Forty-six writers. Fourteen actors. Eight plays. One city. These were the components of the Oxford Mystery Plays 2017, a public engagement project during which local groups rewrote and performed the York Plays for a modern audience.

For the past three years, I have been writing a doctoral thesis about medieval English religious theatre, including the York Plays. There is something deeply ironic and, at times, unsatisfying about studying the York Plays in silence at a desk, knowing that these performances once brought together hundreds of people in a lively civic event. Therefore I was extremely fortunate to be studying at Oxford while Penny Boxall was Education Officer at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin. It was Penny’s idea to create the Oxford Mystery Plays, a project I joined as her co-organiser. In this blog post I will reflect back on my role, thinking especially about the value of using medieval theatre in a non-university setting. By considering the opportunities we created as well as the challenges we faced, I hope to offer useful advice and inspiration to anyone wishing to organise a similar project.

The Oxford Mystery Plays project had two stages: we devoted ten months to the process of rewriting the plays (September 2016 – June 2017) and one month to rehearsing and finally performing the new text (July 2017). The rewriting process involved working closely with eight groups of writers, with each given their own pageant—or, in some cases, an amalgamation of several shorter pageants:

  1. The Creation and Fall (Plays 3-6): The Bodleian Library Staff
  2. The Building of the Ark and the Flood (Plays 8 and 9): Oxford Girls’ Water Polo team
  3. The Nativity (Play 14): Frideswide Voices (Girl Choristers in Oxford)
  4. The Last Supper (Play 27): Oxford University Medievalists
  5. The Betrayal (Play 28): Oxford City Council
  6. The Crucifixion and Resurrection (Plays 35 and 38): University Church Congregation
  7. The Incredulity of Thomas (Play 41): Oxford Brookes Creative Writing MA Students
  8. Doomsday (Play 47): Thames Valley Police

As this list reveals some of our groups comprised university students (e.g. the Oxford Brookes Creative Writing MA students), however, many others did not (e.g. Thames Valley Police and Oxford City Council). This balance was important, as we wanted to involve participants from a range of backgrounds.

Each group received two writing workshops. In the first workshop we would introduce the text and in the second, normally a few weeks later, we offered a space in which the group could share their new play with us. We typically allowed two hours for the first workshop and structured it in the following way:

  1. Introduce the aims and scope of the Oxford Mystery Plays
  2. Set the tone with a group reading of Glyn Maxwell’s Hometown Mystery Cycle, a poem which we though really resonated with the central aims of the project.
  3. Introduce the York Corpus Christi Plays, including a brief outline of historical context and performance context.
  4. Ask the group to read “their” play out loud in the original Middle English.
  5. Divide the play into sections, giving each writer approximately 40 lines to work on.
  6. Brainstorm ideas for rewriting the play.

By giving each play to a writing group with a common interest (not unlike the medieval guilds of York who first presented the pageants), we were hoping to encourage our writers to identify with and take ownership of the material. This worked particularly well with the Creation and Fall, for example, which was rewritten for us by members of Bodleian Library staff. They turned the Garden of Eden into a library, where Adam and Eve could read any book they liked but were forbidden to read Wikipedia on an Apple iPad. When they were expelled from the Garden and condemned to a life of toil, they complained about the waiting list for allotments in Oxford, and feared childbirth because of what they have seen on the tv drama series Call the Midwife.

By engaging in this kind of rewriting, there is always a risk of being reductive about medieval drama. We certainly did not want to make the York Plays seem crude or artless, especially when the original texts are so beautifully crafted and theologically sophisticated. On the other hand, the rewriting process helped put these plays more firmly on the cultural radar. By making the biblical material relevant with contemporary cultural references, our playwrights were (sometimes unwittingly) participating in a much longer creative tradition. The original plays also sought to make biblical material relevant to the present day: medieval audiences would have been all too familiar with the devastating effects of the ‘grete pestelence’ made reference to in Moses and Pharoah (York, l.345), for example, now more commonly known as the bubonic plague. By trying to update biblical material, our modern writers’ creative decisions were strangely resonant with the spirit of the original texts. Making our writers alert to creative parallels like these during the writing workshops proved an important mechanism for keeping the richness of the York Plays alive.

We made the decision to present the plays in the creative writing workshops in Middle English, alongside a modern translation. Given my background I was able to step in and clarify any aspects that caused confusion. Engaging with the plays in the original language was something I was very pleased to be able to share, and I hope a few people came away from the workshops with a thirst to learn more about Middle English. Some of our writers even engaged with the original language on a meta-textual level. This was particularly noticeable in Doomsday, which – tongue-in-cheek – we decided to give to the Thames Valley Police. In their version, primarily performed in modern language, the character Good Soul repeatedly slipped back into the original Middle English, using phrases like ‘Ye herbered me full hartefully’. A listening apostle explained why Good Soul was doing this: ‘The modern version is abhorred / For he’s a purist soul my Lord’. But the character Jesus is clearly frustrated at the decision, exclaiming: ‘But we’re supposed to be making this accessible!’

