York Cycle of Mystery Plays, The (48 parts)

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A: Anon (‘The York Realist’) Pf: Late 14th–15th c., York Pb: 1915 (part), 1957 (all) G: Cycle of 48 mystery plays; Middle English verse S: Heaven and earth, from the Fall of Lucifer to the Last Judgement C: approx. 60m, 6f, many extrasThe cycle stretches from the Creation to the end of time. Based on the evidence of one almost complete extant manuscript, the cycle probably comprised: (1) The Fall of Lucifer (the creation of evil); (2) The Creation (the beginning of the physical universe); (3) God Creates Adam and Eve (the creation of humankind); (4) Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (the idyll before ‘the Fall of Man’); (5) Man's Disobedience and Fall (humankind's separation from God); (6) Adam and Eve Driven from Eden (their banishment into a world of suffering and death); (7) Cain and Abel (the first murder); (8) Building of the Ark; (9) Noah and the Flood (a pious man is saved from God's anger); (10) Abraham's Sacrifice (a model of obedience to God); (11) The Israelites in Egypt, The Ten Plagues, and the Passage of the Red Sea (the trials of God's chosen people); (12) Annunciation and the Visit of Elizabeth to Mary; (13) Joseph's Trouble about Mary; (14) Journey to Bethlehem: Birth of Jesus; (15) The Angels and the Shepherds; (16) Coming of the Three Kings to Herod; (17) Coming of the Three Kings, the Adoration; (18) Flight into Egypt; (19) Massacre of the Innocents; (20) Christ with the Doctors in the Temple (the events surrounding the birth and childhood of the Saviour); (21) Baptism of Jesus; (22) Temptation of Jesus; (23) The Transfiguration; (24) Woman Taken in Adultery, Raising of Lazarus (major events in Christ's life, including the miracle of bringing Lazarus back from the dead); (25) Entry into Jerusalem; (26) Conspiracy to Take Jesus; (27) The Last Supper; (28) The Agony and Betrayal; (29) Peter Denies Jesus, Jesus Examined by Caiaphas; (30) Dream of Pilate's Wife, Jesus Before Pilate; (31) Trial Before Herod; (32) Second Accusation before Pilate, Remorse of Judas, Purchase of Field of Blood; (33) Second Trial Continued, Judgement on Jesus; (34) Christ Led Up to Calvary; (35) The Crucifixion of Christ; (36) The Mortification of Christ (events surrounding the trials and death of Christ on the Cross); (37) Harrowing of Hell (Christ saves the good from hell and leads them into paradise); (38) Resurrection, Fright of the Jews; (39) Jesus appears to Mary Magdalen after the Resurrection; (40) Travellers to Emmaus (Christ rises from the dead); (41) Purification of Mary (Mary presents Christ in the temple – usually placed, as in The Chester Cycle, before Scene 20); (42) Incredulity of Thomas (‘doubting Thomas’ is convinced that Christ lives again); (43) The Ascension (Christ is taken up into heaven); (44) Descent of the Holy Spirit (the third element of the Holy Trinity descends to help humankind); (45) The Death of Mary; (46) Appearance of Our Lady to Thomas; (47) Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin (Christ's mother dies and rises to heaven to intercede for humankind); (48) The Judgement Day (the final reckoning).The York Cycle is the most extensive and probably best known of the surviving mystery cycles and may claim to be one of the longest running plays in theatre history (from the mid-14th century to 1580, when it was suppressed because of its Catholic content). The long cycle would have been presented over the course of a whole day (Corpus Christi) by amateur performers, members of different city guilds. Each guild played a different scene, often suited to their trade (e.g. shipwrights: Building of the Ark; bakers: The Last Supper), performing their scene at different points in the city on pageant wagons. The content of the drama is taken from the Bible and from Christian myth, especially the Catholic elevation of the Virgin Mary, together with robust and often comic elements taken from everyday medieval life. It is notable how here, as in all the mystery cycles, the one week of the Passion of Christ (his suffering leading up to and during his crucifixion) is allotted a quarter of the scenes. This concentration on the Crucifixion gave rise to the popular Passion play of central Europe, as in Oberammergau. The York Cycle has been successfully revived in York since 1951, in Leeds, and by the National Theatre in a vigorous version by Tony Harrison in the mid-1980s and in 2002.


Subjects: Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights).

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