Alexander M Gross

Literature | Language | Culture

The Chester Mystery Cycle

This article was published in the Chester cultural magazine Tortoise in June 2017. The piece looks at the lasting influence on Cestrian identity of the Chester Mystery Plays, one of four extant English medieval cycles.

A city's cultural history suffuses modern life to a greater extent than many of us care to acknowledge in the digital age. Moreover, valuable texts in our nation's literary heritage are inscribed with the shaping influences of the civic spaces we inhabit today. Few English cities can lay claim to such a prominent role in the development of the country's dramatic traditions as Chester, which is privileged in its association with one of the founding works of English drama, a work tied as closely to its time and place of origin as the novels of Dickensian London, or Joyce's Dublin. The Chester Mystery Cycle was shaped by the city in which it was written and enacted, but it also played a major role in defining Cestrian identity at a pivotal point in history.

Chester's cycle is the most complete of the four surviving English medieval mystery cycles, which were long, episodic plays that together told Biblical stories from the Fall of Man to the Last Judgement. They were performed by local crafts and tradesmen on mobile stages as part of ceremonial processions through the city. The earliest definitions of the word mystery relate to its Biblical connotations as a religious truth known by divine revelation, or an incident from the life of Christ that is beyond human understanding. However, the term also applied to crafts and trades in the early modern period, and as such the name mystery cycle indicates not only the thematic content of the plays, but also the various local guilds involved in their staging. Indeed, the earliest record of the Chester Cycle, dated 20 April 1422, mentions a dispute between the city's ironmongers, carpenters, and various other trades regarding their respective obligations for staging town pageants.

The life of the Chester Cycle bridges the two hundred years between an emerging public, representational drama in medieval England, and the beginnings of professional playing in Elizabethan London

The Chester cycle survives in the form of a number of manuscripts from the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, but the 1422 record indicates that the plays were already established by the early fifteenth century. During the English Reformation the plays became increasingly politicised, and although Chester's proved the most resilient and enduring of the medieval cycles, it was last staged – before its twentieth-century revival – in 1575. The life of the Chester Cycle thus bridges the two hundred years between an emerging public, representational drama in medieval England, and the beginnings of professional playing in Elizabethan London, a home for the talents of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

Significantly, this was a period marked by the schism in the English church that would define the nation for centuries to come. The Chester plays have their origins in pre-Reformation England, at a time when the western Church began to regulate the education of the priesthood in order to spread Christian beliefs and practice to the laity. The formal establishment in 1311 of the new feast of Corpus Christi, on the first Thursday after Trinity Sunday, led to the annual performance of Biblical plays in English cities such as Coventry and York. Yet it was in Chester that apparently concerted attempts to reshape the drama as a genre would take hold.

Illustration by Andrew Story

The fact that the 1422 dispute had to be settled by the mayor shows how the cycle had strong civic associations from its beginnings. Around a dozen companies of tradesmen are thought to have been involved with its production in the fifteenth century, and the changes that the cycle underwent into the following century bespeak the city's own vibrancy and innovation at that time. From 1531-2, the plays became a three-day event, moved from Corpus Christi to Whitsun week, and staged every few years: as with the widely held view that Chester's is the oldest of all English mystery cycles, the notion that their staging was an annual event is not supported by documentary evidence. The route of the Whitsun pageants linked the Abbey of St. Werburgh's (now Chester Cathedral) to the civic authority at the corner of Watergate Street and Bridge Street.

Post-reformation revisions to the cycle show an awareness on the part of city authorities of the need to make changes in a rapidly shifting religious climate. A prominent example is the addition of the Expositor character, a type of choric intermediary who makes sense of the action for the 'unlearned'. The inclusion of this figure has been linked by scholars to contemporary developments, most notably the rise of print culture following the invention of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century. Greater access to the word of God brought with it the prospect of unchecked interpretation, and the Expositor served to control the ways in which audiences construed the themes of the plays. The character also broke to some extent the theatrical illusion of performance, in a context of protestant reformers denouncing representative drama and its 'dissemblers'.

The Chester Mystery Cycle has enjoyed a strong modern revival and is now performed in the city every five years

The cycle presents stories from scripture that have been shown to reflect real contemporary social concerns in Chester, such as poverty and immorality. The play about the Harrowing of Hell, for example, includes a so-called Alewife who is damned for immorality, a character not found in surviving texts from other cycles. She confesses that she has deceived 'many a creature' with her incorrect measures, and that she has used illegal additives in her ale. This episode reveals the use of the plays by city authorities to emphasise local community and promote good behaviour; the pageant in this case represents a type of medieval ombudsman passing judgement on malpractice among city traders.

The twenty-four episodes of Biblical history recounted in the plays allowed contemporary Cestrians to understand their past through the lens of religious faith, but themes of community spirit and the struggle between local and centralised power are of relevance to Christian and secular audiences alike. The fact that Chester's cycle endured longer than the other English mystery cycles, well into the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, indicates the city's differentiated position in the political landscape, as a key military outpost on the Welsh border and as the seat of the influential Earl of Chester.

The Chester Mystery Cycle has enjoyed a strong modern revival and is now performed in the city every five years, with the successful 2013 production representing the first time the plays have ever been staged in the nave of Chester Cathedral. This is due to be repeated for the next full production of the cycle in the summer of 2018 (with tickets already available to book via the cathedral website). That production is set to be inserted in a febrile local context dominated by the discourse of power relations between the UK and Brussels, or between Wales and Westminster, and underscored by ongoing concerns about social welfare. In the right creative hands the 600-year-old Chester Cycle is apt to respond to these very current concerns.

Gross, A. M.
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