NORTHERN SPIRIT

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The Miracles

September 1, 2011 in PROJECT BLOG, R&D Process

Image: Reuters

‘The Mysteries’ plays were probably the earliest example of British popular theatre and have a very strong North of England connection:  the York, Wakefield and Chester Mysteries are well known surviving examples. They’re regularly updated within a contemporary context (there’s a production currently on at The Globe in London based on an adaptation by Tony Harrison). What we hadn’t heard about before was ‘The Miracles’ plays: a collection of contemporary vernacular stories realised by professionals and non-professionals in artistic collaboration, focusing on ordinary people who experience something extraordinary that changes how they see the world/others/themselves/a place. This all feels quite relevant to us at the moment, an old idea (the oldest theatre idea of all) that could be used in a new context. Here’s some more info:

‘Miracle plays, or Saint’s plays, are now distinguished from mystery plays as they specifically re-enacted miraculous and marvellous interventions by the saints, particularly St. Nicholas or St. Mary, into the lives of ordinary people, rather than biblical events. The Miracles emphasized the supernatural intervention of a saint or the Blessed Virgin the events might be infinitely varied, and this afforded the authors a wide field. They were ‘folk’ stories, concerned with the miraculous entering the lives of ordinary people. They could supply us a host of details regarding the manners of the times which are not found elsewhere, but unfortunately there are no surviving manuscripts of the Miracle plays. As regards the aesthetic side of this drama, modern standards should not be applied. This theatre does not even offer unity of action, for the scenes are not derived from one another: they succeed one another without any other unity than the interest which attaches to the chief personage and the general idea of eternal salvation, whether of a single man or of humanity, which constitutes the common foundation of the picture. Moreover, side by side with pathetic and exalted scenes are found others which savour of buffoonery. The plays used as many as one, two, and even five hundred characters, not counting the chorus, and they were so long that they could not be played on one occasion. This is true at least of the mysteries dating from the middle of the fifteenth century; on the other hand, the oldest of them and the miracles were rather short. Places were indicated by vast scenery, rather than really represented. Two or three trees, for example, represented a forest, and although the action often changed from place to place the scenery did not change, for it showed simultaneously all the various localities where the characters successively appeared in the course of the drama, and which were thus in close proximity, even though in reality they were often far removed from each other. For the rest nothing was neglected to attract the eye. If the scenery was immovable, it was very rich and secrets of theoretical mechanism often produced surprising and fairy-like effects. The actors were richly dressed, each defrayed the cost of his own costume and looked more for beauty than for truth. The subject-matter admitted of the marvellous.’

So now you know.