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Medieval plays in modern performance

Photographs of the 1969 Bristol University Drama Department production of The Cornish Ordinalia at Piran Round, Cornwall

Photographs of the 1969 Bristol University Drama Department production of The Cornish Ordinalia at Piran Round, Cornwall

10 June 2010

Professor of Medieval Studies, Pamela King, in partnership with the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, has secured funding from the Worldwide Universities Network for an international archival project on the modern performance of medieval plays.

The religious drama of medieval England languished unperformed for almost 300 years.  One of the legacies of the mid-seventeenth-century Puritan regime that closed all theatres as ungodly, was the much more long-lasting scrupulousness 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 these plays during the preceding decades of the twentieth century.  In 1901, William Poel's production of Everyman had sparked a new popularity for the play and the 1951 Festival of Britain saw an explosion of interest in such works when the Mystery Plays were revived in York and Chester.  Bristol University Drama Department, the first of its kind in the UK, helped drive this forward with such seminal productions as The Cornish Ordinalia in 1969.

The WUN funding will enable an international team of theatre scholars, led by Bristol, to link all known archival traces of twentieth-century revivals, reconstructions, and adaptations of English drama from the Middle Ages. 

The project seeks to ensure that these unique archives are preserved for, and made accessible to, future generations.  Owners and custodians of relevant material are invited to contact the project partners about what they hold.

The University of Bristol Theatre Collection is an Accredited Museum and research centre dedicated to the study of British Theatre History. It holds a vast collection of original documents, photographs, film footage and artefacts from theatres, actors, performers, designers and theatre historians.  The Collection welcomes visitors locally and from all over the world.

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