As part of the traditional Corpus Christi Feast, The York Mystery Plays were a city and guild-wide collaborative performance that presented some of the most popular and meaningful aspects of biblical tales in an unusual and extraordinarily inclusive way. Play 35, or the “Crucifixio Christi”,[1] is the explicitly violent climax of the section referred to as “The Passion”: detailing the Soldiers efforts to “secur[e] Christ to the cross and rais[e] it into place”.[2] Since the banning of the Corpus Christi Feast during the Reformation in 1548, and the subsequent final performance of the plays in 1569, they had not been publicly presented until 1951 when they were revived for the York Festival of the Arts. They have since enjoyed newfound popularity, particularly in their 2012 performance.[3] These medieval plays have shown themselves still to be engaging for audiences, and surprisingly relevant to the modern world.

The fact that the plays were not performed for so long has allowed for a great variation in their creative interpretation and staging due to an absence of any canonical traditions in their performance. This poses us with questions when examining plays such as the “Crucifixio Christi”, such as: “after such a hiatus in presentation, what has changed in the performance of this theatrical work?”, “What have new interpretations and adaptations done with this regional oddity depicting the sacrifice of Christ?”, and “What sort of a place does this profoundly religious play now have in a modern, increasingly secular Britain?”

Medieval Play, Modern Morals?

When considering these questions, it is first necessary to consider the performance of the “Crucifixio Christi” in its medieval context. How it was performed, the results of the performance, and the meanings behind the textual elements of the scripts are all important factors that reveal the significant changes that have occurred within the history of this play. The York Mystery Plays were originally performed by craftsmen’s guilds atop wagons wheeled around the town. “Crucifixio Christi”, along with the other plays performed this way, thus “received ample emphasis through the theatrical impact achieved from its graphic and protracted presentation on the pageant-waggons”[4] that were instrumental in the logistics of the plays’ processional nature. The portability of these performances, combined with the elevation they obtained from performing atop wagons, meant that the plays actively drew in crowds from the streets, ensuring a wide audience heard the theological messages within.

Through the “Crucifixio Christi”, the Crucifixion would have been staged outside York Minster during the most active time of day, meaning that its performance would have gained the most from the fanfare and garnering of crowds throughout the day. The script was therefore almost guaranteed to be delivered to a large audience, and thus had to be jam-packed with theological and moral messages, balanced against gore and thrilling entertainment.

Christ’s initial appeals on the cross to “Almyghty God, my fadir free”, juxtaposed against his knowledge that “Thou badde that I schulde buxsome be / For Adam plight for to be pyned”, shows an admirable endurance in order to “save mankynde” so “That thai for me may favoure fynde, / And fro the fende thame fende / So that ther saules be safe”.[5] This fundamental Christian message served to reinforce the morals of the time, piquing the medieval audience’s interest with themes they would have heard in Church. This statement serves to remind the audience to be thankful for Jesus’s sacrifice and of the chance to gain redemption in God’s eyes, and, at the same time, holds Jesus up as a model in how to conduct one’s everyday life. It delivers the play’s moral message, but also foreshadows the tragedy, gore, and entertainment yet to come.

This rewritten and performed scripture aimed to be more immediately evocative and poignant than reading about Jesus’s sacrifice in the Bible. The public performance of “Crucifixio Christi” in front of a large crowd of ordinary citizens would have worked (and still does) to involve the crowd emotionally with the action before them, effectively implicating them in the execution of Christ.

In one of the notable sections of the “Crucifixio Christi”, the soldiers (all called Miles) divide Christ. II Miles takes the “right hand”, III Miles taking the “lefte hande” and I Miles declaring “Unto his heede I schall take hede,” with IV Miles afterwards declaring “Go we all foure thane to his feete”. All this is carried out in order to “tacche hym too, / Full namely with a nayle”. This violence is then paralleled with Jesus’s final speech after the soldiers “raise hym namely for the nonys” that works as an appeal to the surrounding crowd.  He addresses “Al men that walkis by waye or street” to “Takes tente ye schalle no travayle tyne. / Byholdes myn heede, myn handis, and my feete, / And fully feele nowe, or ye fine”.[6] In this moment, the actor playing Jesus breaks the fourth wall and directly implicates the crowd in the play’s spectacle. By this point, the actor will have already been raised on the cross, and this spectacle would be able to be seen from hundreds of meters away.

