The York Mystery Plays

York Mystery Plays programme
The YAHS library collection contains files full of interesting pamphlets including some on the city of York. As you can imagine there are quite a few on the York Mystery Plays. The booklet that particularly caught our attention was a programme for the first production of the Cycle, since 1572, in 1951. In medieval times the plays were performed each year, on the feast of Corpus Christi, by members of the guilds of York. They used wagons called pageants as their stages and these moved around the city, starting at 4.30 in the morning. The 48 one act plays were performed at twelve “stations” appointed by the Corporation. In 1951 they were performed using a specially erected stage in the grounds of the Museum Gardens. The performances took place there every 3 to 4 years until 1992 when they went to the Theatre Royal before moving to the Minster. At the moment there is a debate in York about their future. One side want them to return to the Museum Gardens and to be performed every 5 years. The other side would like the plays to stay in the Minster and be performed every 10 years like the passion plays at Oberammagau.

The cast for 1951 contains some familiar names. The Archangel Michael was played by Tenniel Evans. A certain Tom Bell played the Second Devil. Esme Church, a name familiar to patrons of the Priestley Theatre Bradford, played Mary Cleopas. Judith Dench, now Dame Judith Dench, played an angel (in 1957 she played the Virgin Mary). A Sheila Hancock is also mentioned as an angel. Could this be the famous comic actress? Annas, the priest, was played by Reginald Dench – Dame Judith’s father The wardrobe mistress was Olave Dench – Dame Judith’s mother

Special copies of the programme bound in leather could be purchased for two guineas. Ours is an ordinary copy which cost one shilling!

Janet C. Senior, Assistant Librarian