Written and Edited by Lindsay Price November, 2011
This month we return to another era in theatre history: Medieval Drama. After the fall of Rome, formal theatre was wiped out by the Catholic Church. But funnily enough it was the church who, over time, brought theatre back to life.
“In its origin again, the Medieval drama was not unlike the drama of the Greeks, - in that the germ of it was religious, and that it was slowly elaborated from what was at first only a casual accompaniment of public worship.” Brander Matthews, The Development of Drama?
The fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century also signified the fall of theatre. Drama was banned and theatres were closed. The church felt theatre, as they knew it during the Roman Empire, was barbaric and evil. How ironic is it that the very institution which banned drama can be credited with bringing it back.
During this time period, church services were held in Latin, which wasn't understood by the majority of the congregation. Most people couldn't read and had no experience with The Bible or Bible stories. Dealing with an illiterate and pagan audience, the church slowly began dramatizing The Bible as a way to give religious instruction to their congregation. Short dramatic readings turned into performing Bible stories, which turned into full blown performances outside the church.
Trope: A short dramatic embellishment to the text.
Liturgy: Formal rituals within a church service
Liturgical drama: Religious plays, chanted in Latin, usually at Easter or Christmas
Quem Quaertis: A 4 line exchange surrounding the resurrection when the three Marys go to Christ's tomb. Latin for Whom do you seek?
Mansion: Small structure/platform within church to show locations in the liturgical drama.
Platea: Main acting area.
Versions of this transformation from tropes to liturgical drama to produced plays happened in Britain and across Europe. There are variations in France, Italy and Germany. Because the continent was simultaneously under the domain of the Roman Catholic Church, the changes were somewhat similar throughout the different countries. Mystery plays were called Sacre Rappresentazioni (holy performance) in Italy, mystere in France and Mysterienspiel in Germany.
“The mere existence of theatre in the Middle Ages denotes a recurrent pattern of victories over adversity.” - William Tydeman, The Medieval European Stage
Even though theatre was formally banned by the Roman Catholic Church, drama could not be stopped completely, particularly when you think of drama as encompassing music, dance and poetry.
“Evidence is overwhelming that the common people responded to the plays with an enthusiasm and devotion perhaps unmatched in the history of theatre.” - Eleanor Prosser, Drama and Religion in the English Mystery Play?
Medieval drama is known for its highly stylized character and action, its verse dialogue and its religious themes. Drama developed roughly from the 10th to 16th century, peaking in the 15th century. Most of the authors were anonymous and there are very few surviving texts. As the plays moved away from the church they took on more and more the attitude of the common people. Humour found its way into the storytelling. Contemporary language and references were liberally mixed into ancient events.
“The ancient Jews and Romans who figure in the stories become contemporary Englishmen, the soldiers Medieval knights, Noah's wife a recognizably English shrew whose good gossips or friends celebrate in song the virtues of a pottle of Malmsey, a favourite English beverage.”
Allardyce Nicoll, British Drama
The actors were amateurs, either local or nearby townspeople. Actors were always men in England, women would occasionally be allowed on the stage in Europe. Costumes were decidedly Medieval in nature with added on pieces such as angel wings and devil horns.
- Two coats and a pair of hose for Eve, stained (dyed)
- A coat and hose for Adam, stained
- A coat with hose and tail for the serpent, with a white hair (wig)
- A face (mask) and hair for the Father
- Two hairs for Adam and Eve
- A rib coloured red.
Allardyce Nicoll, Costume and Property list for the Norwich Creation Play, British Drama
The sets were limited to what could fit on a platform, but almost always included special effects such as flying, fire, or the use of water (important for the Noah's Ark story). Sets always portrayed Heaven and Hell.
Three types of plays grew out of this time period: Mystery, Miracle, and Morality. All three flourished in different areas of Britain and Europe and yet had a short life. In England, for example, the plays were either changed or banned as Protestantism came into power.
