York Mystery Plays

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Ancestral Voices

In forming this website, the NCEM organised interviews of a number of individuals who have particular memories of York Mystery Plays.     

1957 Adam (John White) and Eve (Sheila Barker)"The Museum Gardens worked on so many levels, all right it could rain and it was cold but honestly there's nothing like the change on a summer's evening from daylight to dusk, and suddenly there's that stillness in the air, and of course you're just really getting into the Passion, and aware that the auditorium lights are taking over from daylight, and it's quite, quite magical.
John White, actor
"I came straight back from India at the end of World War II, and my first job was assistant organist at York Minster - the first thing was to find somebody who would write the music for the Plays - I said I can't write that myself, because I'm no composer, but I know somebody who could - my friend James Brown, music lecturer at Leeds University.
Allan Wickes, music director  

"Out of a cast of 160 we had all amateur players except for nine professionals. 
E Martin BrowneWe worked for ten weeks together. I had real soldiers from York barracks playing Roman soldiers. We had to work very hard but we were greatly helped by the verse - it has tremendous power and it helps the actors very much." 
E. Martin Browne, play producer
interviewed for 'Calling Australia' Pacific Service 1951

"We were absolutely delighted at the thought of the Mystery Plays being revived - we'd had the grim years of the war and afterwards when there was still rationing and hard times - the thought of a bit of excitement - something different.
Eileen Skaife, actor, costumes, scrapbooks
1954 Rehearsal
"It was difficult to be heard - at that time York still had steam trains which made a hell of a lot of noise and there were peacocks in the Museum Gardens. their calls really had a piercing effect.
Ossie Heppell, actor

"E. Martin Browne decided upon a mounted herald. I still remember my mother (Olave Dench, Wardrobe Mistress) talking of the difficulties of measuring a horse for a caparison. Measuring tapes were never long enough and the damned horse wouldn't stand still.
Peter Dench
The Queen meets actors 1957"I was in the sixth form of Archbishop Holgate's [Grammar] School. We met the Queen (1957). The people of York are extremely fortunate in that one of our greatest traditions is a theatrical tradition, one of the great foundation stones of English culture. I spoke at a Labour Party meeting in Coventry - the car workers were more interested in York and the Mystery Plays than Labour politics!
Frank Dobson MP, audience and schoolboy actor

"Adam was on the ramparts spouting his speech, and his false teeth flew out, and John Van Eyssen [Lucifer] deftly caught them.
Bill Brunton, cast marshal, 1951

"A lot of people were very disappointed when we left the Museum Gardens. They felt that that was the place to have them, using as a backcloth the old St Mary's Abbey. It was a very splendid setting and it was pure magic. But it would have been cancelled altogether if the Theatre Royal hadn't taken it over (1992).  We were very welcome in there and it was splendid, but a different vehicle altogether to what we were doing in the Museum Gardens and very different to the wagon plays around the streets. I think they all have their place and are all effective in their own way.
Rev. Hugh Curristan, actor  

"The important thing is that the music is incidental, it's there to assist rather than to make a statement about itself.  And because the Plays are very episodic, you move from Bible story to Bible story, particularly in the first Act, so you need bits of music to bridge gaps, to allow them to change the scene. Dr Richard Shephard, Director of Music, 2000, 2016.

1975 Leeds University

Other interviews with sound and transcription are available.  For instance journalist John Scott saw play after play from 1951 - here are links to his interview transcription and audio in the archive.  If you wish to know more about a particular interview, contact the NCEM.  The page Share your memories lists all pages on this website to help you navigate.

Below right, the York Waits lead Mystery Play wagons along Petergate, in the ancestral way, but in 2012.  Below left, Stonegate in 1992.

Death with scythe

Waits precede wagons 2012