Mystery and Miracle Plays


Earlier English drama has its origin in the religious play of the middle Ages called the Mystery and Miracle plays. Therefore, Mystery and Miracle plays were among the earliest form of theatre that formally developed in Medieval Europe. Medieval mystery plays focused on the representation of Bible stories in churches as tableaux with accompanying antiphonal song.

Mystery Plays came into being in the Middle Ages, during the 12th century, from the lack of interest from the cathedrals in the typical church services and their ignorance of the Latin language. This problem prompted the elaboration of certain services. It began with subtle changes to the services for religious holidays or festivals such as ‘Easter’ and ‘Good Friday’, that involved bringing down the cross for all to see; and expanded to the Christmas service with the scene of Christ’s birth in the manger.

One of the first liturgical performances was Queen Quaeritis, in 925, as the theatre became more popular, they were moved out of the church to accommodate the growing audience. During the 13th century, Mystery plays gained less support from religious figures due to their questionable religious values they started to be performed in the vernacular and were starting to drift away from being performed in the church.

What is Mystery play?

The Mystery plays is a spectacular presentation of the ‘biblical’ stories. It is a cycle of plays evolved presenting various stories but with a singular theme.  Mystery play composed by the clergy with a certain secular disposition in iambic verse. It is also known as ‘cycle plays’ as they make up a cycle of 48 surviving short plays.  

All the cycles more or less took the materials from the episodes of the Old and New Testaments. Their aim was to reveal to the common crowd the entire story of the human world from the Creation to the Resurrection. The productions of these plays were rather crude. There was very little stage property. There was a very few sceneries and the dramatic effect was mainly brought out by means of some symbols. The actors were almost amateurs. But the audience was very responsive to the appeal of the play.

Hence, these cycles, largely bereft of any lasting literary value facilitated the replacement of Latin by the vernacular as the medium of religion, the shift of theatrical activity from cathedrals to open public places, and in theatrical experience a change from a sense of religious solemnity to the pursuit of popular taste.

Almost 300 hundred years ago, i.e. 15th and 16th century, this play was one of the most popular form of drama in England. This play was used to performed annually in the biggest towns and cities of the country.

Why Mystery play was so popular?

Mystery play was popular because they took the mysteries of ‘God’ as their primary theme. They aimed to show, in the course of a day, the whole history of the universe from the creation of Heaven and Earth to the Last Judgement i.e. the end of the world, when everyone on earth will be judged by God and divided between Heaven and Hell, salvation and damnation.

Also, these plays were organised, funded and produced by guilds, which were also called ‘mysteries’ in the Middle Ages. Guilds were associations of craftsmen or merchants, who were in charge of regulating and teaching their trade; they were often wealthy and wielded considerable power.

Another reason for the popularity of Mystery plays was apart from modern drama was their mobility. The plays were usually performed on separate pageant wagons, with wheels, so that they could be moved. The wagons would proceed, one after another, and the players would perform on them at various fixed stations around the town or city. The audience could pay a bit more to have a seat at these various stations, or they could stand – and this gave them more autonomy over their experience. They could either stay at one station and watch every play, or dip in and out, wandering between the different stations – something more akin to the immersive theatre which has found such popularity in recent years, than a West End show or a play at the National.

The players performed their historical stories in up-to-date settings, making references to local landmarks, disputes and characters in order to root the action not only in the contemporary moment, but in their particular location. In this way, the players drew their audience into the play-world, making the mysteries of God and the history of Christianity feel more present and accessible.

Mystery Play Features/characteristics

Mystery play has some specific feature that play an important role like, a huge aspect of Mystery plays was that they neglected to utilize the three unities; place, time, and action. Because of this the plays could represent any location or time and were not tied down by each story they were performing and could pose two time periods or locations together that are not cohesive.

What is Miracle Play?

Miracle plays were enacted in humour of saints whose lives they depict. Miracle play presented a real or fictitious account of the life, i.e. miracles, or martyrdom of a saint. The genre evolved from liturgical offices developed during the 10th and 11th centuries to enhance calendar festivals. By the 13th century they had become vernacularized and filled with unecclesiastical elements. It is also known as ‘saint Plays’.

How does Morality play came into being?

Eventually, In the 15th century, the religious contents were replaced by an ‘allegory’ and called “Moralities” in which characters were abstraction like; love, life, death, greed and repentance etc. Also, in moralities play comic genre or element was introduced to keep audience in good humour and soon in regular dramatic composition called the ‘interlude’, developed, after Mystery and Miracle plays.

What is Interlude?

Interlude is a short play that introduced real characters, usually of humble rank, such as citizens and friars; there was an absence of allegorical figures; there was much broad farcical humour, often coarse; and there were set scenes, a new feature in the English drama. It will be observed that the interlude was a great advance upon the Morality Play.


Therefore, the theatrical organization in this particular era, went into the hands of social and trade guilds associated with towns like; York, Chester Coventry, Wakefield and Lincoln. A significant development for the later Elizabethan drama was the mixing up of the solemn religious practices with the comic frivolities i.e. lack of seriousness, inherent in day to day life.

Eventually, the advent of Renaissance in England introduced the classical drama of Greece and Rome into England. A group of young writers like; Lyle, Lodge, Greene and Peele collectively called university as they started producing plays based on classical models. However, they were best at their experiments.

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