What about Passion Plays? Passion plays had the same trajectory as the mystery/miracle/morality play in that they started out being chanted in Latin and then grew in scope. They originated in the 14th century in Austria and Germany.?
“To a Medieval town, the performance of a mystery was an event of immense interest... the magistrates ordered all the shops to be closed, and forbade all noisy work. The streets were empty, the houses locked up and none but solitary armed watch-men, specifically engaged for the occasion were seen about the residences. All were gathered in the public square.” Karl Mantzius, History of the Theatrical Art?
Mystery plays originated with the Feast of Corpus Christi, a new holy day decreed in 1264 by Pope Urban IV. By 1350 it was a major religious holiday. The celebration expanded and as the holiday grew in popularity. What started out as a simple processional transformed into multi-day pageants.
The plays were based on scenes and stories from The Bible and often performed together in a series called a cycle. Cycles could range from the Fall of the Angels to Judgement Day. An important aspect of the Mystery cycle was to show plays of Fall and then Redemption. The stories themselves the highlight, rather than realistic acting, sets, or costumes. Examples of stories are:
Depending on the cycle it could take all day or multiple days to go from beginning to end. In England, the plays were performed on pageant wagons – each wagon held a different story. As the producers changed from the church to local towns and guilds (trade groups such as bakers, smiths, carpenters, plasterers, card-makers) the language of the plays changed from Latin to the common vernacular. Each guild received a play and were responsible for everything from the wagon to the actors, to the sets to the costumes. Therefore, the quality of sets and costumes depended on the wealth of a particular guild. Guilds received stories related to their craft.
As you can imagine preparing for such an extravaganza would have taken months to prepare, there was no time off work to rehearse. They were also quite costly. To that end, some towns produced cycles only once a year, some bi-annually.
“Medieval drama took many forms, but the most spectacular of all was the civic religious drama of towns such as York, Chester, Coventry and Wakefield...[these plays] aimed to show, in the course of a day...the whole history of the universe from the creation of Heaven and Earth to Doomsday.” Greg Walker, Medieval Drama: An Anthology
Although many towns throughout England would have produced cycles, only four have survived intact.
Wakefield – 32 plays. Also called Towneley cycle. Developed in the 15th century. These plays are more comedic and less reverent, often mentioning Medieval era elements. An interesting question about the Wakefield cycle is how were they were performed? To perform the full cycle required 250 actors but the town's entire population was only 500.
York – 48 plays. Developed from 1340-1350 and a manuscript first appeared in 1430. Traditionally performed during the feast of Corpus Christi, plays would start at 4:30 in the morning. Each wagon would have to travel to 12 designated spots in the area for the performance.
Chester – 25 plays. Chester is the oldest cycle, beginning in the 13th century and very serious in tone. Of the remaining cycles, it is the most faithful to the religious nature of the original stories. The Chester cycle was performed over three days – the York cycle has nearly twice as many plays and was only performed during one day.
N-Town –? 42 plays. Sometimes called Ludus Coventriae. N stands for the Latin word “nomen” which means Name. So any town would substitute their own name. Unlike the others, this cycle may have used a fixed stage rather than pageant wagons.
Single plays exist from cycles from Newcastle, Croxton, and Norwich.
JESUS. Brethren all, to me right deare,
come hither to me and ye shall here.
The feaste of Easter you knowe draweth neare
and nowe yt is at hand.
That feaste needes keepe must we
with verye great solempnitie.
The pascall lambe eaten must bee
as the lawe doth commande.
- opening lines from Chester Cycle Play The Last Supper
Were the plays always serious? There is a misconception that because of their origin and the subject matter that these plays were dour and serious. Certainly some were. But as they moved away from the church's control, the more secular they became, and elements of humour found their way through. For example, in The Second Shepherd Play, a shepherd and his wife steal a sheep and try to hide it for comic effect. They're going to pretend the sheep is their newly born son.
