Censoring the Passion in early modern England

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Round stamp in red outline with the word 'BANNED' in capitals letters across the center and six red stars.

Did you know that Passion Plays were once heavily censored and publicly banned in England? Or that they were not permitted to be performed on the public stage for hundreds of years? 

 

During the reign of Elizabeth I in England all Mystery Plays were cancelled, including all Passion Plays. for over a century the English Mystery Plays were performed and in cities such as York, Coventry, Chester and Lincoln, they had become massive productions involving all the town guilds as participants and citizens, townsfolk and villages from surrounding areas. Even kings and queens came to see the famed Mystery Plays.

This blog post explores the reasons why Passion Plays were censored and cancelled in early modern England.

 

Why were they cancelled?

The reasons are varied but the primary reasons were because of religion and politics, and also the rising costs of production.

In an article titled ‘The Bible in and/or of Theatre’ in The Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Bible and the Arts, we read the following description of  the development of the Mystery Plays in England:

Not only were the mystery plays dramatic spectacles, they also had a spiritual, social, and didactic purpose: presenting the Bible as embodied drama, they were a means of instruction as well as a spiritual experience. Rooted in didactic liturgical drama, they were eventually taken over by secular city guilds, who developed the plays into sophisticated performances that attracted pilgrims and cultural tourists to the famed Corpus Christi processions and plays in cities such as Coventry, York, and Chester.

The Mystery Plays were so popular that Kings and Queens travelled to see them. Margaret of Anjou watched them in 1457, Richard III in 1485, and Henry VIII in 1493. The plays were performed over the course of the entire day and apparently, Margaret of Anjou was disappointed that she missed the final performance of the Last Judgement and Doomsday by the Draper’s because it got too dark!

 

Religious and Political reasons

The Mystery Plays were seen as Catholic plays and this was a problem because England under Elizabeth I was a Protestant country. There was a lot of bad blood between Protestant England and Catholics because the Pope did not recognise Elizabeth I as a legitimate queen and even promised to absolve any would-be assassins of her murder. 

Due to the bad blood between Protestants and Catholics, all Catholic churches, priests and plays were banned in England. Because the Mystery Plays were also known as Corpus Christi plays, performed during the Catholic feast of Corpus Christi which glorified the bread of the Mass as the ‘body of Christ’, the plays were cancelled for being too Catholic.

Pamela King (2006) describes the context of the Corpus Christi festival and the way it was shaped by Catholic sacraments such as the doctrine of transubstantiation and the centrality of the Host in the Mass:

The audience accustomed to going to look upon Christ in the form of the Host through the eyes of faith and devout imagination, either at the Mass or in the Corpus Christi procession, were treated to less theologically ‘real’ but more directly visually available representations of him in the pageants.’ (King, 2006, p.20)

In Elizabethan England, all religion and politics was forbidden on the public stage because such matters were perceived to be very volatile and dangerous. 

Even Shakespeare’s plays were heavily censored by the Master of the Revels and any mention of modern politics or religion was removed by the censors before performances…or at least shrouded in references to what might be happening in other countries!

 

Economic reasons

The rising costs of production were another reason why the old Mystery Plays were no longer performed. Over time, the performances had become increasingly more expensive and more elaborate. Each city guild was responsible for a different play within the play cycle. In York the Shipwrights were responsible for the ‘Building of the Ark’, the Goldsmiths were responsible for the ‘coming of the Kings’ and ‘Adoration’, the Bakers were responsible for the ‘Last Supper’ and  the Pinners and Painters were responsible for the ‘Crucifixion’. Not only did each guild strive to put on the best possible play, using more expensive costumes and props each year, they also competed again each other to outdo each other’s play. Such extravagance – they wanted to glorify God as well as display their wealth and prosperity – and such competition ultimately led to very expensive plays that could not be sustained. the economic burden of putting on the Mystery Plays is another reason why many of the guilds were happy to give way to the censors!

 

Conclusion

From the end of the sixteenth century to the nineteenth century, Mystery Plays and Passion Plays remained censored. In the nineteenth century the Examiner of Plays enforced the law that all religious plays were ‘ineligible for licence’ in Great Britain and even a play called Joseph and His Brethren, written by a visiting clergyman from Australia, was banned in 1896!

It was not until 1951 that they were staged again in England. To find out more, you can read our next blog on this subject!

 

A makeshift stage on the high street of York with people in medieval garb preparing for a live performance of the York Mystery Plays
A revival of the York Mystery Play in York in 1970s.