The grotesque and empathetic image of the actor, dressed in a mere loincloth with the traditional crown of thorns, and with his wrists and feet covered in what would most likely have been animal’s blood supplied by York’s Butcher’s guild, would have made the wounds feel visceral to its audience while echoing traditional elements of medieval depictions of the crucifixion (see Fig. 1). Unable to interfere due to the boundary between the street and the wagon, the stage and the audience, and the performance and reality, the audience can do nothing to prevent Christ’s crucifixion: they are rendered complicit bystanders to what is unfolding. The aim of this is to conjure feelings of guilt, shame, and sadness, hopefully provoking the audience to considering their own mistreatments of their fellows. As Clifford Davidson argues, “The Crucifixion is orchestrated so that its appeal will be both to the head and the heart – but especially the heart”.[7] It does the slightly precarious, yet deliberate task of humanising Christ, bringing him to an identifiable level, as a didactic lesson in how to treat one’s fellow man.

Fig. 1: London, British Library. MS 47682. Fol. 22. From: Barry Windeatt, ed., Medieval Imaginations: Literature and Visual Culture in the Middle Ages.

Similarly, even though the soldiers are repulsively violent, they remain relatably human. When lifting Christ they are noticeably affected by the work it involves, they shout beginning with “Owe lifte! … We, loo! … A litill more. … Holde thane” and upon finishing the lifting of Christ, III Miles comments “Mythynkith this crosse will noght abide, / Ne stande stille in this morteyse yitt”.[8] The Cross is a clear example of the products of manual labour, a product of those who work with their hands. The craftsmen exert effort in its construction and are thus drained, and their toil mirrors that of workers in the crowd around them.

As Garrett Eisler points out, the dramatic cycles “deliberately reinvented tales from Genesis to Exodus fleshing out the characters and inserting imagined dialogues to express the humanity not always apparent in the original,”[9] resulting in this “more human” Christ. Mervyn James explored these human parallels in his thesis on the “formation of a ‘social body’ in a medieval town”[10] considering the plays as a means to propagate “equality, change and social mobility”.[11] If Jesus is shown on equal terms with the audience – physically like ordinary men and speaking with a native Yorkshire accent – then the responsibility of the audience is thus transformed from guilt to reverence of Jesus’s victory over death. It strikes the audience with an urge to act in a way that means no one man is treated like the man before them, as less than another, and to strive to make this world one in which any man or woman is free of persecution: a strikingly modern set of ideologies for a medieval text to convey.

Modern Adaptations of the “Crucifixio Christi”

Even in its own time, the “Crucifixio Christi” can be seen to have proliferated unexpectedly modern ideologies. Considering the repercussions these medieval scripts have had for modern day productions seems therefore a natural progression. Looking to contemporary performances of the “Crucifixio Christi”, in various productions such as The Mysteries (1985) and The York Mystery Plays 2012, demonstrates that the play remains capable of confronting ever-changing issues in a multicultural, secularised Britain (and world).

Tony Harrison and Bill Bryden, The Mysteries (1985)

The Mysteries (1985), written by Tony Harrison, presents an adaptation of a combination of various aspects from across the Chester, Wakefield, N-Town, and York Mystery Plays. Harrison, and director Bill Bryden, strode to reflect the “politics of the 70s and 80s” by demonstrating a “nostalgia for a time when the labor of working men and woman was appreciated, before the failure of Britain’s industrial regions and the coming of Margaret Thatcher”.[12] Performed in the Lyceum Theatre, the extract that forms “The Crucifixion” (Harrison changed the names of all the individual sections of the plays into modern English), shows a strong influence emanating from the first York script, most evidently in Christ’s speeches. There are the same appeals to the “Almighty God”, his “Father Free”,[13] and later his pleading for the attention of “All men that walk by way or street”[14] also remains. Additionally, like regional aspects of speech embodied in the original scripts, Harrison crafted The Mysteries to include the idioms of the modern Yorkshire dialect, and the play’s actors were exclusively chosen for their well-defined, northern accents.

The four Knights’ comments on how they must “tek heed” of the work to “put [Christ] up on t’cross”[15] along with their subsequent colloquialisms after lifting him, declaring “shite I am near shent”[16] and that it “made me bust my bollock stones,”[17] creates a familiarity in their speech. For though these comments may be morally repugnant, they more importantly compliment the identification of the characters as regular people, on a relatable level with the ordinary men and women of the audience. In Harrison’s play, this task is not nailing Christ to a cross but merely following the orders of their superiors: the working class subjugated to the whims of those above them. Even the soldiers’ attire plays into this central theme: they are clothed in the garb of the miners to echo the Miner’s Strikes of 1984 and 1985.

