Medieval Mystery Plays: Cain and Abel
By Mary Parrack
Paper given at the Fifth Annual Graduate Student Symposium, University of North Texas (2010)
Abstract: Medieval mystery plays were cycles of plays, covering salvation history from the Creation to the Last Judgment, which were performed in England during the late Middle Ages. During a time when neither the Bible nor the church services were in English, local guilds brought Biblical stories into the streets and into everyday speech. These plays communicated the gospel to the average person on an entirely different level—not only could they hear the stories in their own English language, but they could see them acted out dramatically. The playwrights did not limit themselves to mere slavish representations of Biblical reenactments, they creatively added and interpreted towards their own didactic ends. The Genesis account of the first murder in which Cain slays his brother Abel consists of a mere thirteen-verses with three characters—God, Cain, and Abel, but is expanded in length and number of characters by the playwrights. Of the extant versions of the Cain and Abel plays, the shortest is the N-town Cain and Abel (171 lines of dialogue) and the longest is the Wakefield Mactatio Abel (473 lines). The N-town play remains fairly close to the Biblical account, while the Wakefield version seems more like the superimposition of the Biblical story onto daily medieval life—mentioning priests, kings, bailiffs, farthings, and a local quarry. I will compare the two plays—the N-town’s sober approach to the Biblical material with the Wakefield’s slapstick fights and vulgarity—yet both plays work in their distinctly different manners toward communicating a similar message to their audience.