As any good student of performance should know, the history of theatre in almost all world cultures can trace its roots to religious ritual and celebration, be it the Ramayana in India, the Greek gods in Europe or shamanistic rites in ancient China.
However in the West, the performance traditions of the Greek and Roman Empires were lost during the ‘Dark Ages’ leaving the continent with a gaping cultural hole. I’ve always been fascinated by what evolved next, The Mystery Plays, and the impact that they had on the theatrical heritage of almost a whole continent. If you don’t know about the Mysteries you can read a simple history here or a more in-depth one here.
What makes all this worthy of a post here, for me, is that they are still being performed 700 years later. One of the most famous performances takes place every year in the English city of York and this year’s re-interpretation has received some great reviews – have a look at this video, you will see why.
If you want to see more you can here which allows you see the performance from different viewing angles and cameras.
Even more fascinating is that the huge casts for these plays (with the exception of the lead roles) are largely drawn from local people, not professional actors, so it has remained what it began as – community theatre.
You can find Mystery or Passion Plays being performed all over Europe, but perhaps the most famous is in Oberammergau in Bavaria, Germany, where half the village take part – almost 3000 people. They perform their Passion Play every 10 years and have done so since 1634. All the roles in Oberammergau are taken by locals. Have a look at this short documentary (apologies for the voice-over):
You don’t need to be a religious person (I’m not) to enjoy the spectacle of the modern Mystery Plays but you can appreciate a great story well told and a fantastic piece of theatre.