miracle play

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Related to Chester Plays: Towneley Plays, York Plays

miracle play

miracle play or mystery play, form of medieval drama that came from dramatization of the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church. It developed from the 10th to the 16th cent., reaching its height in the 15th cent. The simple lyric character of the early texts, as shown in the Quem Quœritis, was enlarged by the addition of dialogue and dramatic action. Eventually the performance was moved to the churchyard and the marketplace. Rendered in Latin, the play was preceded by a prologue or by a herald who gave a synopsis and was closed by a herald's salute. When a papal edict in 1210 forbade the clergy to act on a public stage, supervision and control of presenting the plays passed into the hands of the town guilds, and various changes ensued. The vernacular language replaced Latin, and scenes were inserted that were not from the Bible. The acting became more dramatic as characterization and detail became more important. Based on the Scriptures from the creation to the Second Coming and on the lives of the saints, the plays were arranged into cycles and were given on church festival days, particularly the feast of Corpus Christi, lasting from sunrise to sunset. Each guild was responsible for the production of a different episode. With simple costumes and props, guild members, who were paid actors, performed on stages equipped with wheels (see pageant); each scene was given at one public square and drawn on to its next performance at another, while a different stage succeeded it. Named after the towns in which they were performed, the principal English cycles are the York Plays (1430–40), the longest, containing 48 plays; the Towneley or Wakefield Plays (c.1450, in Yorkshire); the Coventry Plays (1468); and the Chester Plays (1475–1500). The Passion play is the chief modern example of the miracle play. The French mystère distinguished those plays containing biblical stories from those about the lives of the saints. The auto, the medieval religious drama in Spain, was acted concurrently with the secular drama throughout the Golden Age and into the 18th cent. Calderón was the greatest composer of the auto sacramental, which dealt with the mystery of the Mass in allegory. In Italy the laudi were basically choral in form and so distinguished from the later sacre rappresentazioni, which became lavish artistic productions comparable to the French mystère.


See K. Young, The Drama of the Medieval Church (2 vol., 1933); and anthologies ed. by A. W. Pollard (8th ed. 1927) and V. F. Hopper and G. B. Lahey (1962).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Miracle Play


a genre of medieval didactic religious drama in verse, the plot of which was based on a “miracle” performed by a saint or the Virgin Mary. Miracle plays first appeared in France in the 13th century and became widespread in all the countries of Western Europe in the 14th century. The miracle play depicted the intervention of “heavenly forces” in human fate, leading to the triumph of virtue and the punishment of vice.

In France the best-known miracle plays were Jean Bodel’s Jeu de Saint Nicolas (1200) and Rustebeufs Miracle de Théophile (c. 1261). In England the term “miracle play” was also used to designate a mystery play. In Spain the miracle play was close to the medieval auto and was especially popular in the 15th to 17th centuries. The revival of the medieval miracle play in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the result of a fascination with religious themes in symbolist theater and dramaturgy.


Istoriia zapadnoevropeiskogo teatra, vol. 1. Edited by S. S. Mokul’skii. Moscow, 1956.
Cohen, G. “Le Théatre réligieux.” In his book Le Theatre en France au Moyen-âge [new ed.], part 1. Paris, 1948.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

miracle play

a medieval play based on a biblical story or the life of a saint
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
References in periodicals archive ?
(4) The quotations from the Chester plays will be taken from Lumiansky and Mills' edition (1986) and numbers of the lines refer to this edition.
After all, it has long been recognized that the Chester plays contain borrowings from other medieval texts and mystery plays elsewhere.
Yet it is the repeated joke about "teaching an infant to hop" that is particularly striking in the Chester play. The very fact that it is made twice suggests that it had important resonances for the playwright--and presumably also for his audiences.
Passages from the Douai bible accompany selected Towneley and Chester plays, showcasing their elaboration upon the sparse biblical text.
The best current authority on the Chester plays, David Mills, has recently described in detail, in Recycling the Cycle.
In this paper I sketch out and to explore further some of those circumstances surrounding the last performance of the Chester plays, proposing that during the course of the late sixteenth century the town's civic identity changed in more drastic ways than have been appreciated before, and that the fate of play performances there represents a story with darker significance, one about social forces bent on policing the lives of citizens.
For scholars of the drama, perhaps Mills' most significant contribution is his account of the Puritan opposition to the last performances of the Chester plays. Mills discovered a letter-book of Christopher Goodman, a Puritan preacher, that contains letters to the Earl of Huntington, the lord president of the Council of the North, and Archbishop Grindal of York, with regard to the performance of the plays in 1572.
(3) See The Chester Plays, adapted as an acting text by Alexandra Johnston, assisted by Linda Phillips (2010), from the modernized version by David Mills: available as PDF pages at <http://www.reed.utoronto.ca/chester/> and <http://www.reed.
Indeed, it is already generally accepted that direct influence between a non-cycle play and the Chester plays exists.
One suspects that these alliances were often more powerful in their effects than other social relationships among women, if only because gossips are excoriated so extensively in male-authored literature, for instance, in the Noah interpolation in the Chester play, where Noah's wife prefers them to him, or in Thomas Parrot's 'The Gossips Greeting', which reveals, as Margo Hendricks demonstrates, how the 'discursive act engenders a range of possibilities for women to function as social agents' ('Alliance and Exile: Aphra Behn's Racial Identity', 262).
Other stage directions in the Chester Plays (11) and The Conversion of Saint Paul (12) make similar requirements but do not determine from whose perspective the disappearance occurs.
--'The Chester Plays at Chester: Some Stray Thoughts on Chester 1983', English Medieval Theatre 5 (1983), 42-4.

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