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Mystery play

Mystery plays are one of the earliest formally developed plays in Europe. They developed from the representation of Bible stories in churches as tableaux[?] with accompanying antiphonal song, such as the Quem Quaeritis - a short musical performance set at the tomb of the risen Christ. These simple structures were developed with tropes, verbal embellishment of the liturgical text, and became more elaborate. As these liturgical plays became more popular, more vernacular elements were introduced and non-clergy began to participate. As the dramas became increasingly secular, they began to be performed entirely in the vernacular and were moved out of the churches by the 13th or 14th century.

These vernacular religious performances were taken over by the guilds, with each guild taking responsibility for a particular piece of scriptural history. From the guild control they gained the name mystery play or just mysteries, from the Latin mysterium (meaning handicraft and relating to the guilds). They are also known as Miracle plays, because they re-enacted episodes from the lives of the saints.

The mystery play developed into a series of plays dealing with all the major events in the Christian calendar, from the Creation to the Day of Judgment. By the end of the 15th century, the tradition of acting these plays in cycles on festival days (such as the Feast of Corpus Christi) was established across Europe, each play was performed on decorated carts called pageants, that moved about the city to allow different crowds to watch each play. The entire cycle could take up to twenty hours to perform and could be spread over a number of days.

The plays were performed by amateurs and used the stanza form that was already well known; they were often marked by the extravagance of the sets and 'special effects'.

The dramas of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods were developed out of mystery plays.

The Mystery Plays were revived in York in 1951 as part of the Festival Of Britain.

See also : morality play, a 15th Century development.

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