About 2MP


The religious drama of medieval England languished unperformed for almost three hundred years. One of the legacies of the mid-seventeenth-century Puritan regime that closed all theatres as ungodly, was the much more long-lasting scrupulosity which forbade the impersonation of the deity on stage. Although ‘playing God’ was not, as is commonly believed, prohibited by law, generations of Lords Chamberlain customarily vetoed the performance of subject matter based on the New Testament, with the full backing of Lambeth Palace. The lifting of state censorship from the British theatre in the 1960s finally made possible the reconstruction and re-interpretation of medieval biblical plays for modern audiences. This, however, followed a succession of campaigns, pressure groups, and theatrical experiments with material whose contentiousness seems remarkable to modern sensibilities, spanning all the preceding decades of the twentieth century. “2MP” has been formed as an international collaborative research project under the auspices of the World Universities Network to capture the archives of these early experiments before they are lost with the demise of the early pioneers.


The story begins with William Poel (1852-1934), who played God in an outdoor production of Everyman at the London Charterhouse in July 1901, having had a request to stage the play in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey refused. In the interwar years, members of the Religious Drama Society and the British Drama League - Nugent Monck of the Maddermarket Theatre in Norwich, and E. Martin Browne - represent the growing network of people committed to reviving medieval religious plays, alongside the new works of Dorothy L. Sayers and T.S. Eliot. At the same time, Neville Coghill was involved in experimenting with staging medieval plays at the University of Oxford.

The Festival of Britain in 1951 saw an upsurge in activity with, notably E. Martin Browne’s first production of the York Cycle. In the same period the Department of Drama at Bristol University was founded, and, Glynne Wickham and his colleagues, introduced medieval plays into the study of drama in performance. Interest increased in the atmosphere of theatrical experimentation which characterised the 1960s. The York Festival and Mystery Plays became established as a triennial event, and Martial Rose prepared a text of the Towneley Plays for production by Bernard Miles in the Mermaid Theatre in London. In Toronto the Poculi Ludique Societas was founded, in Oxford Joculatores Oxonienses, and Neville Denny of Bristol University staged the first modern revival of the massive Cornish Ordinalia.

It is impossible to do justice to the activity of the following decades here: it included important work amongst the academics in Leeds, Lancaster, Durham, Bristol, Bretton Hall, and King Alfred’s College Winchester. Then the late 1970s and early 1980s brought Tony Harrison’s large scale productions of The Mysteries to the National Theatre. At the same time, the Medieval Players grew out of a student drama group in Cambridge and took to the road as the only professional touring company dedicated to medieval playing.

All the productions, be they based in the professional theatre, in community drama, or in the universities, contributed to a growing theatrical intelligence about medieval playing. All left traces, from programmes and newspaper reviews, to acting scripts, costume and set designs, and production photographs. Some of this material has been valued and passed into safe keeping, but some of it has been lost. At the beginning of the new century, the time seems right to gather and disseminate knowledge of these archives. That is what 2MP proposes to undertake.

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The project aims of Medieval Plays in Modern Performance are as follows:

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The  Medieval Plays in Modern Performance project was made possible with assistance from the following:

Funding Partners

Institutional Partners

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