Will the Mysteries ever be played again in Coventry?

CovSoc founder member Paul Maddocks reflects on this question

Engraving from a drawing by David Gee of what the Coventry Medieval Plays would have looked like.

The Coventry Mystery Plays date back to the Medieval period and are perhaps best known as the source of the Coventry Carol. Performances of the Coventry plays are first recorded in a document dating to 1392–3.

The plays have been revived many times over the years. Coventry was a centre for plays and performances during the Medieval, Elizabethan and Jacobean periods and it was known as one of the main centres in England for drama.

As Mystery Plays became more complex and popular, they required elaborate sets and holding them indoors became impractical, forcing a move outdoors, into the churchyards and public squares. The performances were combined and held annually, the presentation occurring on the 2-3 days before Corpus Christi, usually in June. Presented in English, the peak of the Mystery Plays was from 1375 to 1560.

The Festival of Britain in 1951 restarted the tradition of performing the Mysteries in Coventry, Chester and York. Coventry Cathedral started to perform the Mysteries on a very small budget, but they were more like the original performances that were done in Medieval times. Over the years they got more ambitious with the involvement of the Belgrade Theatre and having a small number of professional actors among the local cast. Special lighting and sound were introduced but it was mainly performed within the Cathedral ruins. So not really on the streets of Coventry.

The name ‘Mysteries’ has been about for many years but has slowly been forgotten since the last performances in Coventry was in 2006, which I had the good fortune to be in. It was one of the most ambitious with a large water feature down the middle of the Cathedral ruins with a water fall at the high alter end and the great flood and Noah’s ark sailed down the centre then it was loaded with animals and sailed away.

Photo of Coventry Mystery Play, Noah’s animals from the 2003 performance.

Cities like York and Chester still put on performances of the Mystery Plays so why not Coventry?

In 1987 Chester Mystery Plays became a registered charity which guaranteed to promote and produce the Chester Mystery Plays at five-yearly intervals. In 2004 medieval mystery plays were being revived at Canterbury Cathedral, starring actors Edward Woodward as God and Daniel MacPherson as Jesus, joined by a cast of 100 local people.

Photo Chester Mystery Plays in Canterbury Cathedral

Oberammergau in Bavaria, Germany, is also famous for its Mystery type plays. The town is not very large and is located on the River Ammer. It is best known for its Passion Play, presented during the first year of every decade. Originating in 1634, after the English Mystery Plays had been closed down, the Oberammergau play has dramatic text, singers and music, expanding on scenes from the Old Testament depicted for the audience by motionless actors. These scenes displayed the links between the two Testaments.

The small town needed a very special open-air theatre; it was built in 1875 and was unveiled in front of King Ludwig. Since then it has been modernised. It has 4,800 seats for viewers, and space for 1,500 local people to participate on the stage. If you happen to be in Oberammergau during the play years (2030, 2040, 2050), get a seat early as they expect half a million visitors each year. But be realistic – the Oberammergau play has a running time of 7 hours, broken only for dinner.

What has always fascinated me is the question did William Shakespeare, actor, playwright and poet see the Mystery Plays in Coventry?

The Answer is YES it looks like he did.

Shakespeare must have seen the Coventry Mystery Plays as there are numerous references to them in his works. Coventry’s Devil in the Mysteries was famous and acted as ‘Porter at the gates of Hell’ and is also recalled by ‘Drunken porter to the gates of Hell’ in Macbeth. In the mysteries, as in the quote, ‘the devil pares his nails with a wooden dagger.’ In The Tempest, Shakespeare refers to the dissolution, destruction of the great globe itself. The image of the massive paper globe being burned in Coventry’s Mystery Plays was remembered by everyone who saw it.

Hamlet’s famous advice to players, telling them not to rant and ruin the play saying ‘It out Herods Herod. Pray you avoid it’ can only allude to Coventry’s Herod in his helmet, painted face and wig and falchion sword who ranted like a mad man. In directions from the Pageants themselves, a stage direction states, ‘Here Herod ragis in the pagond and in the street also’. Coventry’s Herod in the Shearman and Taylor’s Play was remembered by all who saw him, including Shakespeare.

A falchion sword

Shakespeare was thought by some to be acting with the Queen’s Men when they played the city every year from 1585 for six years.

Coventry Mystery Plays would first be performed in St. Mary’s Guildhall to get official clearance to perform them out on the Coventry Streets. This was so that the Mayor and Council could censor any references to city council officials and well to do personalities of city society. This was due to the fact that sometimes the performances were like a pantomime with current and local references, lampooning officials.

Each guild would put on a short section of the Bible, then the action would move on to another guild who would perform their part. The plays were done on pageant wagons which were pulled around the streets stopping at different locations. Each Trade Guild would have their own pageant wagon which they would decorate and store throughout the year.

So did Shakespeare perform in Coventry?

Coventry Corporation accounts prove that the city paid for performances of different plays in St. Mary’s guildhall, sometimes also called the Council House. Amongst the different players Shakespeare is believed to have served in the Earl of Worcester’s Men when they played Coventry in 1576, 1578, 1579, 1582 and 1583. In addition, he performed with many other groups such as the Lord Chamberlain’s Players, Earl of Warwick’s players and the Earl of Essex’s Players, all of whom performed at the Guildhall.

How many times he played here we will never know. What we do know, however, is that Coventry with its Mystery Plays and regular visits from players and musicians was one of England’s great centres of culture. One intriguing thought is as Shakespeare rehearsed and played in St. Mary’s guildhall he would knowingly be surrounded by many people who inhabited and were to inhabit his plays: Richard II, the Great Talbot, Henry V, Henry VI, and Richard III to name a few. Probably nowhere else, in any other building he played, could he see images of all these people around him, in stained glass windows, tapestry and paintings. The question is did the Guildhall actually influence his future plays?

Shakespeare definitely played Coventry as a man and could have visited the city in his early youth. It would be nice if this fact was highlighted more in this City of Culture 2021/2022 festival.

Coventry was the catalyst of one of the greatest British playwrights and it seems a lot of his grounding and inspiration could have come from Coventry.

York Mystery Plays on the streets of York

For further information look at ‘Secret Coventry’ by David McGrory. The book goes on to tell of more accounts of performances in Coventry and other connections with William Shakespeare.

For further CovSoc articles on this subject – https://www.coventrysociety.org.uk/news/article/call-for-the-return-of-the-mystery-plays.html and https://news.coventrysociety.org.uk/2018/10/19/shakespeare-comes-back-to-coventry

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