WIFE: A good trick have I spied
Since thou knowest none
Here shall we him hide
Till they be gone
In my cradle abide
Let me alone,
And I shall lie beside
In childbed and groan.
Vincent Hopper & Gerald Lahey (ed), Medieval Mysteries, Moralities and Interludes
Even in the Medieval era, theatre had to relate to its audience. But, this is true in every era, isn't it? The Medieval audience could not read or write. For the most part they were blue collar working men and women. In order for the plays to connect to the audience, they had to speak the language of the audience, and they had to show characters who had characteristics of their audience (this is why the ancient stories were peppered with contemporary references).
Once plays moved outside the church, there were two types of staging.
Fixed Staging was similar to how liturgical dramas were staged within the church. There were mansions which showed the locations and a platea for the main playing area. Mansions were often set up in a row and the audience would move from area to area. Fixed staging was more popular in Europe. Heaven and hell were often portrayed as the far right, and far left mansions.
Moveable Staging consisted of pageant wagons. These were particularly used with the Cycle Plays in Britain. Each wagon held one play and the audiences stayed while the wagons moved from place to place.
It's most commonly thought that the wagons were made out of wood and had two levels. There was a dressing room on the first story and then a performance platform on the second floor. Each guild had their own wagon, which was taken apart and stored away after the performance.
There are a number of different views as to how Mystery plays came to be called such.
“Jean Bodel was a French poet, jongleur, and playwright whose drama Le Jeu de saint Nicholas is thought to be the first French miracle play.” - Jana Schulman, The Rise of the Medieval World?
These plays were some of the earliest in the era, developing during the 12th century. In some areas the terms miracle and mystery are interchangeable when describing Medieval drama, particularly in reference to English plays. But true miracle plays have their own focus. Instead of Bible stories, they dramatized the lives, the legends and miracles of Roman Catholic saints. This type of religious drama flourished in France with writers such as Jean Bodel and Rutebeuf. Some of the saints most typically portrayed were the Virgin Mary, St. George, and St. Nicholas. Few examples exist today. Miracle plays in England were eventually banned because of their Roman Catholic nature.
Example: Miracle of Theophile
In the Miracle of Theophile (by Rutebeuf) Theophile sells his soul to the devil and when his time draws near, he prays to the Virgin Mary for help and forgiveness.
THEOPHILE: Virgin, flower of eglantine,
Rescue me from Satan's ire!
Rose of Heaven, my soul is Thine;
Save it from eternal fire!
SATAN: Curs'd Theophile, renounce Her, or thou diest!
THEOPHILE: Dear Virgin, glory to Thee in the highest!
SATAN: Then die, perfidious heavenly one!
THEOPHILE: Dearest Lady, hear Thy son!
Flower of eglantine, red rose,
Lily fair, glad life is done:
Through eternal fiery woes
I must suffer for my sin,
Suffer far, oh, far from Thee!
Ere my punishment begin
Pity, then, ah pity me:
Grant me one sweet parting grace,
One dear vision of Thy face!
SATAN. Hi hi ! Ha ha ha ! Hi hi ! Ha ha!
From an 1898 version of The Miracle of Theophile by Henry Copley Greene.
“Morality plays emphasize ethics and salvation, or, one might say, the ethics of salvation. Both Man and God may choose: Mankind has free will; God has mercy... Mankind must choose between opposing trinities: God’s throne or the scaffolds of the unholy trinity, the World, the Flesh and the Devil” - Maryse Gabrielle Wilkinson, On Site and Insight: A Reading of The Castle of Perseverance and its Staging?
Continuing the development of Medieval drama, morality plays emerged during the 15th century. The Castle of Perseverance is often described as the first and most complete Morality play while Everyman is the best known. Morality plays differ from Mystery and Miracle in that they focused neither on The Bible nor the saints but the common man. The main character in a morality play represents all humanity: Everyman, Mankind, Humanum Genus. The theme of every Morality play dealt with the struggle for salvation: what can man do to be a Christian and save his soul? The main character must make a conscious decision against temptation to be saved, thus showing the free will of man. It's the universal battle between good and evil. Vice versus virtue. Which will mankind choose?