Harrison and Bryden not only firmly placed the Crucifixion firmly in a defined social and political context, they made efforts to strengthen the original themes in order to evoke a stronger sense of spirituality and a more passionate response to modern social issues. Through the destruction of the boundary between the performance and the audience – the play was acted out immersively within the audience – they effectively dissolved the audience into the action, transforming them from mere onlookers, like those who beheld the original plays, into active characters. This more explicitly implicates the audience in the violence towards Christ. Brought together by a mesmerising and emotional performance, with the spotlight deliberately focused on Christ as he is raised “nimbly for the nonce”,[18] the crowd was confronted with feelings of distress, remorse, and sorrow, much like in the original “Crucifixio Christi”. Christ becomes once again the emotive focal point for the audience, gazed upon from all around (see Fig. 2).

Figure 2: Bill Bryden. “The Mysteries (1985) – The Passion – part 7 of 7”, YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V24Ids8K6D8

The retention of important textual material, as well as theological and emotional themes, was part of Harrison and Bryden’s reconstruction of a medieval and religious atmosphere, as they sought to conjure the same accompanying passions of medieval faith. These passions were then redirected towards the social issues that had arisen through the 70s and 80s; in particular those related to Thatcherism’s effect on the North of England. This recalls Chester Scoville’s remarks upon the “dramatic flexibility”[19] of the York Mystery Plays as the source material harked back to a bygone era of work and labour, celebrating the simplicity that it brought to English life which modern Britain seemed to have forgotten.

Mike Kenny, Paul Burbidge and Damian Cruden, The York Mystery Plays 2012

When Mike Kenny was asked by Yorkshire Life about writing the script for The York Mystery Plays 2012 – a process that involved both modernisation of language and adaptation to the contemporary period – he answered that he aimed to “give them a good old shake” but was taken aback by the finished product, upon realising how “incredibly close to the original”[20] the script eventually turned out. Laura Thompson, reviewing for The Telegraph, commented that Kenny’s script, along with the direction of Damian Cruden and Paul Burbidge, applied language that “preserve[d] a blunt, artless poetry that roots the plays in the solid base of their Yorkshire reality”.[21] Kenny’s loyalty to the text was a surprise even to him, but through the adaptations of costume, staging, scale, and aesthetics, the dilemma of ensuring relevance for what Margaret Rogerson calls “multi-denominational, multi-faith and most significantly, faith-less audiences”[22] never left the production’s thoughts. “The Crucifixion” (referred to here as such for clarity in comparison to original “Crucifixio Christi”) would be pivotal within the endeavour to ensure relevance to modern day audiences, and it proved successful – still emotionally provocative, still the climax of the Passion, still with the cross at centre stage (see Fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Jesus on the Cross at York Theatre Royal. Photograph: Alan Fleming.

In Kenny’s adaptation, one actor (Ferdinand Kingsley) was cast to play both God and Christ. This was considered a risk, not only due to it possibly being confusing, but also because the original Mystery Plays utilised several actors to play these roles as the wagons travelled across York. But Alfred Hickling noted that this casting choice came to “fruition on the cross, where the forsaken figure appears to represent mankind’s loss of faith in himself”.[23] The performance Kingsley gave on the cross was striking, it provoked empathy on a scale that was affecting no matter the faith of the viewer. His laments are heart-breaking, he looks pained by having been so let down by humanity (See Fig. 4).

Fig. 4: Ferdinand Kingsley as Jesus on the cross in 2012. Photograph: Allan Harris.

Labelling him with the moniker “King of the Jews” serves a dual purpose. The sign identifies Christ’s literal nature as a person of Jewish descent, but also unavoidably recalls the darker times in humanity’s recent history. This becomes all the more prevalent when considering the costumes’ utilisation of a 1950s aesthetic (see Fig. 4 and 5). Mimicking the aesthetics of the decade of recovery after the horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust, the crucifixion scene evokes the memory of an event after which secular society began to ask probing questions as to the nature of morality, humanity, and the treatment of others. This consideration towards Christ’s humanity, refracted through the darkness of recent history, begins to encourage a consideration of our modern society: emphasising the horror and barbarity of singling a person out due to their religion or ethnicity.

Fig. 5. Ferdinand Kingsley as Jesus during The Crucifixion, Photograph: Kippa Matthews.

It is a diverse performance, not merely in a “creative” sense, and it pushes the story’s boundaries outward to defy its Christian origins and moves into an attempt to depict the diverse modernity of Britain. In addition to retaining the religious message of the original script, the 2012 production of “The Crucifixion”, in a similar vein to Harrison and Bryden’s The Mysteries, touched on issues of class in an overtly multicultural way. In moving away from a classic representation of white working class struggle, a theme throughout Harrison’s and Bryden’s The Mysteries, the 2012 production utilised costume choices, casting, and alterations of the scale of the performance (moving it to one large, shared stage in St Mary’s Abbey), to help embody and symbolise a shared humanity.

