The meaning of Mystery
As a scholar who works on mystery plays, I’m often asked what exactly it is that I study. The first question is usually: ‘Do you mean like Agatha Christie or something?’ Once we get past the initial whodunnit confusion, people usually ask why plays that tell the history of the world according to Christian tradition—from Lucifer's rebellion in the distant past, to the Final Judgment in the (hopefully) distant future—are mysterious.
Our ever-changing language holds the answer: the word mystery in the Middle Ages had two distinct meanings. One is fairly similar to the way we use the word today: something that conveys a sense of awe or wonder. And while there is certainly plenty of that to be found in the Chester Mystery Plays, it’s actually the other meaning that’s needed here. A mystery is also a skill, an occupation, and thus a trade guild or company, just like those who were responsible for the production of the plays. It was the guilds—or mysteries—of Chester who furnished the costumes and wagon stages, paid the actors, and so on, which is why we still call them mystery plays today.
When we as audience members take our seats in the nave of the Cathedral, we experience God as a craftsman, working hard to produce a heaven and earth that he can share with his angels and with humankind. We feel his joy as he looks upon all that he has made. It’s a moment that connects us not only to the Judeo-Christian story of creation, but also to those 15th- and 16th- century guild members who’ve given us these plays. They must have seen themselves in this craftsman God as they studied diligently to learn their trade and worked hard to produce the perfect pair of gloves, piece of jewelry, or loaf of bread that they (and their customers!) could look on with joy. Like them, we all have our own daily acts of creation—whether in a kitchen, office, classroom, workshop, hair salon, garden, factory, or any of the many other places we live and work.
And it’s this same sense of mystery I see reflected in the 2018 Mystery Plays cast and crew: a distinct feeling of people working together. They come from many professions and walks of life, but in a way, they are all part of the same guild—the same mystery—all working together to create something beautiful to be shared with the city and its visitors. If you’ve not yet experienced that mystery firsthand, don’t let the opportunity to do so pass you by!