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English Mystery Plays: A Selection (English Library) [Paperback]

Peter Happe
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

27 Nov 1975 English Library
Humour, pathos and suffering, and the culminating drama of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, give these plays a wonderful immediacy. Their action was conceived on a cosmic scale and all the enthusiasm and vitality of their writing is retained to this day. The energies of whole communities, notably at Chester, York and Wakefield, were devoted to their production and they were to influence later dramatists significantly. The grand design of the mystery plays was to celebrate the Christian story from 'The Fall of Lucifer' to the 'Judgement Day', and this volume contains thirty-eight plays, forming in itself a composite cycle and including almost all the incidents common to the extant cycles.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 720 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; Reprint edition (27 Nov 1975)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140430938
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140430936
  • Product Dimensions: 2.9 x 12.8 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 392,472 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
These Banns, intended to be read aloud at the beginning of performances of the Chester cycle, have survived in a copy originating c.1540 (Harl. MS 2150). Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A good place to start 12 Feb 2009
Penguin's selection of mystery plays should carry a broad appeal to both scholars and casual readers. The text benefits from a straightforward, authorative introduction by editor Peter Happe that gives background to the cycles, differentiates between them and contextualises them. Covering some twenty-six pages, it gives you plenty of depth without too much academic-speak.

The book demonstrates the diversity and individuality of the cycles from Chester, York and Towneley. In one case, readers will be able to compare and contrast what are differing presentations of the same story: both the Towneley and Chester version of 'Noah' are presented back-to-back.

Although essentially a conglomerate cycle, this edition does have an organic feel with its common sense approach to the sequencing (OT first, then NT, etc). As such, it's easy to read the book from cover to cover and appreciate the variety of plays on offer at a typical cycle. Typifying the attention to detail, the text proper begins with a 'Bann', basically the formal introduction given at all mystery plays giving an account of what's in store to the audience.

The plays themselves are fascinating, funny and nuanced. Even though they are all familiar religious narratives, the plays are revitalised by the playwrights. They are shot through with the the writers' contemporary concerns that give you a good idea of medieval culture and attitudes to the body, culture and class in a forgotten society. It's difficult to stress just how removed from religion in a traditional sense these plays are, how devoid of stuffiness. Like in Chaucer's work, the general feeling is of carnival and good humour.

The texts are presented in middle english in a clear and contemporary typeface, with no translated pane.
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4.0 out of 5 stars seriously classic 5 May 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
For a serious student of historical theatre, this is probably the best possible place to start; it's genuinely scholarly and authoritative. It's also much easier to read than it might appear to be, and it is very very interesting indeed.
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By Mrs. K. A. Wheatley TOP 500 REVIEWER VINE VOICE
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is a great volume, which supplies a good selection of English Mystery plays from various play cycles. The plays are put in order from the tales of the creation to the end of the world and judgement day. Where possible the editor has provided two or three contrasting versions of the same plays to show variations in English usage, themes etc. Each play is prefaced by a brief introduction outlining which cycle the play comes from, date, and relevant details of performances etc. There is a good general introduction about mystery plays as a whole. The whole volume is easy to read, accessible and well thought out.
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1 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent service for a used copy 20 Jan 2004
I purchased a used copy from mark.beecher@ntlworld.com via Amazon, and I must say what a pleasure it was. The same day I received an email to inform me that the book would be posted 1st class by the next working day. True to his word, I received my book on the Tuesday (the Monday being the first working day). I needed this book for an assignment, but did not want to pay 12.99 for a copy. The used book is in excellent condition and cost me half the price. I am sure too, that it arrived in half the time!
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Amazon.com: 5.0 out of 5 stars  1 review
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Centuries before Shakespeare... 4 Jun 2008
By Giordano Bruno - Published on Amazon.com
...stagecraft in England was already thriving among the folk. "Mystery Plays" were produced as parts of pageants as early as the 1300s, with the first absolute evidence of such a performance in 1378. They were community efforts, associated with specific religious festivals and most probably with market faires. All the known examples portray events of Biblical history, both Old Testament and New, but with considerable license to include imagined personages and incidents. Most if not all were cyclical, proceeding from the story of Adam and Eve, tale by tale, up to the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ. In some cases, the cycle of plays may have been mounted at various times in the church year, or spread over a number of years, or else produced simulataneously on various stages around the pageant grounds. Generally, each play was the possession and responsibility of a guild - either a craft guild or a devotional confraternity - whose members constituted cast and stage hands. It's known that sometimes the plays were staged on wagons, which moved from station to station throught the community. Certain communities were well-known in their times for their play pageants, among them York, Chester, and Wakefield. Thus the most well preserved cycles are those associated with such cities. The authors of the plays are unknown, but they were certainly educated men, most likely local clergymen. Some of them possessed the highest literary instincts. The mystery plays, all and some, are among the greatest literary treasures of the European Middle Ages.

The language in which they were written is far closer to modern English than the language of Chaucer. Here's a sample, the exchange between one of the Three Kings and Herod, who is always portrayed as a raving madman:

Herod: This were a wondir thyng!
Say, what barne shulde that be?
I Rex: Sir, he shall be kyng
Of Jewes and of Jude.
Herod: Kyng! In the devyl way, dogges, fy!
Now I see wele ye rothe and rave
Be any shymeryng of the skye
When ye shudde knowe owther kyng or knave?
Nay, I am kyng and none but I...

Not so hard, eh? Especially with notes and glosses.

The promulgation of the Feast of Corpus Christi, by the Council of Vienne in 1311, with its date set never midsummer, played a large role in stabilizing and disseminating the custom of play pageants around Europe. The Oberammergau Passion Play is a survival of that influence. Similar plays were produced in France, more probably under monastic supervision, and an impressive manuscript, the Fleury Playbook, has survived, but no other folk achieved such literary excellence as the English. The Coventry cycle in particular is witty, lusty, bawdy, and at the same time touchingly pious and reverent. No doubt the plays were justified as "educational" sermons-in-the-round in pre-literate communities, but their entertainment value must have been appreciated equally.

I've searched the crypts and closets of amazon for films or TV realizations of any of the Mystery Plays, and found... NONE! Heads up, cinematographers! Here's a huge opportunity!
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