- Playing a Part in History: The York Mysteries, 1951-2006
Margaret Rogerson's new book offers lively descriptions and analyses of all modern productions staged in York since the city's mystery cycle was revived for the Festival of Britain in 1951. At the same time Rogerson offers an optimistic meditation, informed by deep knowledge of the York cycle and years of playwatching, on the place of the mysteries in York's community life and Britain's broader cultural life, and on the productive interplay over the entire period between academic and performative endeavors. The study unfolds over eight chronological chapters, documenting these performances while building an argument about the medieval drama as a "theater of the people" and considering modern performances in relation to the ethos of communal performance.
In her prologue, Rogerson introduces the argument that modern performances of the York mysteries have not merely evoked "nostalgia" for a lost medieval period, but have participated in a dynamic effort to bring England's Christian past into conversation with its present-day performance culture and religious life. Rogerson views "change and continuity" as complementary forces and believes that the mysteries, whose "meanings are as varied as those who have participated in them and will do so in the future," have something profound to offer to modern audiences (15). These opinions are offered to counter skeptical views expressed by some other scholars, notably Sarah Beckwith, who argues that the medieval "sacramental" spirit of the York Play can never truly be recaptured in the context of a "commodified heritage industry." [End Page 528]
Chapter 1, "From Medieval Religious Festival to the Festival of Britain," offers essential background on the York cycle, a Creation-to-Doomsday sequence of pageants, explaining their association with the liturgical Feast of Corpus Christi and their sponsorship and processional performance by the city's craft guilds. The first chapter also includes a brief survey of the cycle's postmedieval history (its last medieval performance took place in 1569, as York sided with the Protestant monarch, and the cycle succumbed to censorship prohibiting representation of the deity onstage, which was not lifted until 1968). Rogerson contends throughout the study that the modern York mysteries, which reintroduced religious drama onto the British scene under official auspices, played an important role in the abolition of theatrical censorship.
The York mysteries were revived as the centerpiece of the 1951 Festival of Britain, which sponsored the performance of "ancient plays" to celebrate Britain's illustrious past and hopes for a bright future. In this context the plays were "repackaged … and publicized as 'supremely York', and, by extension, supremely British, neatly circumventing the Lord Chamberlain's concerns about sacred theatre by virtue of their antiquity" (28). Rogerson deals cogently with the anxieties raised nevertheless by the idea of reviving a Catholic cycle and documents the process that went into the selection of the mysteries as the Festival's feature attraction.
Although York's medieval playtexts were revised and amalgamated during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, truly massive changes were wrought to create a script for the 1951 revival. In the hands of the scriptwriter, Canon J. S. Purvis, the original forty-eight separate pageants were reduced to twenty-nine episodes in a single drama, and the text radically adapted to fit a three-and-a-half hour period. Drastic cuts were made to the Old Testament sections, as the already-prominent story of Christ's life was given absolute centrality. Though some objected to the new text's dilution of Northern dialect and flattening of original rhymes, Rogerson takes a positive long view of the effort, in view of the censorship constraints under which Purvis was working. For "[t]he 1951 script had to be passed off as a faithful transliteration from medieval to modern English; it could not be mistaken for an adaptation or a free translation" or it would fall under the censor's eye (53). Noting the irony of presenting the mysteries in the Museum Gardens amid the remains of St. Mary...