Tuesday, 23 December 2008

'The Coventry Carol'

In an attempt to provide this nascent blog with something both festive and relevant/useful/educational I have reproduced below the lyrics of 'The Coventry Carol':

Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
By, by, lully, lullay,
Thou little tiny child,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Oh sisters too, how may we do
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling, for whom we do sing,
By, by, lully, lullay

Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
By, by, lully, lullay,
Thou little tiny child,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight
All children young to slay

Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
By, by, lully, lullay,
Thou little tiny child,
By, by, lully, lullay.

A woe is me, poor child for thee,
And ever mourn and may
For thy parting, nor say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
By, by, lully, lullay,
Thou little tiny child,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Although familiar to most people as a Christmas carol, the song was originally part of the Coventry cycle of Mystery Plays, sung during the Shearmen and Tailors' pageant of 'The Slaughter of the Innocents'. Of course, it is entirely possible that, during the Middle Ages, the song would also have been sung at Christmas. However, unlike today it was not rigidly connected to one season, or one occasion. Indeed, the song's role in the Mystery Plays' performance of the 'Christmas story' at Whitsun or Corpus Christi is congruent with the collapsing of conventional temporal conceptions enacted by the Cycle drama.

Whatever its history as a Christmas song, 'The Coventry Carol' is notable for two things. Firstly, it has great literary and historical value as one of the few surviving musical elements of the Cycle drama. Secondly, its beautiful lyrical and musical devices wonderfully reflect and engage with the drama of the Shearmen and Tailors' Pageant.

If you have to hand a recording of the song* or if you already know the tune, listen to the chorus. In the verses, and in the second line of the chorus, "By, by, lully, lullay" goes up and down the minor scale, returning to the minor root on the last syllable. In the fourth line of the chorus, however, "By, by, lully, lullay" goes up and down the minor scale, but instead of returning to the minor root, the final note is raised or sharped to end in a major key. This device, known as a Picardy third, was often used in Medieval music. It is less common today, although 'Crazy' by Gnarls Barkley does employ it: in that song, the first verse after a chorus is often raised from the minor key to the major. The Picardy Third's distortion of our musical expectations and its production of an uneasy, bittersweet tone is entirely appropriate for this song, and the play from which it derives. Although tragic, although evil, the Slaughter of the Innocents is a part of the narrative which heralds the arrival of the Son of God. Thus, like Judas' betrayal of Christ, its import sits uneasily between the horror of itself in isolation, and the glory of the destiny it helps fulfil. This unease and bittersweetness is perfectly mirrored in the tonally ambiguous effect of the Picardy Third in 'The Coventry Carol'.

On that note (!), on behalf of everyone at The Belfast Mystery Plays may I wish you all a Very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.


* Plenty of people have recorded 'The Coventry Carol' over the years, from the Kingston Trio to Kiri Te Kanawa. However, one of the best is that recorded by Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band on their 1986 album A Tapestry of Carols. An excellent, more modern arrangement (albeit one now 21 years old) is by Alison Moyet, from the 1987 compilation A Very Special Christmas. Incidentally, A Very Special Christmas also includes Sting's fantastic, motet-like rendition of 'Gabriel's Message', another carol with distinctly medieval roots: it is a song derived from 'Gabriel From Heven Came', itself an English version of the Latin 'Angelus ad Virginem', famously mentioned by Chaucer in 'The Miller's Tale'.

For additional information on 'The Coventry Carol' (and some other songs possibly used in the Mystery Cycles) please visit:

Update # 2

I may have jinxed things in my last update by suggesting the next one might get forgotten. Better late than never.

This week was the last of our first semester of postgraduate study, but despite all of the attendant busy-ness (including each of us giving two fifteen-minute class presentations, three of which focussed on the Mystery Plays) we were able to do some good work for the Belfast Mystery Plays. The most important development this week, and one of the most important in the project so far was our securing of support to involve Drama students. Aside from the practical benefits of promising us some excellent actors, this development continues the project's aim of being an interdisciplinary enterprise, and of combining the talents and interests of students for a common purpose. We shall therefore soon be getting to work on producing a proposal to present to Drama students, then in February we hope to meet, audition, cast and begin to rehearse with actors and musicians.

