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mystery play


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Biblical dramas popular in England from the 13th to the later 16th cent., take their name from the mestier (métier or trade) of their performers; they were previously called ‘Miracle Plays’ which, strictly, are enactments of the miracles performed by the saints. The Mysteries enact the events of the Bible from the Creation to the Ascension (and in some cases later). Their origin is much disputed; one of the earliest is the Anglo‐Norman Jeu d'Adam (see Adam), and there were cycles in many countries: France, Italy, Ireland, and Germany (surviving in the Oberammergau Passion Play). Though it is clear from their archives that many English towns had them, only four complete cycles survive: York, Chester, Wakefield (also called Towneley from the owners of the manuscript), and the Ludus Coventriae, also called the Hegge cycle, and N‐town because it is not known where it comes from. They are connected with the feast day of Corpus Christi. The various pageants were each assigned to a particular trade‐guild, often with a humorous or macabre connection between the métier and the play. Their great popularity in England from the time of Chaucer to Shakespeare is repeatedly attested by those writers, among others. Their end was no doubt mainly caused by Reformation distaste for idols and religious pageantry. Their great interest is as an early, popular form of theatre, manifesting energy, humour, and seriousness; it is not accurate to think of their composers as unlearned, as is clear from the group of six plays in the Towneley cycle assigned to a presumed author known as ‘the Wakefield Master’.

Subjects: Literature.


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