Al men that walkis by waye or strete,
Take tentes yoe schalle no tauayle tyne.
Beholde myn heede, myn handis, and myne feete,
And fully feele nowe, or yoe fyne,
Yf any mournyng may be meete,
Or myscheue mesured vnto myne.
- Jesus, Crucifixion, York Cycle
It’s appropriate that Passion week has just finished and as I attempt to study for my collections, one of the things about Middle English Literature I’m currently most interested in are the mystery plays, those immense cycles put on by cities in Yorkshire and East Anglia, which culminate in the Passion. The cycle plays chronicle salvation history from Creation to Doomsday with individual pageants – chapters in the story of salvation narrative – written by guilds and performed on wagons traveling through the city streets.
Historically critics have treated the mystery plays as crude precursors to Shakespeare and modern drama, but there’s been a resurgence of interest in these plays (jagged, inventive, irreverent, boisterous) as national gems in their own right. The plays functioned as festival, as a display of civic pride, as a means of educating the laity, and an aid to devotion. Mystery plays were also a way for epic biblical history to condense and fuse with temporal history in a way which made the story of salvation local and particular.
There’s been a lot of coverage of Michael Sheen’s performance in National Theatre Wales’ 72-hour Port Talbot Passion, written by Welsh poet and novelist Owen Sheers. Apparently six thousand people participated as the news spread by word of mouth. It’s not strictly, theologically, a passion play (more in the spirit of the thing); but reviews are enthusiastic. The idea that interactive, local, communal street theatre is as vital and moving in the twenty-first century as it was in the thirteen and fourteenth centuries indicates that the anonymous playwrights of the Wakefield/Towneley and York plays were onto something.
Read what Sheers had to say here