Thursday, March 13, 2014

Chester Mystery Plays

I devoted last weekend to a study of Chester's Mystery plays.  As usual, Chester library came up trumps and a helpful librarian carted (literally, in an old supermarket trolley) a heap of ancient books from the store.  They were reference only for the most part, but I found two books on the subject as well as a DVD of last year's cycle in the nave of the cathedral.  

The plays were originally carted around the city by guilds during Whit (and before that during Corpus Christi).  Each guild was allocated something appropriate.  The Flood was the responsibility of the water drawers, for instance (Chester was never big on wells), while the Murder of the Innocents was taken on by the guild of goldsmiths and mercers since they could afford to do a good line in velvets and green taffeta for King Herod.  The spectacle lasted three days, the people gathered on the rows to get a good view.  In 2013 they were condensed into a single evening.  

Since I was able to follow a version of the plays in print 

it was interesting to see what had been changed.  Many plays were missed out completely and each seemed to be considerably shortened, even so it seemed to me that the intent of the plays was preserved (a combination of didacticism and entertainment).  Setting the plays in the nave was inspired too - coloured lights picking out the ribs of the stone ceiling - and the whole thing set cunningly to music.

The parts I found most moving were the 'slaughter of the innocents' where the bundles the women are carrying are unfurled to reveal flags - an effective reminder of the slaughter of the innocents today, and the film footage which seemed to be a nod to the 'Simon the Leper' play.  In answer to a child asking 'How can we be sure?' we were presented with Christ in the the modern city.  While children sang, he blessed today's tramps who still sleep in doorways.
The plays were first performed in 1375, and the last full version was probably played in 1577.  They were falling out of favour then, associated rather too much with dangerous Catholicism perhaps.  In their place came games and the fairground, and in 1595 he first professional players arrived in Chester to perform a morality play.

The Mystery Plays were always amateur productions - and this must have been part of the charm.  In a city with a population of a few thousand, the audience probably knew or at least recognised the cast, and I looking at this DVD I too saw faces that I knew, and to one or two could even give a name.  Everyone who wanted to take part could take part - and the same holds true today.  


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