May 2011 Issue   

Late Night Musings from the Chair


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Medieval Mystery Play Staging



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Medieval Mystery Play Staging: Scenery and Fire Effects for Mystery Plays

by Becca Klein, student at Concordia College, Moorehead, MN 

           The Medieval Period started around the 6th century and lasted through the 16th century. It is from this period that the various mystery plays appear. During the Medieval Period, there was no political power or ruling system, so the Roman Catholic Church took control of the populous. In response to this, Christian values became prominent in the culture and the Church was present in every aspect of daily life.
            The Church also controlled the arts. Out of this came the mystery plays, which are a cycle of plays representing the different stories in the Bible from the Creation story and the Fall of Lucifer to the Pentecost and the Last Judgment Day.
            This research paper will explore what these plays might look like, specifically the scenes including the Hell-mouth and the fire effects that would go along with those scenes and plays. I will focus on medieval fire and how they used it on stage. I want to find out what resources the people of this time period had available to them, and then try to recreate a plausible medieval fire-breathing set piece. What was the scenery made out of and how does it work? My theory is that oil, pitch, straw, and gunpowder were used to create the fire effects on stage. The Hell-mouth itself would be built out of wood, since it was cheap and readily available in this time period.

Scenery for the Mystery Plays

           There is not much documentation in this period. The cycle plays themselves weren’t written down until the 15th century. There are very few written documents about the actual performances themselves. The best documentation we still have access to is the artwork from the period. Through the artwork, we have learned that the cycle plays were performed in many cities and in many locations within each city. There are also renderings of different stages depicting different plays. Most of the plays were performed on wagons, which could be moved around the city, while others were performed on set stages. Hubert Cailleau’s rendering compiled all the wagon sets and permanent sets into one stage.
F:\Recovered\Documents\Theater\Theater 334\Research paper\medieval_staging.jpg
            It is from this picture that I based my own model, illustrated below. This exact set wouldn’t have existed in the Medieval Period, but would have been separated into different wagons. But to save time, I decided to compile all of the sets into one, like Cailleau.
            I created my model in ¼”=1’0” scale and is made completely of ¼” masonite. I built my model and then painted it with a bi-tonal mixture of maroon and peach. I used these colors because they were very close to the colors that were available in the Medieval Period.
            Here is my completed model:
F:\Pictures\final picture.jpg

Fire Effects in the Mystery Plays

            I then began to research how the fire effects could have been made. I first researched the materials that were available in the Medieval Period. I found they had gunpowder, oil, straw and pitch. Pitch is a mixture of manure, pine tree sap, and charcoal.  Pitch would have been free to make and easy to obtain. Straw was very inexpensive and readily available. Oil was costly in this time period, however the church both financially supported these plays and had control over most of the finances at that time; so the cost of the oil was not an issue.  Gunpowder was high-priced, but again, the church could afford it.
            I purchased vegetable oil and gunpowder and one of the employees taught me how to use gunpowder safely.  I also ordered four tree spiles to gather tree sap. I learned that the proper time to tap trees in Minnesota is as the snow melts, in March and April. In the middle of April, I received my tree spiles and tapped trees. After a few days, I was unsuccessful, though I am not sure why. Perhaps it was the tree species or the unusual weather Minnesota has had this year.  Since I didn’t know where to find horse or cow manure, I contacted someone who worked at the local pet shop and was able to obtain dog feces. In hindsight, this wasn’t a good substitute. A dog’s diet is predominantly protein, which doesn’t ignite easily. A horse or cow’s diet consists of straw and other flammable materials.
            I decided to experiment with my other options anyway. I was unsuccessful at finding a place to experiment on campus. Someone suggested I try the fire station. I called and the fire department was thrilled to help me with my project.  I went to the fire station that same day.  Instead of using pine sap, I tried maple syrup. Again, in hindsight, this wasn’t an acceptable substitution. I boiled together the dog feces, maple syrup and charcoal, in the fire station’s tool crib. It was a 4’0”x6’0” room. The smell of the boiling mixture was almost unbearable. It sure smelled like Hell. So we decided to see if it would burn like the fires of Hell.
            We trekked outside carrying all of the materials I wanted to test. The rookie fireman was forced to don his fire suit in order to safely light the different elements on fire. We started with the pitch. If the boiling pitch smelled almost unbearable, the pitch on fire smelled absolutely unbearable.
            The pitch, with all of its unsuitable substitute elements, wouldn’t catch fire. It bubbled and dried. We tried each individual element of the pitch. The only thing that caught fire was the charcoal and that was less of a flame and more of a sizzle. The syrup boiled, the oil created a blue film, and the dog poop just smelled horrible.
            Last, we tried the gunpowder. It had the exact reaction I had hoped for. It gave a short, powerful red-orange hot flame that produced Hell-mouth worthy amounts of smoke. After we tried the gunpowder on the ground by itself, I put it into my model. It worked even better. The explosion from the gunpowder caused the other levels of my model to ignite without having me light them.  

