ESSAY: The York Mystery Plays Conference 2015

This past weekend, the entire HIDden team attended the York Mystery Plays conference at the National Centre for Early Music, in part because we were also reviving our production of “The Baptism” for it, but also because we like to stay abreast of what is going on with the continuing life of the cycle.

The focus of the conference was on the future of the mystery plays. The waggons have been rolling through the streets on a quadrennial basis for 21 years; as more of the people who have made them possible are retiring from their longstanding roles and as York itself continues to evolve, there is definitely an awareness that the years ahead must be approached very consciously and deliberately.

One of the prevailing strands of discussion was that of tradition versus innovation. This is not a particularly new debate, but it’s one that inevitably renews when contemplating how the plays will be staged in the future. The simple act of defining what their “traditions” are is challenging: for example, the longer “tradition” in living memory is that of static, large-scale productions, like the 2012 version in St Mary’s Abbey ruins; the medieval and more recent “tradition” is that of waggons throughout the city streets. Both have an equally valid claim to a role in the heritage of historic drama in York (and now that both are happening in offset four-year cycles, hopefully they will complement one another, rather than be seen as competing for the title of ‘real’ mystery plays).

Likewise, within the waggon-production community, there is often discussion and debate about how “historical” the plays should look and feel, or how much performances should change from year to year. Some groups are relatively locked in to a particular staging, due to large investment in purpose-built waggons. Some start from scratch every four years and reinvent their play, or perform different plays from the York Cycle altogether. Others tend to find a way in between. Among these variations, there has generally been a balance of plays which owe much of their character to the Middle Ages, plays which are experiments with techniques of modern drama, and pays which are designed to add colour and spectacle without being tied down to any greater theory or concept. This variety makes for a vibrant cavalcade of theatre throughout the streets of York, but there is also an argument that, for audiences who are as mobile as the waggons, this variegation may make it difficult to follow the (already episodically disjointed) story, particularly as younger audiences are less grounded in biblical lore. The follow-up discussion arising from the debate about tradition goes to the role of the overall artistic director: should he or she impose a style or theme upon all of the plays in the interest of cohesiveness? Or should groups function autonomously? Is there even the need for an overseeing artistic director?

Another controversial change from 2014 was the addition of a chorus- newly written to frame the plays in a greater context, it was intended to act as a bridge in places where there was either a large time gap in the narrative story, or where some further elucidation was helpful. The addition of the chorus (which did not exist in the medieval cycle of York, although other cities set the precedent) was one of the most debated subjects last year, and was of course much discussed at the conference as well. The fact that it is new and not traditional makes in a focal point for the greater debate about the role of addition and adaptation in historic drama.

Jane Oakshott’s keynote speech was therefore quite heartening. As the person who brought the plays back to the waggons and the streets in 1994, she is a strong advocate for historically informed drama. She points out that this is not synonymous with attempting to recreate the past, but that any historic play will be most successful if the people staging and acting in it have a solid grounding in its greater historical context. We at HIDden heartily concur. The tension between the past and the present is what makes our work so interesting. While we would not want our own productions to turn into a reenactment exercise, we would argue that changes and adaptations should always be thoughtful and deliberate, in aid of the play itself, and not simply for their own sake.

Many of these conversations are familiar. They are issues that have been discussed within the mystery plays community in the past, but there seems to be more urgency in the question of how their torch will be carried forward to future generations. Coming up with answers, however, remains challenging, so it’s worth keeping an eye out for their future development. Whichever way the York Mystery Plays go, we here at HIDden hope to stay involved in some capacity. We will always be among their greatest cheerleaders for having given us our start and bringing us this far, and for all the wonderful memories and experiences the plays have imparted. We’re sure we’re not alone in this, so if you happen to be in York in a mystery plays year, keep an eye out for how you can be part of an amazing historical event. No matter what changes with them, we know from experience that being involved can indeed change you.