Mystery Play of Elx
TheMystery Play of Elx is a religious lyrical drama which recreates the Death and Assumption of Mary, and which is enacted in the Basilica of Santa María in Elche (Elx) on the 14th and 15th of every August. It has been uninterruptedly performed since the XV century, and it constitutes the only existing example of medieval devotional theatre, influenced by Byzantine rites.
Tradition has it that in 1370, a wooden ark arrived to the shores of Santa Pola, a city nearby Elx, containing a sculpture of the Virgin, which led to organizing a play in her honor. But this hasn’t been confirmed, and responds more to the local myth than to the more realistic events that probably led to this feast.
Though there’s record of the play being represented already in the XIII century, the oldest version of the text preserved dates back to 1709. The original is written in the old Valencia language mixed with some verses in Latin. It is a short text that starts off being just spoken out loud, and is progressively converted into a chanted melody. The music has been composed in many different moments of time, so its nature is very heterogeneous: the oldest parts in it correspond to the Mozarab times, while the newest parts date from the XVI century.
The Mystery Play of Elx takes place in two different levels: the horizontal or “terrestrial” level and the vertical or “celestial” level. This is a very recognizable characteristic of the medieval theatre. The play is also divided in two parts, called La Vespra and La Festa, and each takes place on one of the two days, the 13th and 14th of August, respectively. The first part, La Vespra, contains what probably is the most impressive part of the play, the descent of an angel from heaven, performed with the help of an articulated mechanism on which a boy is brought down from the church’s main vault. It is in this part where the death of the Virgin is represented.
In the second part of the play, La Festa, the apostles mourn the corpse of the Virgin, and parade it around the city streets. After this, there are yet another couple of scenes that take place inside the temple: first, the apostles come across a group of Jewish men that are cursing them and the Virgin, and are converted after a chat with the Christians, joining them in the Virgin’s mourning and burial. Then, there’s a symbolic representation of her resurrection, and the whole performance ends after God father comes down from heaven to give her his blessing.
This is just a brief summary of the whole plot of the Mystery Play of Elx, which is very elaborate and rich in its passages. In fact, the performance is so spectacular that it attracts many curious tourists every year, flooding the small number of seats at the small church where it’s performed. Actually, the best thing one can do is find some time around those days, plan a sunny summer vacation in Alicante, and take the opportunity to assist to this breathtaking performance, probably one of the oldest forms of ceremonial theatre that can be enjoyed today in the world!