Ritual drama

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Plays

The York Mystery Plays

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Mike Poulton's version of the medieval play cycle known as The York Mystery Plays (a cycle that was first performed in the city of York in the 1300s) was commissioned for a production in York Minster in 2000 as part of the city's Millennium celebrations. This revised text was first performed at York Minster on 26 May 2016.

The cycle comprises 48 mystery plays or 'pageants' covering sacred history from the Creation of Heaven and Earth to the Last Judgment.

In an Author's Note in the published script, Poulton writes: 'The scope and completeness of the York cycle is astonishing. The subtlety and variety of the verse and characterisation are accessible and actable. Today the vocabulary may have changed but the old rhythms are detectable still in the Yorkshire dialect. On setting to work it became clear to me that the text is the work of playwrights rather than authors – people who understood how a play works, and knew how to write clear and deliverable lines, as well as when to stand back from the script and leave everything to the director and the actors. So my approach to the text was to retain as much of the original as I thought would be accessible to today’s audience. As far as possible I kept the original words, rhythms, and speech patterns. Where I had to modernise I attempted to show the spirit that lies under the lines rather than produce a prosaic translation of the lines themselves. And most of all I tried to offer each character in the play the personality and individuality I found in the original text. So I hope my version has the right mix of humour, joy, pathos, and grandeur that make the original York Mysteries one of the great achievements of European literature.'

The original 2000 York Minster production was directed by Gregory Doran with Ray Stevenson in the role of Jesus.

The 2016 production was directed by Phillip Breen with Becky Hope-Palmer, and designed by Max Jones with Ruth Hall. The part of Jesus was played by Philip McGinley.

The preoccupation with theatre’s relation to ritual began in the nineteenth century with Wagner’s operas and Nietzsche’s theories about the Dionysiac origin of Greek drama in the primitive collective musical form of the Chorus (before it was superseded by the Apollonian principles of rationality and individual character). By the early twentieth century comparative studies in anthropology, religion and language, supported by archaeological research (and often under the misleading influence of Frazer’s The Golden Bough), had encouraged extensive and enduring speculation about not only theatre’s descent from primitive religion but also the survival and revival of ritual forms in theatre itself.

In the 1920s surrealist and primitivist movements developed in response to new ideas in psychology, and artists attempted to base their work on the unconscious and irrational impulses in individual and collective life. One of the early surrealists, Artaud, went on to assimilate oriental, occult and neoplatonist concepts and to develop an aesthetic for theatre based largely on its affinity with religious ritual. Although initially neglected, some of his ideas were realized in the 1950s in the plays of Genet.

The late 1960s saw the convergence of a number of developments. The innovative work of Grotowski and, to a lesser extent, Brook provided the focus for a revival of Artaud’s work and for the growing interest in Asian theatre (which offered contemporary models for theatre in a ritual context). Neither Brook nor Grotowski subscribed to Artaud’s metaphysics and used only those aspects of ritual which suited their purposes. However, the liberal climate of the 1960s provided the necessary conditions for fresh attempts to bring theatre and ritual together. At a theoretical level this was encouraged by the increasing use of the concept at a technical level in psychiatry and the social sciences.

The main initiatives were counter-cultural and came from companies committed to communal lifestyles and collective modes of work. To assert and define a radical group identity, the most effective strategy was to ritualize the performance itself. Companies in the United States like the Living Theater and Bread and Puppet set out to engage spectators with aspects of real life through active participation in a symbolic or fictional event. Typical of this period was the Performance Group’s Dionysus in 69. The production aimed to combine text, rites, games, celebration and audience interaction in a ritual confrontation with the Dionysus myth. Much of the theory, however, has outlived the practice, and it is in theoretical work that the Performance Group’s director, Richard Schechner, has done most to develop the creative dialogue between theatre and the social sciences which continued into the 1990s. This body of theory has demonstrated that the different media dissolve the frontiers between theatre, society and politics in advanced capitalist countries, and that the theatricalization of public life – from happenings and the Situationists’ engagement with a Society of the Spectacle in the 1960s to the televised trial of O. J. Simpson and the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, in the 1990s – can also be seen as a process of ritualization.

from Anthony Hozier , The Continuum Companion to Twentieth-Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London, 2002).