Mystery and Morality Plays

Mystery Plays

Setting for the Valenciennes mystery play, miniature by Hubert Cailleau, 1547; in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.
Courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

Mystery Plays originated in the Middle Ages, during the twelfth century, from the lack of interest from the churchgoers in the typical church services and their ignorance of the Latin language. This problem prompted the elaboration of certain services. It began with subtle changes to the services for religious holidays such as Easter and Good Friday, that involved bringing down the cross for all to see; and expanded to the Christmas service with the scene of Christ’s birth in the manger. One of the first liturgical performances was Quem Quaeritis (“Whom Seek Ye”) in 925 Citation? . As the theatricals became more popular they were moved out of the church to accommodate the growing audience. During the thirteenth century Mystery plays gained less support from religious figures due to their questionable religious values, they started to be performed in the vernacular and were starting to drift away from being performed in the

The traveling stage of a Mystery Play
The traveling stage of a Mystery Play

church. Once this happened and the performances were free from the church the strong religious themes started to disappear. In 1210 A.D. there was a ban of Mystery Plays by Pope Innocent III, which caused the plays began to performed in small town guilds,this act officially cut ties between the plays and the church and they were exclusively performed by town-guilds. With an ever growing audience to please, the town-guilds found that a perfect opportunity to showcase their works with the introduction of the Corpus Christi festival, in 1311, that takes place 57 days after Easter. The performances were grouped together and consisted of plays such as, Noah and the Flood, and The Creation of the World and the Fall of Adam. From these small groups came the four most prominent collections of mystery plays, the York cycle with 48 pageants, the Towneley plays with 32 pageants, the Chester cycle with 24 pageants, and the Wakefield (N-town) plays with 42 pageants. The term “Mystery” did not come from our term and the way it is used in present day. It was derived from the Latin word ministerium, meaning an association of clergy from different religious groups. This was the term used to describe the guilds which performed these plays, which is why is was used to name to describe the actual plays being performed. By the time of the end of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the Reformation, in England, the Mystery plays started to die down and were replaced in popularity by Morality plays.

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Mystery plays were dramatizations of both the Old and New Testament miracles. Another popular topic was Christ and his crucifixion and resurrection. In the beginning of the popularity of Mystery plays the parts in the performance were played by clergymen and other members of the church. During their peak, Mystery plays were moved out of the church and performed on wagons and moved about the different towns. Due to the separation from the church the plays tended to have more of sarcastic tone to them and sometimes even went as far as mocking priests and monks, the people who had a big part in the creation of the plays. Another change that came with the separation of the church was the switch from clergymen as performers to members of guilds and craftsman. A huge aspect of Mystery plays was that they neglected to utilize the three unities; place, time, and action. Because of this the plays could represent any location or time and were not tied down by each story they were performing and could pose two time periods or locations together that are not cohesive. Also they did not limit their performances, they used technologies, such as trap doors and mechanisms to create the illusion of flying, to get the realest effect and please the audience.

One of the most widely known Mystery plays is The Second Shepherd’s Play, which puts three shepherds at the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. It emphasizes the everyday life during the middle ages and juxtaposes the shepherd’s story with that of Christ’s, setting the secular and religious world side by side.

Some common Mystery Plays:

~ Birth of Jesus
~ The Wise Men
~ Flight into Egypt
~ The Second Shepherd’s Play

Miracle plays

Engraving depicting a representation of the Mystery Play of Saint Clement of Metz in Metz during the medieval time. Original publication: 20 April 1850 in Metz
Immediate source:

Miracle Plays, also called Saint’s Plays, were plays dedicated to the lives of various saints, rather than Biblical events. Just like Mystery Plays the Miracle play originated to enhance the liturgical services, and were later separated from the church. They were switched to the English language, became less and less religious, and were performed in town festivals in the thirteenth century. Most Miracle plays are performed about either St. Nicholas or the Virgin Mary. The plays about St. Mary regularly involve her in the role of “deus ex machina” (god from the machine), there would usually be a problem that seems unsolvable and the characters call on the Virgin Mary to help. They were performed in Plain-an-gwarny (Cornish Medieval amphitheatre). During the sixteenth century there was a ban on Miracle Plays by King Henry VIII, some were destroyed, and after they soon began to fade away in popularity.

Morality Plays

Ulrike Folkerts (far right) as Death and Peter Simonischek (second from right) as Everyman performing in a dress rehearsal for Jedermann (1911), an adaptation by Hugo von Hofmannsthal of the 15th-century play Everyman, Salzburg, Austria, 2006.
Josch—AFP/Getty Images

Morality plays stemmed from Mystery and Miracle plays. It is the last in the trilogy of Vernacular drama. Typically, Morality plays tried to teach through a theatrical point of view. These plays were allegorical dramas that personified the moral values and abstract ideas to teach moral lessons. The plays were used to educate the masses on Christianity. It served better to learn when the information was presented in a theatrical fashion, as opposed to readings of the Bible. Moralities were popular during the fifteenth and sixteenth century in Medieval Europe as didactic, informative or educational, plays. “Quasi-professional groups of actors” (Britannica; Morality Play) generally performed these plays, building off of their public rapport. Morality plays are still around in the 21st century. Many schools still have their students perform these plays during the holiday’s as a school pageant.The most common and famous play is Everyman, an English version of the Dutch Play about the inevitability of death ( Britannic, Middle English). With the wealth gained from the Renaissance, the traveling theaters were not needed due to the building of permanent theaters and the emergence of professional actors. This new era put an end to the Medieval drama, but it served as a great beginning to what we call drama today.

Morality plays are the result of Christian symbolism. Due to their roots, they were quite serious in the beginning but as time wore on the seriousness began to give way, and they began to gain characteristics from popular farce. “They are the intermediate step between liturgical to professional secular drama” (Britannica), while still having elements of each. The characters within the play themselves personify different moral qualities depending on the moral that is being taught. They have a focus primarily on a hero ( Protagonist) whose inner weaknesses become the main conflict. Generally, the weaknesses are drawn out and antagonized by the Seven Deadly Sins (Antagonist) , that make the hero question not only himself but his standing with God. The Seven Deadly Sins for a point of reference are; Lust,Greed,

Everyman fighting Death
Everyman fighting Death

Gluttony, Envy, Anger, Pride and Sloth. Each Sin represents a different aspect that, as the Bible states, God will not forgive you for. Morality plays are based highly from a religious stand point in order to teach individuals about proper or true morals; right and wrong. To return back to the basic outline of a Morality play, the Hero then has the choice to take what he says to heart or strive for redemption and ask ” The Four Daughters of God” (Mercy, Justice, Temperance, and Truth) to aid in his quest. The plays could more than likely be performed in under ninety minutes.

Some common Morality Plays:

~ The Castle of Perseverance (c. 1425)
~ Hickscorner
~ Everyman

Works Cited
Fletcher, Robert Huntington. “A History of English Literature.”

“miracle play”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 06 Dec. 2012<>.
“morality play”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 06 Dec. 2012 <>.
“Morality play.” New World Encyclopedia, . 28 Aug 2008, 23:55 UTC. 7 Dec 2012, 02:18 <>.

“mystery play”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 06 Dec. 2012 <>.

Warren, Kate Mary. “Moralities.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 6 Dec. 2012 <>.

Works Cited for Photographs