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What's the Mystery?: Medieval Miracle Plays

A holiday tale. A moral lesson. A social commentary. A comedy. A musical. While each of these descriptors hold true, The Second Shepherds' Play is, at its core, a story of ordinary people and extraordinary events. With three unrefined shepherds telling the story, an English pasture as the setting, and a night of unexpected visitors, the play's juxtaposition of real characters and settings with otherworldly happenings makes for an unforgettable Christmas story.

Towneley Plays ms., opening of The Second Shepherd's Play

A Religious Experience


From the late 1300s to the 1570s, dramas based on Biblical episodes or the lives of saints were performed in towns and villages across England, as well as the rest of Europe. Communities joined together to produce short plays, or, less frequently, to produce an elaborate series of plays known as a "cycle." Plays were sometimes staged outdoors in the summer months when weather was warm and days were long. Performers may have included paid actors as well as local talent. Bombastic acting wasn't unknown—Hamlet criticizes such excess when describing a performer who "out-herods Herod."


While the primary instigation for the plays was a shared celebration of religious faith, not entertainment, special effects and humor certainly had their place! The Mouth of Hell, complete with billowing smoke, was a popular set piece.


Heaven and Hell on Wheels?


Although many people picture medieval plays being performed on special "pageant wagons," recent evidence suggests that this was the exception rather than the rule. Pageant wagons did exist, and its possible that some audiences waited for the play to be brought to them. However, exactly how the plays were staged in the majority of performances remains a mystery.


To enjoy a full cycle, audiences and actors would have had to pack a lunch! In York, for example, actors began at 4:30am and continued performing the cycle of forty-eight plays until after nightfall. In Chester, twenty-four plays were performed over three days. By the time the cycle was over, viewers would have seen a history of the world from the Creation to the Day of Judgement.


Modern Miracles


Mystery plays continue to fascinate audiences. In York, one of the best-known sites for these dramas, a cycle was performed in York Minster cathedral in 2000. Canterbury Cathedral produced two cycles in 2004, one featuring the Creation story and the other Christ's Passion. In Britain, Lincoln and Chester regularly produce a cycle of mystery plays—both cities have performances scheduled for summer 2008!


Productions such as The Second Shepherds' Play and these recent stagings connect audiences with an imaginative and rich tradition, where theater and spirituality intersect.







Christopher Saxton. Atlas of the counties of England and Wales. London, 1590?

Additional Information

A Field Guide to The Second Shepherds' Play

Behind the Music

Worth a Look: Fun Facts on Plays, Sheep & More

From an Ill-Spun Wool: The Second Shepherds Play and early English theater

Related Items

Buy Tickets to Folger Consort | The Second Shepherds' Play

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