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Eva March Tappan

The Mystery Plays

LONG before the Middle Ages, the priests in various countries often acted stories from the Bible, such as the birth of Christ, in order to impress them upon the minds of the people. These were acted in the church, then on platforms in the churchyard. But so many came to see them that the graves were trampled upon, and it was decreed that they should be acted on other ground.

These plays did not always follow the Bible narrative strictly, but added old legends or any incidents that it was thought would interest the people. For instance, in one of the plays of "The Garden of Eden," when Adam took the apple, he apparently tried to swallow it whole, for the play says that it stuck in his throat, causing the "Adam's apple." In the play of "The Slaughter of the Innocents," an old tradition is brought in that by mistake Herod's own baby son was slain. In the play of "The Shepherds," the honest men talk together about how to care for their sheep. They sit down and eat their supper—bread, butter, pudding, "onyans, garlicke, and leickes," green cheese, and a sheep's head soused in oil—"a noble supper," as one of them calls it. After supper, masters and boys are wrestling together when a bright star blazes out. They kneel down and pray to God to tell them why it is sent. Then the angel Gabriel appears to them and sings, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." This is sung in Latin, of course, for it would not have seemed to a writer of the Middle Ages at all respectful to represent an angel as singing in English. The shepherds have a rather hard time with the Latin; but they make out some of the words. They talk about the singing. One of them says of the angel, "He bade a moche better voyce than I have." Then they sing together "a merye songe." The angel appears again and tells them that Christ is born in Bethlehem. After they have gone to find him, the three shepherd boys set out to follow their masters. They wish that they had something to carry to the Child, but they have only the few things that they use themselves. One, therefore, gives the Child his water bottle, which he says is good, only it needs a stopper. The second takes off his own hood for a gift, and the third presents him with a nuthook "to pull down aples, peares, and plumes."

In almost all of these plays there was considerable fun-making and "horse-play." Just as the good folk of the Middle Ages saw no harm in making a pilgrimage a merry and entertaining little journey, so in the mystery plays they demanded to be amused as well as instructed. In the play of "The Flood," Noah's wife is indignant that her husband has worked on the ark so many years without telling her. She declares that she will not enter it, and she finally has to be dragged in by Noah and his sons. Herod struts about the stage. He boasts how mighty a king he is and how easily he can destroy the Child who has been born in Bethlehem. Then there must have been loud guffaws of laughter from the audience when the Devil rushed in and carried him off. Satan was the clown, the fun-maker; and whenever he appeared, the people watched eagerly to see him fooled and cheated by some good spirit. He always wore a dress of leather, ending in claws at the fingers and toes. The souls of the good were dazzling in their white coats, while the wicked were robed in black and yellow with sometimes a touch of crimson. When Satan and his evil spirits made their appearance, they came by way of "hell mouth." This was a great pair of gaping jaws made of painted linen and worked by two men. A fire was lighted to look as if hell mouth were full of flame. Some of the items in the old expense accounts are amusing reading. "For the mending of hell mouth," for "keeping up the fire at hell mouth," sound rather alarming. One item was for a barrel to make an earthquake, another was for a beard for St. Peter, and yet another for a quart of wine to pay for hiring a gown for the wife of Herod.

Long before the plays became so elaborate as to demand so many "properties," they passed into the hands of the craft guilds. In the early part of the thirteenth century, most of the guilds fixed upon Corpus Christi day for their chief celebration. They marched in procession, carrying sacred pictures and images of the saints. Often members of the guild took the parts of Bible characters, and at length whole Bible stories were acted. These were played in pageants, or great lumbering wagons two or three stories high. The lower part was covered by a curtain, and here the actors dressed. The second floor was the stage upon which the acting took place. The third floor, if there was one, represented heaven. An attempt was made to have each scene as realistic as possible; for instance, the stage-directions for the play of "The Creation" ordered that as many animals as could be obtained should be suddenly let loose.

Each guild had its own special play. One would play "The Three Kings," another "The Crucifixion," another "The Murder of Abel," and so on. In England they were so arranged that the main stories of the Bible were played in the Bible order, beginning with "The Creation," and ending with "The Last Judgment." Early in the morning, the ponderous pageants were dragged out to the different streets of the town. Sometimes men of means paid a good price to have them stop in front of their houses. As soon as a play had been acted, each one moved on and acted the same play in another place. This was usually continued through three days, and a person who remained in one place could see the whole cycle of plays; while if he cared to see any one of them repeated, he had only to follow the pageant to the next street.

The plays were entertaining, and that was reason enough for bringing together a good audience. Moreover, to attend them was thought to be particularly good for one's soul; and to do something religious and be entertained while doing it, was regarded by the good folk of the Middle Ages as a most excellent arrangement.

As for the guilds, at first they looked upon presenting these plays as an honor and also a religious privilege. They chose the actors from their members, and paid them in proportion to the length of their speeches and the amount of stage "business" for which they were responsible. In the play of "St. Peter," in Coventry, the man who did the crowing was paid fourpence; but when he also attended to the hanging of Judas, he received tenpence more. The guild had to pay these charges, buy costumes and keep them in order, and provide provisions for the actors at rehearsals. It is true that collections were taken up in the streets to help pay expenses, but the burden was still a heavy one. Then, too, trades changed with the changing fashions. Sometimes one trade was divided into two. In 1492 the blacksmiths and bladesmiths in a town separated. This resulted in two weak guilds instead of one strong one, and the whole expense of a pageant was a serious tax to each. As time passed, the guilds made strenuous objections to keeping up the plays, but now the law stepped in, and in many towns they were required to produce their pageants or else pay a large fine. In London, a number of guilds still exist; but the procession which takes place whenever a Lord Mayor is to be inducted into office is the last reminder of the old trade pageants.


by Eva March Tappan