Miracle Play, or Mystery Play, in medieval Europe, a dramatization of a story from the Bible or the life of a saint. In France, miracle play referred only to a play depicting the life of a saint, and mystère (mystery play) to one based on a Bible story. The terms were used interchangeably in England.
The miracle play developed from the trope, a few lines of dialogue dramatizing part of the Mass and acted out during the Mass for the edification of the worshipers, who did not understand Latin. At first, tropes were written in Latin and performed by the clergy. Gradually, as many different Bible scenes were enacted and the plays grew more complex, the whole town became responsible for their production. Clergymen were no longer the actors, the plays were written in the common language rather than Latin, and the performances were moved from the church to the marketplace.
Each large town had its own body of miracle plays, called a cycle, which was presented annually to celebrate a religious holiday, usually Corpus Christi. A cycle told a complete story, such as the life of Christ. Some cycles depicted scenes from the Bible from the creation of the world to the final judgment, consisted of more than 40 plays, and took two or more days to perform.
Methods of production varied. In France and most other continental European countries, lay brotherhoods produced the plays. A series of stages, called mansions, was erected along one side of a street. The mansions, which were reused each year, represented the settings of the plays. Heaven's gate was at one end, Hell-mouth (shaped like a dragon's jaws) was at the other, and such places as Bethlehem and Herod's palace were in between. The spectators walked along the street to follow the action of the plays.
In England the plays were put on by craft guilds. Each guild performed a separate play on a two-tiered, horse-drawn platform called a pageant. The lower level of the pageant, curtained from the audience's view, was used as a dressing room; the upper as a stage. On the day of a performance, audiences assembled at several locations about town. The guilds moved their pageants from place to place, performing once for each audience.
Manuscripts still exist for the cycles of plays performed in the English towns of York, Wakefield, and Chester.
Miracle plays were popular in England from the 12th to the 16th century. It is impossible to fix the date or authorship of any of the known plays. The earliest of record is the Ludus de Sancta Katharine, performed at Dunstable about 1100. (Miracle plays had been enacted in France even earlier than this.) The Harrowing of Hell, a long verse drama of the 13th or 14th century, tells of Christ's descent into hell in the interval between his burial and resurrection. He forces Satan to release several Old Testament characters who were unsaved because they had died before his coming.
Comic or ribald elements became so common in the miracle plays that the clergy began to frown upon all theater-going as early as 1300. A comic sheep-stealing scene was introduced in the Second Shepherd's Play of the Wakefield cycle. In another play, Noah quarrels violently with his wife and has great difficulty in getting her aboard the Ark. A play about the Crucifixion was enlivened by a playful King Herod, who leaps off the stage to jeer at members of the audience. These humorous episodes were ancestors of the interlude, a type of short farce presented usually at banquets in the homes of aristocrats.
The morality plays combined characteristics of the miracle play and allegorical works like the Romance of the Rose. They appeared in the latter part of the 14th century. The virtues and vices—personified in such characters as Pride, Gluttony, Temperance, and Good Deeds—engaged in a struggle for the soul of man. The Paternoster moralities, performed in York, depicted this struggle as occurring between the Seven Moral Virtues and the Seven Deadly Sins. The comic Devil of the miracle plays was retained, and Vice was introduced as his assistant. Vice, who played mischievous pranks on the virtuous characters, was the forerunner of the jester or clown.
The 15th-century Everyman was the most famous morality play. Its subject is the summoning of every man by Death. After the middle of the 16th century, the popularity of the morality plays declined sharply.