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‘The End’: Mythical Futures in Avant-Garde Mystery Plays

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 July 2009


Biblical theatre re/presents, images and imagines the future. This is because the ultimate future, the End of Days, is a part of its narrative. The paradigmatic example is medieval mystery plays that present the world ‘from creation to doom’, and which end in the futuristic episode of the Last Judgment. In this essay I examine theatrical and performative mechanisms of performing the future/End in what I term modern mysteries, which are contemporary avant-garde performances of the biblical texts. These performances simultaneously rely on and open up anew scriptural texts to create a powerful, modern experience. I identify three models of ‘the End’ in modern mysteries that are related to social and political issues: merger and utopia; descent, disappearance and apocalypse; and a cyclical, bi-directional movement towards both utopia and dystopia.

Copyright © International Federation for Theatre Research 2009

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1 Lee, Richard and Thomas's, StewartJerry Springer: The Opera (National Theatre, London, 2003)Google Scholar. See

2 Freddie Rokem's essay about the deus ex machina in modern theatre addresses modern plays that express a metaphysical yearning in the theatre. He examines literal, allegorical and metaphorical appearances of ‘Gods’ and transformations of the Greek theatre machine in modern theatre. Whereas Rokem locates this phenomenon in a wide spectrum of plays (Ibsen, Strindberg, Brecht, Beckett) and in various manifestations, I concentrate here on performances that straightforwardly perform biblical episodes and figures of God. See Freddie Rokem, ‘Deus ex machina in the Modern Theatre: Theatre, History, and Theatre History’, in Peter Holland and W. B. Worthen, eds., Theorizing Practice: Redefining Theatre History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) pp. 177–95.

3 The term “The promised Land” is a futuristic concept that Mayakovsky borrows from the Bible but has nothing to do with the land of Israel.

4 Almond, Ian, ‘Derrida and the Secret of the Non-secret: On Respiritualising the Profane’, Literature and Theology, 17, 4 (2003), pp. 457–71CrossRefGoogle Scholar, here p. 464.

5 On theoretical connections between narrative structures of reading and writing and apocalyptic thought models see Kermode's, FrankThe Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966)Google Scholar.

6 The Mercers are the guild that produced the play. The Last Judgement, in York Mystery Plays: A Selection in Modern Spelling, ed. Richard Beadle and Pamela M. King (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), page 267–279 here p. 272. This episode is based on Matthew 25:31–4.

7 See Meredith, Peter, ‘“Some High Place”: Actualizing Heaven in the Middle Ages’, in Muessig, Carolyn and Putter, Ad, eds., Envisaging Heaven in the Middle Ages (New York: Routledge, 2007), pp. 139–54Google Scholar.

8 The futuristic image of a city as a heavenly sphere of bliss and redemption evokes an association with St Augustine's City of God.

9 See Klaić, Dragan, The Plot of the Future: Utopia and Dystopia in Modern Drama (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1991), pp. 52–6Google Scholar.

10 Mayakovsky, Vladimir, The Collected Plays, tr. Daniels, Guy (New York: Washington Square Press, 1968), p. 125Google Scholar. Subsequent references are given in the text in brackets.

11 For example, the storming of the Bastille in the French Revolution or the storming of the Winter Palace in October 1917.

12 See Braun, Edward, The Theatre of Meyerhold: Revolution on the Modern Stage (London: Methuen, 1986) 151Google Scholar.

13 Ibid., p. 161.

14 See Erika Fischer-Lichte's Theatre, Sacrifice, Ritual: Exploring Forms of Political Theatre (New York: Routledge, 2005), esp. Chapter 4, ‘Times of Revolution – Times of Revival: The Soviet Mass Spectacles 1917–20’, pp. 97–121.

15 Flaszen, Ludwik, ‘Wyspianski's Akropolis’, in Schechner, Richard and Wolford, Lisa, eds., The Grotowski Sourcebook (New York: Routledge, 1997; first published 1965), 6472Google Scholar here p. 64.