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Get Outside and Have a (Mystery) Play: Crash Course Theater #10


Hey there, I’m Mike Rugnetta, this is Crash
Course Theater, and today we’re going to circle up our pageant wagons and talk about
the theater of the late Middle Ages: mainly mystery plays and morality plays. Judged by contemporary standards, these plays
are… awkward. They’re episodic, kind of basic, and pretty
chaotic in their mix of comedy, drama, and scripture. But some of the jokes are good. Like the ones about baby-eating [PAUSE] That’s
more Yorick’s speed than mine – you love a morose groaner, dontcha, Bonehead? Mystery plays and morality plays were the
first European plays to unite religious life and secular life in more than a thousand years. Whole towns pitched in to create them; whole
towns arrived to see them. Those wagon wheels paved the way for the Renaissance’s
theatrical explosion. Today, we’re going to look today at The
Second Shepherd’s Play, written by the Wakefield Master. It may seem a little hum-drum, but no Wakefield
Master, no Shakespeare. And no Shakespeare: NO YORICK! Actually maybe that’s ok …
INTRO A couple of episodes ago, we looked at liturgical
drama: those moments, first in the Easter mass and then all year, when priests and monks
acted out some of the liturgy. This form took off, and spread all throughout
Europe. And by the 11th and 12th centuries, got pretty
elaborate. It expanded out from the altar and spread
all over the church, occupying small spaces usually known as mansions, which were decorated
to suggest different scenes. One personal favorite: The Hell Mouth. Intense! For a while, liturgical drama works. You have the liturgy, you have the drama,
you have the mansions—religious fun for the whole family. But eventually it’s just not enough. Because here’s the thing: Medieval Gothic
churches are big. They’re really big. They are trying to stretch all the way up
to heaven and capture something of God’s majesty in glass and stone. If you’ve ever stood in Notre Dame, or York
Minster, you’re like, yup, that there’s some world class majesty. And yet, even these colossal churches become
too small to contain the awesomeness that is THEE-AH-TAH!. So liturgical drama moves to the only other
place with enough square footage to accommodate all that dang majesty: outside. Now you’re thinking, yay, fun, liturgical
drama al fresco! Not so fast. In 1210, Pope Innocent III issues an edict
saying that the clergy can’t perform plays in public. The clergy are like, “Oh well.” But the people are like, “No! You can’t walk it back. We want hellmouths! Bigger! Better! More!” So in the early 13th century a radical thing
happens: Drama moves from being a clerical phenomenon to being a secular one. We back, baby! Since Roman times—for more than a thousand
years!—Christians have haaaated theater. But Christians also loved theater, or the
liturgical drama wouldn’t have caught on the way it did. Performing plays inside the church, basing
them exclusively on the Christian liturgy, and having members of the clergy act in them
were the strategies Christians used to make it less sinful… but that’s all gone now. Drama has left the building and by building
I mean basilica; priests are no longer the actors. Bring on the incest plots and the dancing
girls! Ok, it doesn’t escalate THAT quickly, It’s
going to take theater a few decades to get truly decadent. Theater sticks pretty closely to the Bible
and associated religious texts as the liturgical dramas transform into the cycle plays. Cycle plays are an ambitious genre of medieval
drama that depicts the whole history of the Christian universe, starting with the creation
of the world, and ending with the death and resurrection of Christ, and skimming most
of the Old and New Testaments in between. Some of them go all the way up to the Last
Judgment. In England, the performing of cycles began
sometime in the late 1300s and continued until into the late 1500s, when they were banned
because of the English Reformation. The Protestants weren’t so keen on graven
images, even fun theatrical ones, and cycle plays were seen as too Catholic. The same thing happened throughout Europe. In the age of religious disputes and wars,
religious drama was seen as too controversial (even if it was very popular). In some cities cycle plays were organized
by religious guilds, but in many places, especially England, they were produced by trade and craft
guilds. This is why they are sometimes known as mystery
plays, because a “mystery” was another word for a trade. So carpentry, that’s a mystery. As are ship-building, blacksmithing, and baking. Listen, have you ever tried to make croissants? Or a schooner? Very Mysterious! The plays themselves are not mysteries like
Murder She Wrote or Serial. They’re more about mystery in the religious
sense. Whodunnit? God, pretty much always. Or sometimes Judas. Cycle plays are also known as passion plays
if the particular cycle focuses on the passion of the Christ. In most cases, each guild would be responsible
for staging a biblical story, usually one overlapping with their work. So the shipwrights might take on Noah and
the Ark, and the bakers the Last Supper. Each guild would supply the costumes, actors,
and set – and pile it all into a big cart, known as a pageant wagon—basically, a theatremobile. The carts were trundled through the town,
stopping often at fixed points to perform. Or maybe they stayed put and audiences moved? Scholars aren’t sure. And by the way, the move from cart to cart
mirrors the way dramatic action would move from mansion to mansion in liturgical dramas. Each play lasted half an hour, and there were
