Mystery play  

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Mystery plays are among the earliest formally developed plays in medieval Europe. Their origin is obscure, but may be related to ancient Greek mystic cult initiation rites, from which developed religious ceremonies consisting of dramatic performances including purifications, sacrificial offerings, feasts, processions, songs, and dances associated with worship of deities, cultural practices, and educational instruction. Medieval mystery plays focused on the representation of Bible stories in churches as tableaux with accompanying antiphonal song, such as the quem quaeritis, a short musical performance set at the tomb of the risen Christ. These simple structures were developed with tropes, verbal embellishment of the liturgical text, and became more elaborate. As these liturgical plays became more popular, vernacular analogues began to develop as traveling companies of players and civic theatrical productions became more common in the late Middle Ages.

These vernacular religious performances were, in some of the larger cities in England such as York, performed and produced by guilds, with each guild taking responsibility for a particular piece of scriptural history. From the guild control they gained the name mystery play or just mysteries, from the Latin mysterium (meaning handicraft and relating to the guilds). Mystery plays should not be confused with Miracle plays, which specifically re-enacted episodes from the lives of the saints; however, it is also to be noted that both of these terms are more commonly used by modern scholars than they were by medieval people, who used a wide variety of terminology to refer to their dramatic performances.

The mystery play developed, in some places, into a series of plays dealing with all the major events in the Christian calendar, from the Creation to the Day of Judgment. By the end of the 15th century, the practise of acting these plays in cycles on festival days (such as Corpus Christi, performed on the Feast of Corpus Christi) was established in several parts of Europe. Sometimes, each play was performed on a decorated cart called a pageant that moved about the city to allow different crowds to watch each play. The entire cycle could take up to twenty hours to perform and could be spread over a number of days. Taken as a whole, these are referred to as Corpus Christi cycles.

The plays were performed by a combination of professionals and amateurs and were written in highly elaborate stanza forms; they were often marked by the extravagance of the sets and 'special effects', but could also be stark and intimate. The variety of theatrical and poetic styles, even in a single cycle of plays, could be remarkable.

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