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            I knew I had the initial burst of flame, but the play I had in mind was at least ten minutes long. I needed to find flammable objects that could burn longer than a few seconds.
            After I had cleaned up from the testing at the fire station, I talked to the firemen about my project. I told them about my project’s requirements of time, that I wished I could get some cow or horse manure, but I didn’t know where to find any. One of the firemen suggested the local zoo. I hadn’t thought of that.
            I called the zoo the same day, but found out they were only open on the weekend for a few hours. I called them on the weekend, and they were able to see me that same day. I went over and met the zookeeper, who led me to the horse pen. Unfortunately, it was raining that day so there wasn’t much that was dry or that wasn’t trampled on. Just as I was about to give up, I found a small pile in the corner of the shelter. The zookeeper was gracious enough to donate a handful of alfalfa. Alfalfa is a really dry, thin grass.
            Horse manure is much better than dog because of their diet. Dogs have a meat-based diet, while horses have a vegetarian diet. In order for horse manure to be flammable, it has to be dry. A few hundred years ago, people used to leave it out in the sun for a few weeks to dry it out. But considering my time constraints, that wasn’t an option.   In order to dry it in a timely manner, I decided to try to bake the manure. I live on campus, so my options of where to do this were limited. I ended up using the dorm kitchen; with the permission of an R.A. I set the oven to 450° Fahrenheit. Fortunately, the dorm computer lab is in the same room as the dorm kitchen, so I was able to keep an eye on the manure while still studying for my Theater History test.  I waited an hour and then checked the manure to see how it was doing. It still looked a little wet in spots, so I put it back in. I waited another half hour. That’s when I smelled the smoke. I ran over to the oven, fire extinguisher in hand. There wasn’t a full open flame, but the smallest piece of manure was smoking. I then realized that I hadn’t brought my rubber gloves with me, which I had been using to handle the manure. So I ran to the bathroom and grabbed some paper towels. I quickly shoved the smoking piece of manure into the sink and threw the water on at full. I proceeded to open all of the windows and close the door to the kitchen, to ensure that the smoke alarm chain that connected the entire dorm didn’t go off.
            I was finally ready to try the complete effect on my model. I started to prepare the effect by lining the back of my model with gunpowder. Then I placed small bundles of alfalfa on top of the gunpowder. To complete the preparation, I placed small pieces of horse manure on top of both the gunpowder and alfalfa. I lit the gunpowder. It was perfect. With a brilliant flash of light, flame, and smoke, the entire model looked as if it were engulfed in flame. But in actuality, the actors would have been completely unharmed.   After the gunpowder was consumed, the alfalfa started to smoke and burn. By this time, the back of the stage was completely covered in smoke. The acting areas remained untouched. As the alfalfa burned, the manure caught fire. This was a slower, more controlled burn. There was less smoke, but the smell of burning manure fit along with the idea of Hell.
            When I performed my effects in front of my Theater History class, I received exactly the reaction I was looking for. The gunpowder achieved a great gasp and exclamatory remarks like “Ah” and “Whoa.” Even the idea of burning manure made most of my classmates cringe in horror.

