Author's Note

I won't pretend to be an expert on Medieval Mystery Plays. From Wikipaedia I gather that they originated in liturgical dramas which were performed in churches, in Latin, by the clergy themselves: then in 1210 Pope Innocent III decided that such activities were unbecoming for the priesthood, and banned them from participating, with the result that the performance of Biblical plays on feast-days moved out of the churches and into the streets, often apparently staged in decorated carts. Instead of priests, the performers were now ordinary people - tradition has it that each biblical story would be performed by the members of a different craftsmen's guild or 'mystery', and some people argue (although it's disputed) that this is the derivation of the term Mystery Plays. Instead of Latin, the plays were rewritten in vernacular language (but still often including some fairly lengthy Latin speeches); and instead of presenting a series of tableaux they became more broadly entertaining, incorporating clowning, satire, characterisation, and immersive storytelling with proper dramatic tension and climaxes.

Biblical plays of one type or another were performed throughout Europe in the Medieval period, but the best-known surviving texts come from England, in the form of Mystery Play 'cycles' from York, Chester, Wakefield and Coventry. Some of these 'cycles' comprised thirty or more plays and when staged in their entirety would have gone on for days at a time. Their popularity paved the way for the strolling players and playhouses that became so popular in Tudor times.

The original Mystery Plays are still being regularly staged in York, Chester and Lichfield, and there have been various modern adaptations. What these re-stagings and reworkings haven't done, however, is to approach the Biblical narratives from a modern, sceptical perspective. They have allowed the old stories to be retold on their own terms, and their starting-point has thus been a 'suspension of disbelief' about the whole religious question. But to a secular audience, an audience composed largely of unbelievers, the most striking thing about the Mystery Plays is surely the way in which they explain everything that happens in terms of God's intentions, what used to be called the Divine Plan - an explanation that never seems like a very satisfactory one. God is supposed to be all-seeing and all-powerful, but his creation is constantly getting out of control and having to be corrected. No sooner does he create Heaven than the Archangel Lucifer rebels against him and has to be kicked off the premises. No sooner does he create human beings and put them in the Garden of Eden than they disobey his orders and get themselves expelled into the outside world. Humanity then becomes so sinful that it has to be expunged and started all over again via the Great Flood. And so on and so forth.

To ignore these problems seems perverse in a way - it means that we always seem to be visiting the Bible-stories as tourists, anxious not to spoil the atmosphere by bringing with us our everyday doubts, assumptions and prejudices. But actually, once we allow ourselves to be ourselves, once we allow our questions about the Divine Plan to re-enter the narrative, instead of shelving them for the duration, then it seems to me that the Bible-stories come to life in a new way. Because you can't break them by questioning them: they still retain their force. In fact they get stronger the more directly you confront them and grapple with them.

In writing these new versions, I have not attempted to stick particularly closely to the texts of any of the original Mystery Plays. I have simply attempted to follow them in terms of their vernacular style - admittedly mixing this in with quite a lot of phraseology lifted more-or-less directly from the King James version of the Bible. I have also kept a couple of their structural motifs: namely, simplicity of staging, and the device of allowing main characters to introduce themselves directly to the audience.

The project has been an extremely absorbing one, and has taught me a lot I didn't previously know about the Bible. Having said that, I haven't attempted to confine myself with absolute fidelity to what is written in the Bible, any more than the original Mystery Plays do themselves. It will be obvious from what I've said already that these plays aren't aimed at fundamentalist believers, and they're also not aimed at Biblical scholars. I suppose my imaginary audience consists of people like myself: people who are familiar with Bible stories and love them, but who can't help feeling inclined to wrangle with their didactic content. To that audience, I hope some of the enjoyment and absorption I felt whilst writing these plays will come through.

Edward Picot, 2018