Just as was seen in the liturgical poetry of St. Romanos the Melodist, the tradition of expressing the teaching on the Eucharist (the true presence of Christ in the bread and wine at communion) through the arts continued into the medieval period of the Church. What may be more familiar are the hymns of St. Thomas Aquinas, Pange Lingua and Lauda Sion. The development of scriptural imagery to connect the life of Christ with the rest of salvation history was particularly connected to the special reverence given to the Eucharist in medieval age. “Given the growing centrality of the mass as a focus for lay participation…a feast celebrating this very ritual would generate some interest for its didactic potential” (Rubin, 172). This happened in response to the reformation, but also as the feast of Corpus Christi was established universally in the early 14th century. In this same time period, there was also a tradition of the use of drama and play that developed along side these the liturgical hymns to teach lay and religious alike, both the learned and unlearned, about the centrality of the Eucharist within the Christian faith.
In this blog, I will discuss the role of drama and play in the feast of Corpus Christi based on the works of the York Mystery plays. The role of drama and play with this feast extends beyond the annual liturgical feast of Corpus Christi and plays a large role in making the Eucharist apart of the the everyday life of a Christian. To begin this discussion, the content of these plays must be understood.
The York Mystery plays were developed in the vernacular, rather than Latin drama, and did not have a direct relation to the religious works of the time, but still had the same purpose to teach the local community. V. A. Kolve writes in The Play Called Corpus Christi, “in the middle ages, sacraments existed which could bring man to heaven—that was confidently believed—but their efficacy for any man depended in part upon his understanding something of their meaning…their authorization by Christ, their necessity and their future consequence” (Kolve, 3).
These dramas were also described as “a fresh beginning, unrooted in any formal tradition of theater” (Kolve, 8). Different from Roman of Greek drama, the persons who mimed were also the persons who spoke the script of the plays.
These dramas were also described as “play” or “game,” contrasting also to the Latin drama of the Church, which would have been much more formal, even so much as “an extreme liturgical decorum to grant it safety” (Kolve, 10). The significance of the York Mystery Plays being defined this way was its purpose to stand outside ordinary life but, still, “absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be fined by it” (Kolve, 19). In “The Crucifixion” part of the York Mystery Plays, the setting is that of four soldiers attempting to nail Jesus to the cross. There are having trouble nailing him to the cross and there is a little bit mockery that intends to humor the audience. This participation of the audience in a way, tricks the audience into getting wrapped up in the humor of the play. This truly puts the viewers in the place of the soldiers, along the rest of humanity who have mocked Jesus and participated in persecuting him.
The York Mystery Plays were also in cycle form. The presence of Christ is never gone in and throughout history. There are a number of cycle, or shorter acts that depict the various stories throughout salvation history. Although the Corpus Christi play developed out of the feast, the cyclic aspect of it drew it out of its feast to also be performed year-round. The York Plays were built on wagons, need to be mobile and quick transition.
The theology of the Eucharist was particularly present in the Corpus Christi plays that developed because of their purpose of being placed quite frankly, forced into the face of the public. The Corpus Christi plays were written in the vernacular so that they could be easily understood and contemplated. The drama of the Eucharistic playing out in the public square parallels the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. (Scripture on the Last Supper) “We profess this Bread from heaven to the Twelve by Christ was given, for our faith rest firm in Him. Also the actors were from the community, so the viewers could identify with the people.