Mystery play: As commonly defined, a medieval religious drama presenting a biblical story. Mystery play is sometimes used synonymously with miracle play, broadly defined; many scholars, however, distinguish between the two, limiting the former to plays based on Scripture and the latter to those based on nonbiblical material, such as saints’ lives. Mystery plays, the most important type of medieval drama in Western Europe, generally dramatized Old Testament stories about Adam and Eve, the patriarchs, or the prophets; New Testament stories about the birth and early life of Christ; or New Testament stories about Christ’s death and resurrection.
Mystery plays began to develop in the tenth century, arising within the Christian Church as dramatized parts of the liturgy. Subsequently, in the wake of a 1210 papal edict barring clergy from public acting, mystery plays became the province of towns, trade guilds, and confréries (brotherhoods) and were often performed on religious holidays, particularly during the festival of Corpus Christi; consequently, they are sometimes called Corpus Christi plays. Moreover, many mystery plays were organized into cycles depicting biblical events from the Creation to the Last Judgment. In England, where the genre remained popular through the sixteenth century, such cycles were typically performed over several days, often with scenes or episodes staged on moveable pageant wagons drawn through a number of places in the town to make the drama available to everyone. Fixed (and lavish) staging was common in France and Italy.
EXAMPLES: The Resurrection, from the York Pageant (1430—40); Noah and the Ark and The Second Shepherds’ Play, both from the Wakefield Cycle (c. 1450).