The angels (see Fig. 3) are dressed in the “gowns of the Sufi whirling dervishes”[24] referencing the Sunni religious branch of Islam. This not only reflects a multi-faith contemporary Britain but also comments on the peaceful aspects of religion. Despite the often conflicting ideologies, all religions – to most of their followers – centre around worship and bringing together communities of people. The producers of the 2012 production also paired this with the intentional choice to cast from community theatre groups from the local area around York. Only two professional actors, Ferdinand Kingsley and Graeme Hawley, were employed in the 2012 production of the York Mystery Plays. The majority of the plays were therefore defined by members of local communities from around the city, including people from many different backgrounds. It unified people and portrayed them as the face of modern British life, influenced by its bygone predecessor but repurposing these influences as a way to reflect the rich variety of British culture.

This is what the York Mystery Plays are: a dynamic influence and a strong template which, as modern productions have proved in spite of a boycott of over four centuries, have lost none of their significance or strength. Even within a more secular context, their religious basis does not preach but it is merely an element of the text. Not just “The Crucifixion” but every play in the collection is well adapted, malleable, and contemporary. Modern-day directors and scriptwriters do “precisely what medieval scriptwriters did with their source” in “re-aligning it with their own contemporary times,”[25] using the plays’ theological messages and philosophies of equality and acceptance, in order to construct a mirror for reflecting modern and recently passed aspects of British life.

[1] Anonymous, “Crucifixio Christi”, The York Mystery Plays, Ed. Clifford Davidson.

TEAMS. 13th December 2013. http://d.lib.rochester. edu/teams/text/davidson-play-35-crucifixio-christi

[2] William Tydeman, English Medieval Theatre 1400-1500, (Routledge and

Kegan Paul, 1986): 127

[3] Alfred Hickling, “York Mystery Plays – Review”, The Guardian, 16th August 2012. https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2012/aug/16/york-mystery-plays-review

[4] Ibid, 108

[5] Anonymous, “Crucifixio Christi”, The York Mystery Plays, Ed. Clifford Davidson.

TEAMS. 13th December 2013. http://d.lib.rochester. edu/teams/text/davidson-play-35-crucifixio-christi: 49-58

[6] Ibid, 82-256

[7] Clifford Davidson, “The Realism of the York Realist and the York Passion”, Medieval English Drama, Ed. Pette Happé (The Macmillan Press, 1984), 101-114: 106.

[8] Anonymous, “Crucifixio Christi”, The York Mystery Plays, Ed. Clifford Davidson.

TEAMS. 13th December 2013. <http://d.lib.rochester. edu/teams/text/davidson-play-35-crucifixio-christi>, 211-230

[9] Garrett Eisler, “The Mysteries (review)”, Theatre Journal, Vol. 56, No. 4, (2004). 685-688: 687

[10] Margaret Azizu Pappano and Nicole R. Rice, “”Beginning and Beginning Again”: Procession, Plays and civic Politics in York and Chester”, Studies in the Age of Chaucer, Vol 30 (2008). 269-301: 274

[11] Ibid, 275

[12] Greenfield Peter H. Greenfield, “Modern Mysteries: Contemporary Productions of Medieval English Dramas (review)”, Comparative Drama, Vol. 42, No. 4, (2008). 517-519: 517

[13] Tony Harrison. The Mysteries. (Faber and Faber, 1999): 137

[14] Ibid, 148

[15] Ibid, 135

[16] Ibid, 145.

[17] Ibid, 146

[18] Ibid

[19] Chester Scoville, “But Owthir in Frith or Felde: The Rural in the York Cycle” Comparative Drama, Vol 37, No. 2 (2003). 175-187: 175

[20] Mike Kenny, “Playwright Mike Kenny Talks About Tackling The York Mystery Plays”, Yorkshire Life, Interview by Jo Haywood, January 30th 2012, http://www.yorkshirelife.co.uk/out-about/playwright-mike-kenny-talks-about-tackling-the-york-mystery-plays-1-1568354  17th December 2013.

[21] Laura Thompson, “York Mystery Plays 2012, York Museum Gardens, review”, The Telegraph, 14th August 2012. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/theatre-reviews/9475079/York-Mystery-Plays-2012-York-Museum-Gardens-review.html/ 17th December 2013

[22] Maragaret Rogerson, “Medieval Mystery Plays in the Modern World: A Question of Relevance?” The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol 43, (2013). 343-366: 343-344

[23] Alfred Hickling, “York Mystery Plays- Review”, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2012/aug/16/york-mystery-plays-review, The Guardian, 16th August 2012.

[24] Maragaret Rogerson, “Medieval Mystery Plays in the Modern World: A Question of Relevance?” The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol 43, (2013). 343-366: 362

[25] Ibid.

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.

You have Successfully Subscribed!