Using Real Fire in the Mystery Plays

           The next question that pops into mind is “would there actually have been real fire on stage?” What proof do we have that they used fire? The textual evidence from the scripts is rather vague. There aren’t any stage directions referencing the flames of Hell, or any technical direction. The characters reference the flames of Hell in multiple places, and give no concrete direction on what it is supposed to look like.
There are many different cycles to choose from. Many books offer compilations of the different cycles.
The two main textual sources in which I found references to the fire of Hell were “The Creation, and the Fall of Lucifer” and “The Harrowing of Hell.”  There was also one interesting stage direction in “The Fall of Man.” In “The Creation, and Fall of Lucifer,” from the York Cycle, there is this stage direction: [the bad angels fall from heaven].  “The Harrowing of Hell” from the Chester Cycle, has many references to fire. There is this stage direction: Then shall come Jesus, and a clamour shall be made, a loud sound of things striking together, and let Jesus say: “Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.”  Later in the play, another stage direction says: Then let them hurl Satan from his throne.
            These stage directions confirm that there was a certain theatricality to these plays. The plays were not just minimalistic showings of the stories of the Bible. They were also entertaining; they had to be. Otherwise, the people wouldn’t have watched them. The plays needed to capture the attention of all age groups. These plays would become multiple day festivals and people would get bored if they were just preached at for days.
            Another source I looked to for textual evidence was the complete Wakefield Cycle. Most pertinent information was found in the notes. No two stages for these plays were alike. But as we saw with the Cailleau artwork, there were basic set pieces that were chosen from to create different configurations. The staging of “The Creation” always will use heaven, paradise, earth, and hell. But the order in which they were configured on stage changed with each performance. One performance of “The Creation” used height to determine status. God’s throne was the highest, next the Angels (the Good mixed in with the Bad until the Fall), after that Paradise, lower still Middle Earth, and farthest down, played on the ground, was Hell.
            From the records of the Coventry medieval guilds, we know that there were paid positions within the production that help us understand what these plays might have looked like. There was someone paid “for the kepying of fyer at hell-mothe” and “pd for making hell-mowth and cloth for hyt iiijs” (Rose, 154). Their records also show that music was involved in the production. Harmony was used any time a scene in Heaven took place, and cacophony was used anytime a scene from Hell took place. The Cooks, an acting troupe, were famous for their Hell-mouth effects (Rose, 156).
            The Chester Cycle has the most plays that take place in Hell. The plays do not have any stage directions or manuscripts that refer to the fire effects that go along with the Hell-Mouth, but there are many lines that reference the flames of Hell.
            All of these references within the script itself support the argument that there was fire on stage.  I have gathered evidence from the scripts from the cycles themselves, manuscripts left from acting troupes, and art representing the staging. All of these factors contribute to supporting my theory that there was fire on stage.


           This project was an elaborate learning process. I needed to determine a correct course of action and learned a great deal as the project developed. During the learning process, I made many mistakes along the way. Fortunately I learned from my mistakes.
            My hypothesis that there was fire used on stage was mostly proven right. The pitch didn’t work because I was unsuccessful at making it correctly, but this could still be a viable option for what theater troupes used in the Medieval period. The oil also didn’t work and it would have been expensive, so this is a less likely option. But the straw and horse manure would have been extremely cheap, if not free, and would have created the proper effects that were needed for the play. The gunpowder would have been expensive, but I think the effect it creates fulfills the artistic concept. This is convincing rationale that might have persuaded the church to keep it as a viable option.
            As for the stage, there is no concrete staging of the cycle plays. Each troupe and each play used different stages. But we do know which stock scenery pieces were used and for what plays. It is from manuscripts and artistic license that we can piece together a stage for each individual play.