upwards of forty plays! If you thought Les Miz was long, get ready. The cycle dramas were often performed over
several days, though—you weren’t expected to sit for twenty hours straight. You could relieve yourself, grab a beer or
a lard-based pie. Most actors weren’t professionals, either:
they were men and boys, drawn from the working class. In some towns, women participated. Amateur actors were expected to take their
work very seriously, though: you got fined if you didn’t know your lines. The cycle plays were a big draw for tourists
and a chance for towns to show off their civic pride, and their skills as craftspeople. OOOooooOOOOoooo – mysteriiioooouuussss! Most plays restated the basic action of a
Bible story, though guilds would dress stories up with anachronistic jokes and the occasional
bit of troubling anti-Semitism. Plays were typically a mix of highly stylized
action and contemporary realism. And authors were mostly anonymous, although
a couple of Frenchmen signed their plays about the lives of saints, also known as miracle
plays. Medieval stagecraft wasn’t the most sophisticated–when
your stage is a wagon, there are limits–but guilds wanted to put on a good show, so there
were plenty of special effects, like trap doors, fake corpses, fake blood and some fire
effects. I know, right? Don’t tell the fire marshall guild! One of the best preserved and best loved of
the cycle plays is “The Second Shepherd’s Play.” This English work is part of the Wakefield
Cycle. It was composed by an anonymous writer sometime
in the 15th century, known only as the Wakefield Master. It’s called “The Second Shepherd’s Play,”
because there’s an earlier shepherd’s play in the same manuscript trove. Let’s take it to the, Thoughtbubble:
It’s freezing cold in a meadow somewhere in the Middle East (that looks a lot like
the north of England). Coll, the first shepherd, enters … and complains
about the weather. Then a second shepherd, Gib, arrives. He complains about the weather, too, and also
about his wife, who he says is fat. A third shepherd, Daw, shows up, saying, “Christ’s
cross me speed,” which is odd because Christ hasn’t been born yet. Oh! And he also complains about the weather. HASHTAG RELATABLE Northern England content
right here, huh? Then Mak enters. Mak is a sheep stealer. Conflict! He tries to trick the shepherds, but they’re
onto him. eventually they bond about how terrible Mak’s
drunk, baby-having wife is, and everyone goes to sleep. Except Mak! He puts a spell on the rest, and runs off
with a sheep, bringing it home to his wife Gill, who’s like, “Way to go. Now you’re going to be hanged.” But Mak is like, “Come on! It’s meat!” So Gill comes up with a plan to put the sheep
in the cradle and say it’s a baby. Good thinking, Gill. Back in the meadow, Mak pretends to wake up
alongside the shepherds, but they realize a sheep is missing, and go to search his house. Gill fends them off, joking about eating the
baby, which is maybe about the Eucharist? but also about cannibalism? The shepherds take off, but then they’re
like, “Oh wait, we forgot to bring gifts for the baby.” So they come back and find the sheep! Instead of hanging Mak, they decide to roll
him up in a cloth and beat him black and blue. Hooray! Another one of those famous happy Christian
endings! Thanks, Thoughtbubble. Wait… wasn’t that supposed to be a Bible
story? Well, after the shepherd’s leave, an angel
comes down and tells them to go to Bethlehem and see the Christ child. Bethlehem is conveniently very nearby. They go visit Mary and the little baby Jesus,
bringing him cherries, a bird, and a tennis ball. Not a joke. An actual tennis ball. In this play, we can see the Bible story,
mostly borrowed from the gospel of Luke, intersect pretty comfortably with the English vernacular:
entertaining an audience while also celebrating Jesus. It’s comic and dramatic, serious and silly,
high and low, religious and folkloric. It reminds the audience that Christ was born
to save northern English shepherds, as well as biblical types. And there’s just a little cannibalism—for
fun. Cycle plays weren’t the only fun in town,
though. Pretty soon another form of medieval drama
made its debut: the secular play! Which first appeared in France in the late
13th century. These plays were often based on folklore,
hence “The Play of the Greenwood,” includes both fairies and townspeople, and “The Play
of Robin and Marion,” which is the first dramatization of the Robin Hood stories. We’re still dramatizing this one seven hundred
years later, though now with Kevin Costner and the soothing pipes of Bryan Adams. The other important medieval genre is the
morality play, which Hildegarde of Bingen started. The most famous morality play is “Everyman,”
which is still performed annually and often updated. Morality plays have one simple message: YOU
GONNA DIE. So you’d better get your act together, because
all that love and wealth and fun aren’t gonna follow you six feet under. Right, Yorick? But you know what will follow you? Good deeds. So go help some old ladies cross a cattle
path. Morality plays have a huge influence on the
plays of the English Renaissance. Mystery, folk, and morality plays had a good
run. They remained the dominant forms of theater
for more than 300 years. And as I mentioned, “Everyman” is still
being performed today. Take that, “Cats!” But things get tricky at the beginning of
the Renaissance when Protestant reformers look around and decide that drama and religion
shouldn’t mix, and they ban cycle dramas. Happy trails, pageant wagons. Until next time… curtain!