Merry Messy Kweznuz to you all!


Saturday, 13 December 2008

Update # 1

As promised, here is the first in what we hope (as long as someone remembers to do it!) will be a weekly roundup of all things Belfast Mystery Plays. Before the roundup proper though, perhaps some further details about the project would be helpful.

The use of the plural 'Plays' in the working title of this project is significant, because, just like the Cycles of the Middle Ages, this is not a single piece of work, a single script, or a single performance. Rather, it is a series of separate but thematically, dramaturgically and logistically linked plays. This system ensures that, while the whole is cohesive, the parts are not homogeneous - they are free to explore and express differences in terms of language, tone, action, humour, pathos and structure. The potential for difference is illustrated in the program of plays we have decided upon:

- 'The Fall of Lucifer' / 'The Fall of the Angels'
- 'Joseph's Trouble About Mary' / 'The Nativity'
- 'The Entry Into Jerusalem'
- 'The Crucifixion'
- 'The Resurrection' / 'The Last Judgement'

This cycle of 5-7 plays presents a contracted view of the huge dramatic and temporal scope produced by the 30-40 plays extant from the Middle Ages. Thus, our cycle opens at the beginning of Creation, finishes at its end, with the centre focusing on the life of Christ.

Which leads us nicely to this week's events. The scripts for 'Joseph's Trouble About Mary' / 'The Nativity' have been drafted, with 'The Fall of Lucifer' / 'The Fall of the Angels' and 'The Crucifixion' soon to follow. On the musical side of things, Chris last week wrote two excellent pieces of music (one of which might work very well in a crucial part of 'The Nativity' - watch this space) and I have adapted and written respectively two songs for the beginning and end of the performance. Finally, Chris and myself have continued to contact and meet with a number of people interested in the project, so all is essentially on schedule.

All that remains to be said is:

Cherry Mishmash!


Friday, 5 December 2008


Welcome everyone to the Belfast Mystery Plays, a contemporary adaptation and interpretation of the traditional Corpus Christi drama of the Middle Ages, to be performed on the streets of the city of Belfast in early 2009. This project is led by the current MA students in Medieval Studies, in the School of English, Queen's University, Belfast. However, we hope this will be a collaborative project and so are currently recruiting volunteers from other courses in the School of English and hope, in time, to engage staff and students from other Schools in the University and members of the wider public.

The Story So Far

For us, the story begins a year ago. In the final year of studying for our undergraduate degrees in English, a number of us undertook a truly fascinating course exploring the drama of the Middle Ages. At the end of this course, some students (including three members of our team) staged their own adaptations of Medieval plays across Belfast. All of us were fascinated by the often overlooked and much maligned drama we encountered, in particular the Mystery Cycles performed in places such as York, Chester, Coventry, London, Cornwall and Dublin. Medieval Belfast never had, as far as can be told, a cycle of its own - although traditional festive drama was widespread across Ireland. Of course, there have been a number of modern adaptations performed in Belfast in recent years; but this drama was, in origin, annual - seasonal - cyclical. Why not do it again?

The summer after we graduated, two members of our team, Eamon and Chris, began to discuss the idea of using our fast-approaching time as MA students to stage a short cycle of Mystery Plays. Slowly, ideas began to take shape and after only a matter of weeks of our studies, all seven students enrolled in the Medieval MA had signed up. Since then we have discussed the plans with a number of our fellow students and members of staff and have been delighted with their encouragement and enthusiasm. And now, as Christmas approaches, the scripts are being written, the musical accompaniments being developed and, with the arrival of this blog, the project is firmly afloat.

The Story To Come

It is hoped that as the project develops, this blog can be used to keep all who are interested up to date. There will be a weekly roundup of developments and, fingers crossed, comments and discussion throughout the week. In the New Year we hope to begin to post photographs, script extracts, lyrics and, if our technological capabilities permit, some audio and video elements.

In the meantime, may we invite you to email us with any queries and comments (you can reach us at belfastmysteryplays@gmail.com) and, of course, wish you all a Very Merry Christmas.

Eamon, Chris, Linda, Gerard, Will, Lauren and Lorraine