“The Aldermen and stewards of every society and company draw yourselves to your said several companies according to Ancient Custom and so to appear with your said several Companies every man as you are Called upon pain that shall fall thereon”
In the busy streets of Chester this cry might not be as effective as it was in the mediaeval streets in which the Mystery plays were originally performed. Such dramas were common across Europe since the 10th century in some cases and by the late 12th century they were performed outside churches and unlike much of the church services would be spoken in the vernacular language – in Chester that would be English – this meant it was far more accessible and easier way for the populace to learn the biblical stories in the Old and New Testaments.
The introduction in 1264 of the Feast of Corpus christi appeared to be a catalyst for the mystery play expansion; combined with an expansion of towns and cities and associated guilds who were often responsible for it. The skilled labourers in such communities would common together to build stages and props for the plays and as such they become increasingly sophisticated. By this time the Mysteries were fully developed with a tableau of biblical scenes. One of the first recorded was a biblical history of salvation performed in York by 1394 and as commercial trade benefited from the visitors came to see the play other towns such as Chester adopted them.
No Play days
However, the Reformation was to slowly stop the plays. They were banned nationally in the 16th century and interestingly, Chester was the last to concede. In 1562 the cathedral still paid for the stage and beer; 1568 a play cycle was performed and again 1572 which was despite the protest by an Evangelical minister and again were performed in 1575. The later resulted in the Mayor being called the Star Chamber in London to answer to why but he escaped prosecution. A record of play for the 4th June 1600 suggests it dragged on further before the protestant forces won.
Despite the toleration act and the increasing acceptance of what had been seen as Popish practises; the Chester Mystery plays were not revived until 1951 for the Festival of Britain. Since then they have been performed every five years.
I attended in 2001 and soon found the performers in the stage in front of the Town Hall. It was simple but effective set up with a backdrop of the cityscape painted on the back high above it in a raised stage was God beneath a rainbow. I was considerably impressed with how this simple set up was so effective and loud. A large crowd begun to gather and listen carefully. It was an interactive performance with the cast quick to call out to the audience and solicit appropriate responses.
Since then the Chester Mystery plays have become more and more polished and now moved to the Cathedral which creates a fantastic backdrop but perhaps detaches it from its original intentions.