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Mystery Plays at York Minster

After the adventures in Edinburgh, it was time to head south again. Next stop, the City of York, one of my favorite places in England. And my favorite spot in York is York Minster. The city is never the same as it was the last time, but this time I was in for a big surprise.

As it turned out, I missed seeing the York Mystery Plays performed in the Minster’s nave. I arrived July 2. The plays closed June 30. But I got a taste of the performances when I went to service that Sunday. The set designed by Max Jones was still in place, opposite audience seating for 1000. It turned out to be an unusual service. Congregants had to climb up the seating, unless they managed to snag a seat in the side aisle. The choir, which usually sits in the floor area, was high above the stage. The height and acoustics created a most magnificent sound for the singers. Though the Archbishop warned them not to get used to the angelic height.

Here’s a time-lapse journey of the three weeks it took to build the stage and seating.

After the plays finished, the Minster closed for three days so the set could be dismantled. I’m sorry not to have seen what must have been an excellent presentation. One critic opined that the Mystery Plays are a medieval disaster movie. The very thought of such a thing would have boggled the average medieval viewer. Medieval guilds sponsored the cycle of 48 plays. Each was 10 to 20 minutes in length and each guild sponsored a wagon of actors and sets. The wagons wound their way through the medieval streets stopping at 12 stations. The word Mystery had a dual meaning. The first for religious truth. The second a derivative from the Latin word for craft – ministerium.

The Trailer below gives some idea of what this year’s plays were like.

The plays, incidentally, were banned in Elizabethan England as part of the effort to eradicate Catholicism. Time passed. In 1951 the York Festival of Arts sponsored a performance in the ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey where the plays were performed until 1988 when other venues began to host the event. York Minster sponsored it’s first performance in 2000.

The staging this year must have been amazing. I’m particularly intrigued by the use of helium filled balloons to mimic God creating earth’s universe.

There were, of course, other innovations in the 2016 production. Mike Poulton modernized the script a bit.  A pair of dodos was too late to rendezvous with Noah’s Ark. The flood appeared in waves of blue fabric.

Who knows when or where the next cycle of Mystery Plays will be performed? Old plays for another new audience. Maybe next time I’ll make the performance.


Featured Image: Nave at York Minster. Photo by Author

York Minster Mystery Plays 2016

Alfred Hickling. York Mystery Plays Review. The Guardian.

Alexander Zawacki. The “Mystery Plays” Banned by Tudors. Atlas Obscura. June 15, 2016.

Author Sandra Wagner Wright

Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.

 Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.


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