This moment captures in miniature the fun and playfulness I was hoping to encourage our writers to have by engaging with the original texts. Groups with older writers were in a much stronger position to do this, however. The project aimed to appeal to as many people in the community as possible, and include people from a diverse range of groups. Included in this were writers as young as seven or eight years old, who – unsurprisingly – struggled noticeably more with the language choices. However, we were fortunate in this respect to have the participation of Frideswide Voices, the first liturgical girls’ choir in Oxford. Although they found the language difficult they immediately grasped the importance of music in medieval theatrical culture, and were keen to incorporate some appropriate music of their own into the new text.

The Oxford Mystery Plays project culminated with two performances on the 29th of July 2017. The first was a short, “pop-up” performance of the Creation and Fall in Radcliffe Square in the afternoon. When Penny and I first started planning the Oxford Mystery Plays I felt strongly that I wanted at least one performance to take place on the streets of Oxford, just as the York Corpus Christi plays had been performed in the medieval period. As I had expected, the outdoor performance lent itself to a very dynamic mode of spectatorship: Satan went right up to some spectators and pulled them right into the action, both literally and emotionally. It was good for audience numbers too. While some had evidently planned to come to our outdoor performance, our actors managed to entice other people walking through the streets to stop and watch – quite an achievement, given that it was raining heavily on the day. The weather is always a risk with outdoor performances, though fortunately we had a contingency plan: to protect Adam and Eve with umbrellas. The weather also gave a real irony to Adam’s comment that ‘an Oxford summer is not reliable’.

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The second performance took place on the evening of the 29th of July, taking the form of a staged reading of all eight new plays. This performance was held inside the University Church with spectators sitting in the pews and therefore this audience had a very different experience to the other one, not least because they were shielded from the rain! Interestingly the weather still contributed to the indoor performance, something we had not anticipated. While we were performing The Building of the Ark and the Flood, a storm raged ominously outside, giving added pathos to God’s claim that ‘others will drown in the water’. Staging the plays inside the church, however, undoubtedly posed some logistical challenges. For example, where would we keep the props so that they would be easily accessible during the plays? And where would our actors wait while they were not performing? In the end, we “reserved” a few pews for the props and fortunately we were also able to make use of the Old Library in the University Church, a beautiful space where our actors could relax between the pageants.

The evening performance posed another very interesting challenge. How could we convey to the audience members where these new plays had come from, and how medieval theatre had been blended with modern voices? We wanted to avoid giving a lengthy lecture  to explain the project, yet I felt strongly that some kind of introduction was necessary for people to get the most out of the experience. Ultimately, we came up with an idea that worked well and was in keeping with the rest of the event. At the beginning of the evening performance we began with a very brief summary of the project. Then we tried to convey the transition of “ownership” from medieval guilds to modern writing groups in a dynamic way, using actors and props. For example, I explained that the Creation play was inspired by a pageant originally brought forth by the armourers, at which point an actor came on polishing a sword prop. When I explained that the new version was rewritten by the Bodleian Library staff, another actor came over to the armourer and tapped him on the shoulder, pointing to a sign saying “Silence Please.” We hope this offered a fun yet informative introduction to the plays and their original context.

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Between the two performances on the 29th of July we hosted a short academic symposium entitled Engaging Modern Audiences with Medieval Plays. At this event, we discussed the problems and opportunities of using medieval theatre in public engagement. Indeed, this blog post is heavily indebted to the paper I delivered at the symposium. The turnout for the symposium and the evening performance exceeded my expectations. I think a major factor here was how well the University Church advertised the day’s events, especially via eye-catching posters like this one:

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Overall, the Oxford Mystery Plays was a highly rewarding experience and I would not hesitate to recommend this model to others interested in using medieval theatre for public engagement. Here are my top tips for people interested in organising similar projects:

  1. Where possible, try to schedule events such as workshops and performances in the evening and/or at the weekend to increase attendance.
  2. Be careful not to take on too much material. Eight plays turned out to be a significant undertaking, but we had originally planned to do twelve…!
  3. If possible, make events free to attend.
  4. Find creative ways to reach as large an audience as possible. For example, on the 25th of July 2017, we gave a radio interview with James Watt on BBC Radio Oxford to discuss the project, giving dramatic readings from both the original Middle English text and the rewritten version. As the radio interview took place just a few days before the performances, the interview also served as great way of advertising the event!

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Sian Witherden
University of Oxford



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