Medieval Passion Plays
The tradition of free performances of Passion Plays goes back to medieval times, when they served as both education and entertainment for the population at large. Since very few people could read or write, and the Bible was in Latin, free performances were an important form of education.
Audiences were entertained under the banner of theatre, but also educated people about the story of Easter. The first recorded piece of theatre in Britain was called the Quem Quaeritis: four lines spoken by two choirs addressing each other in a dramatic form. The Church soon realised the power of Theatre as a way to communicate and provoke a response and began to produce what we now know as Mystery Plays.
Medieval Mystery Plays dramatised the whole Bible in a cycle of plays which were performed on pageant wagons at different sites around the city centre. The most well-known cycles are those of York, Coventry, Chester, Lincoln and the East Anglian plays.
The plays were a sign of the city’s prestige and wealth: the city’s guilds were responsible for producing each play and it was both an act of spiritual worship and civic glory. In York, Mystery Plays dramatised the Bible from the Fall of Man (performed by the Coopers) to the Last Judgement (performed by the Mercers). As part of the cycle, the Flood was performed by the Fishers and Mariners, the Slaughter of the Innocents by the Girdlers and Nailers and the Resurrection by the Carpenters.
Medieval Mystery plays were not only spectacular and memorable, they had a spiritual, social and didactic purpose: presenting the Bible as embodied drama they were a means of instruction as well as of spiritual experience. In attending these plays the audience were witnesses to the performance and also to the spiritual realities behind the performance.
As Dee Dyas (1997) puts it, the audience were ‘vital players in this epic drama, for the mystery cycles, the miracles or saint’s plays and the moralities were all designed to warn and win souls’ (p.225).