The Spaces of Medieval Mystery Plays on British Television

Wrigley, Amanda (2015). The Spaces of Medieval Mystery Plays on British Television. Shakespeare Bulletin, 33(4) pp. 569–593.



Medieval mystery plays have had a rich and also distinctive life on British television. These performance texts, drawn from the Bible’s story of the universe from just before its Creation to its end on the Day of Judgment, have appealed to television practitioners not only for drama adaptations (from the 1938 presentation of the Chester Abraham and Isaac onwards) and the foundation stone for new dramatic writing (such as the BBC’s 1959 The Hill by Paul Almond) but also as the focus of documentaries on contemporary civic, social and religious traditions within communities. Charles Parker, for example, cast his own mystery play from the people of York in a 1973 episode of BBC1’s Omnibus, and the 2008 BBC1 Miracle on the Estate chronicled how a mystery play was made into a film by north Manchester residents. Indeed, because of television’s interest in the rich web of meanings arising from and surrounding mystery play performance, especially with regard to their relationship with place and community, it is not always easy to make clear-cut distinctions between program genres - in particular, between programs that may be considered to be primarily dramatic productions of part or all of a mystery play and programs that contextualize dramatic performance within the overall form of documentary. It is clear that from 1938 these dramatic productions and documentaries were routinely transmitted on or very close to significant and relevant dates in the Christian calendar, suggesting that they were perceived to contribute both value and variation to religious programming schedules. Yet this was perhaps a unique case of a dramatic genre that existed in the programming schedules largely within and in relation to a particular cultural context within society more generally, and within and in relation to, in particular, the BBC’s broadcasting commitment to observe significant dates in the Christian calendar. Furthermore, only occasionally were mystery plays produced and transmitted by television companies and networks other than the BBC: producing mystery plays was a particularly BBC pursuit. Very little scholarly attention has been paid to British television’s long series of engagements with mystery plays, which stands in contrast to the extensive scholarship about the modes and meanings of mystery plays in live performance during modern times. This essay considers the extent to which dramatic performances of mystery plays produced especially for television may have contributed to an understanding of this performance genre as a mode of expression related to religious, social, and civic traditions and community life in both medieval and modern Britain. This exploration will focus particularly on how the spaces of production (a studio, cathedral, street) and the spaces of performance constructed therein (a landscape or medieval images) evoke particular interpretative frames of reference, some of which are tied strongly to a sense of place - with places, and the communities that inhabit them, being fundamentally important dimensions of performances of mystery plays.

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