67 Comments

  1. Charlotte Dow Author

    Highly recommend Branden Jacobs-Jenkins take on Everyman, aptly titled Everybody. It was also just named a Pulitzer finalist, so don't just take my word for it.

    Reply
  2. Topher S Author

    No mention of how most of the passion plays were incredibly, explicitly antisemitic? They helped stoke the paranoia and distrust of Jews and – at least indirectly – contributed to the persecution and killing of them throughout the Middle Ages.

    Reply
  3. MusicalRaichu Author

    Coming from a Greek background, I knew that Sophocles wrote plays millenia ago, and Aliki Vouyouklaki performed in movies at the local cinema, so I presumed there was a continuous run in between …

    Reply
  4. zell88 Author

    Grant Morrison has an existential comic called "The Mystery Play" with gorgeous art. Everyone should go get it from their library or buy it.

    Reply
  5. Alverant Author

    Hold on, it's the "Gospel ACCORDING to Luke" That middle part is important because Luke wasn't there. He just wrote down a bunch of stuff he heard third-hand that supposedly happened and passed it off as real. Same with the other gospels.

    Reply
  6. Jordan Snyder Author

    Wait a minute. Has Crash Course always been a PBS Studio production? I don't remember seeing that PBS intro back in the day when it was just Hank and John.

    UPDATE: Nevermind, I actually bothered to google it. Didn't realize I had been watching that long already though.

    Reply
  7. Arya1999 Author

    I watched one of the cycles (York, I think) in Durham cathedral and when they did the play where Christ visits hell, a big flock of bats took off. It was awesome.

    Reply
  8. Bernardo Schmitt Author

    i can't find reference to the play of the greenwood anywhere, it seems really interesting. Does anyone knows where i can read it?

    Reply
  9. Дмитрий Эстетика Author

    Hello from Russia! I wanna translate your Economics videos for Russian people, can I do it and use your videos in Russian on my YouTube channel? Will it Ok? Because of your Economics videos are really useful but Russians can't understand it in English. You will get a new audience and I think it's great. So appreciate, thank you!

    Reply
  10. Allon Vorlete Author

    Damnit Mike I don't know who does the writing for you or if you adlib but you're freaking hilarious and an amazing host. Your smallest jokes hit so on point. I want you as the host of everything I watch.

    Reply
  11. Number Eight or Nine? Author

    Would be interesting to see/hear Mike do deep dives on religious beliefs. The similarities and crossovers are easy to see in "myths" but why are the stories so similar?

    Reply
  12. Raymond K Petry Author

    …OFFSIDEBAR NOTE: did we miss a paragraph about, Why, the church got into theatre, with St. John's Revelation, which scholars believe was, intended as, a stage production…

    Reply
  13. lyadmilo Author

    I performed a cycle drama outside of York Minster (Cornish cycle, the resurrection). Just gonna use this to shout out to Lords of Misrule. 3 plays a year, all amazing. Go U of York Centre for Medieval Studies!

    Reply
  14. Micah Stoicu Author

    Somewhere along the way Mike became my favorite CrashCourse host and I just realized it – these new series have been some of my favorites!

    Reply
  15. OxfyMags Author

    The Catholics really do know how to have fun. They do rowdy plays and drink themselves pissed. Even monks have fun and get smashed for Christmas and Easter. Everyone should follow their suits.

    Reply
  16. almightytallestred Author

    Congratulations! You have successfully beaten a thief half to death. You are now eligible to see the new-born Messiah.

    Reply
  17. K. Marie Batik Author

    I’m watching this from the playlist and I noticed that the numbers in this series skipped from 8 to 10. Is there an episode 9? If not, was it just a matter of misnumbering things or was episode 9 deleted?

    Reply
  18. Pe Ka Author

    Mystery might be a term for any craft, but it also comes from the Greek Mysterion, which would be translated into Latin Bibles as Sacrament, so mystery plays can also be read as sacral plays, no?

    Reply

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