Jannie's York Adventure
Written by Jannie Dresser   
Saturday, 11 August 2012 22:40


My three day outing to York included visiting the parish church at Rowley near Cottingham and Hull. The small village of Rowley lost most of its population in 1638 when they followed their minister, Ezekiel Rogers, to the New World (Massachusetts) to set down Puritan roots. It was oddly soothing to be in the landscape of my 11th-12th great-grandparents, a rural and agricultural area with many farms and pastures. No ghosts from the past visited me, although I was chased by three horses in a pasture that I stumbled across trying to find the poorly marked "public path." 


From Rowley, I took the train to York, where I had a lovely interaction with my Belfast cab driver who was glad to meet a "liberal American." At York, I was treated to a production of the York Mystery Cycle of plays performed in the abbey ruins of St. Mary's Church. (This was a lovely birthday gift from Julian.) 


I had read the York cycle and other mystery plays when an undergraduate in English literature at Fresno State; these short plays dramatize Bible stories and were put on in the late middle ages by various craft guilds. For example, the joiners' guild might have sponsored the Noah's Ark story because it involved the construction of a wooden ark. The production I watched starred the son of Ben Kingsley ("Gandhi"), Ferdinand Kingsley, as God/Jesus who proved he will be as great an actor as his father. There were several professional actors in the cast but mostly the pageant was peopled by at least 80-100 locals, dressed in Depression-era clothing. The text was updated too, although a lot of Middle English was still used. 


The celestial spheres were played by women in whirling dervish costumes of rich solid colors. The stage, built on risers across the bottom of the abbey floor, had several trap doors from which the Devil occasionally popped up to earth to cause problems. There was lots of humor in the production, but as the Crucifixion story progressed, the play became more dramatic and somber, with an ultimate message of joy upon Christ's resurrection and visit to the Apostles in the upper room. 


I got a genuine feeling of what the popular entertainment was like in the 13th or 14th centuries from this tremendous pageant.