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A brief history of the famous English mystery plays

The following article is reprinted from A Dictionary of the Drama. W. Davenport Adams. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1904.

The Chester Plays, twenty-five in number, were enacted from 1268 to 1577, and again in 1600, on the first three days in Whitsun week, each play being undertaken by one of the twenty-five trade companies of the city. A local proclamation, made in the twenty-fourth year of Henry VIII's reign, comprises the following account of their origin: "Of old time ... a play and declaration of diverse storyes of the Bible, beginning with the creation and fall of Lucifer, and ending with the generall Judgment of the World,... was devised and made by one Sir Henry Frances, Sometyme monck of this monastrey disolved, who obtayning and got of Clement, then bishop of Rome, a thousand dayes of pardon, and of the bishop of Chester at that time forty days of pardon, graunted from thensforth to every person resorting in peaceable manner with good devotion to heare and see the sayd plays from tyme to tyme, as oft as they shall be played within the sayd citty ... which playes were devised to the honor of God by John Arnway, then Maior of this citty of Chester [1268-1276]." The text of the plays is contained in four manuscripts of various dates, from 1597 to 1607, and was edited for the Shakespeare Society by Thomas Wright in 1843 and 1847. The first thirteen plays were afterwards edited for the Early English Text Society by Dr. H. Deimling in 1892. Specimens are included in A.W. Pollard's English Miracle Plays (1890). The authorship of the series has been ascribed to one "Randall Higgenett, a monk of Chester abby." "As regards metre and form, the cycle," says Pollard, "shows exceptional unity. It is mainly written in eight-line stanza.... If it be true, as Professor Ten Brink suggests, that the Chester cycle is both less important and less original than those of York and Woodkirk, and that its best, both of pathos and humour, appears to be borrowed, it must be allowed on the other hand that its author was possessed of an unusual share of good taste.... There is less in the Chester plays to jar on modern feelings than in any other of the cycles. The humour is kept more within bounds, the religious tone is far higher, and the speeches of the Expositor at the end of each play shows that a real effort was made to serve the religious object to which all Miracle plays were ostensibly directed."

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