Staging the Passion in Medieval England
Medieval Mystery Plays performed stories from the Bible – from the Creation to the Passion, the Resurrection and the Last Judgment – in live performances during the Corpus Christi festivals. The Plays were performed on pageant wagons at different sites around the city centre. In medieval York, for example, the Mystery Plays dramatised the whole Bible from the Fall of Man to the Last Judgement. Different guilds performed different parts of the cycle: the Flood was performed by the Fishers and Mariners, the Slaughter of the Innocents by the Girdlers and Nailers and the Resurrection by the Carpenters.
You can see an excellent video on the origins of these Mystery Plays below.
What Special Effects were used in the Mystery Plays?
Costumes, props, music and special effects were also used by the guilds as they put on their plays and often made according to their unique craftsmanship. So the guild responsible for the Last Supper in the York Cycle was the Bakers Guild and presumably it was the bread they made which was broken by Jesus.
As Beadle and King (2009) point out this has less to do with modern ideas of advertising their craft or selling more loaves of bread and should be understood more in terms of their understanding of the sanctity of everyday life, where their skills, labour and products were from God and for God. Costumes and props were also used by the guilds and often included a gilded face for God in creation plays, a donkey outfit for the Balaam plays, … and even fireworks for the increasingly dramatic finale of the Cycle as the world was destroyed in a flurry of sparks.
Other special effects were created by the pageant wagon itself which was offered at its simplest a raised stage and at its most sophisticated a two-story structure which had machinery to raise and lower angels and also a trapdoor that opened up to hell. This hell mouth became an increasingly spectacular construct and engravings show a gaping, monstrous mouth spurting flames and engulfing men and women who were bound for hell.
Staging the Passion in the medieval Mystery Plays
The story of Jesus Christ’s betrayal, trial, torture, and execution was staged realistically by enthusiastic medieval performers. Often the Crucifixion was produced by the pinner’s guild
According to Enders (1999) there was an ‘extensive repertoire of fake blood, soft clubs, dummies, dolls, and mannequins’ used to stage violence, torture and death ‘as realistically as possible’ (p.192-3).
In particular, the hanging of Judas required special skill to be both realistic on stage and safe for the actor. In Coventry in 1578, the Smiths’ Accounts record that Thomas Massy was paid …’paid to Thomas Massy for a trwse for Judas, ijs viijd; paid for a new hook to hang Judas, vj d; paid for ij new bearers of iron for the new set in the pageant, xijd.
According to Paul Whitfield White, ‘the Crucifixion itself becomes frighteningly real in those plays in which Christ appeals directly from the Cross to the people standing about the pageant’:
It has always been possible for people watching A Mystery play to recognize Christ on the Cross as the local cobbler and still believe that they are witnessing the actual Crucifixion of the Son of God, p.20. 
You can see how the crucifixion may have been staged in this contemporary reenactment of the York Mystery Play:
The Oxford Mystery Plays also performed the Passion in a modern reenactment in the churchyard around St Peter-in-the-East and – along with the Last Judgement closing with the sound of the trumpet from the tower of St-Peter-in-the-East.
You can see a recording here:
Paul Whitfield White writes that the impact of seeing the crucifixion allowed fourteenth-century Christians to immerse themselves in the Easter story to the extent that ‘were actually responsible for His death’:
Moments like this illuminate and make manifest that marriage of time present with time past upon which the Mysteries are based. Even the dullest and most worldly member of an audience implicated so realistically in the events of the play would be forced to realize the immediacy of this drama, to feel some sense of his personal involvement, his communion with sacred history.
Find out more…
Beadle, Richard and Pamela King. York Mystery Plays: A Selection in Modern Spelling (Oxford University Press, 2009).
Dyas, Dee. Images of Faith in English Literature 700-1500: An Introduction (London and New York: Longman, 1997).
King, Pamela and Clifford Davidson, The Coventry Corpus Christi Plays (Medieval Institute Publications: Western Michigan University Press, 2000).
Pickering, K. Key Concepts in Drama and Performance (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).
 Coventry (Records of Early English Drama) edited by R Ingram (University of Toronto Press, 1981), p.289.
 Paul Whitfield White ‘Theatre and Religious Culture’ in in A New History of Early English Drama (ed) John D Cox and David Scott Kastan (Columbia University Press: NY, 1997 pp.133-151