemption. Most scholars maintain that the English mystery cycles were often performed in conjunction with the feast of Corpus Christi, although there is disagreement concerning the specific nature of the relationship between this religious holiday and the plays. Some believe that the cycle dramas evolved as an extension of dumb-show pageants associated with the feast day, while others believe that the plays evolved prior to the establishment of Corpus Christi, as a result of the combining of elements of vernacular folk drama with liturgical dramas connected with the Catholic mass. As with many medieval texts, our knowledge of the original performance methods and authorship of the plays is often speculative due to the many alterations that may have been incurred during the copying of the manuscripts by scribes.

Although the plays were popular and successful during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, performances declined during the early sixteenth century as a result of suppression associated with the Protestant Reformation. Scholars prior to the twentieth century have generally regarded the plays as anthropologically interesting, but aesthetically inferior works. The nineteenth-century critics William Hone and Thomas Sharp, for example, contributed extensive historical research toward an understanding of the English mystery cycles, but said little about the nature of the plays themselves as works of literature. Considered among the first important critics of medieval drama, E. K. Chambers in 1903 examined the plays from an evolutionary perspective, viewing them as forerunners of what he believed to be the more highly developed plays of Shakespeare. During the twentieth century, critics such as G. R. Owst, H.C. Gardiner, A. P. Rossiter, Glynne Wickham, O.B. Hardison Jr., V.A. Kolve, and Rosemary Woolf have helped to elevate the reputation of the English mystery cycles by emphasizing, for example, the skillful and complex quality of performances, and the interplay between social recreation and worship in the dramas. Since the 1970s, the English mystery cycles have experienced a resurgence of popularity in performance, as well as critical acclaim for their value as literary works in their own right.