Morality plays used allegory. Allegory is often seen in Medieval drama, where a message or meaning is expressed through symbolic representation: ideas and values, vices and virtues become personified. Some examples: the character of Knowledge in Everyman, The Seven Deadly Sins in The Castle of Perseverance, Mercy and Mischief in Mankind.
As with mystery plays, it's easy to assume that morality plays are serious from beginning to end. Many used humour to tell their story. In Everyman the main character has to find a companion to go with him to God. His cousin explains he can't go because he has a cramp in his toe...
Whereas Mystery plays were the domain of towns and amateur actors, Morality plays evolved toward professional troupes and professional actors. With smaller casts and simple staging, morality plays were easy to transport.
As with the Mystery plays, sets were suggestive rather than realistic. Some of this has to do with the fact that the main character in a Morality is often on a journey (both physical and spiritual) so they travel to many locations. Instead of wagons, these plays more often than not used fixed staging.
Click here for an amazing diagram and description for the Medieval staging of The Castle of Perseverance. It involved digging a large moat and pushing the earth toward to centre for the audience to sit on. In the middle of the circle was the castle and then all around the circle were mansions for the various characters.
"Here begynneth a treatyse how þe hye Fader of Heven sendeth Dethe to somon every creature to come and gyve acounte of theyr lyves in this worlde, and is in maner of a morall playe." - Everyman?
Everyman is the best known Morality play, with productions happening even today. I have a strong memory of a drama class in high school putting on a modern adaptation of it called Everyguy. The play was written in the 15th century by an anonymous writer. However, there is a Flemish play called Elckerlijic, first printed in 1495 with an identical story. It's not known which play came first.
As well as a morality play, Everyman is an allegory. The majority of the characters are personified ideas and qualities - they represent, rather exist. In this play, the majority of the characters represent a part of the main character: Goods, Good-Deeds, Knowledge, Strength, Beauty.
I find Everyman a very interesting play for a couple of reasons. It seems ironic that even in the 15th century there was the concern that man was too materialistic – have we not changed at all in six hundred years? I was unready for the humour in the piece because of the time period it's from. And I was pretty shocked how at one point one of the characters actually expresses doubt over the actions of priests.
KNOWLEDGE: Some priests are good, this is true. Sinful priests set a bad example. Some have children who sit by other men's fires. Some haunt the company of women. Some are made blind by an unclean life with the lusts of lechery.
I suppose I like knowing that man hasn't changed all that much, it somehow brings the centuries closer together.
Click here to read a modern language version of Everyman. As with everything from this time period, the way the language looks is such a deterrent to getting to the actually story. It's easy to assume a play has no connection to you when you can't even read it. I took the original and translated it, in a fashion, in modern English. The story has not been changed from the original and I'm tried to maintain the tone of the original verse as much as possible. But now the story is quite clear.
The full title of the play is The Summoning of Everyman and encapsulates the story quite well. God is upset with how Man has succumbed to earthly materialistic pursuits. He tells Death to summon Everyman so that he may make an account of the good and evil deeds in his life. Everyman is reluctant to go, seeing as his good deeds are rather slim. Not only that, in order to stand before God, he has to die. When it's clear there is no bribing or delaying Death, he asks if he can look for a companion to go with him. Not surprisingly, those around him (his friends, his family, his wealth) who are good for a meal or a party or a laugh, resoundingly refuse Everyman in his time of need. Everyman realizes that his earthly pursuits mean nothing in the afterlife. He must face the fact that in order to have a companion to stand with him before God he must acknowledge his sin, confess, and atone. Only then will he will receive forgiveness and finally find a companion to stand beside him before God – Good-Deeds. That is the only companion you can have in the afterworld, the good you do in life. Even your good qualities, such as Knowledge and Strength are just physical attributes. You can't take anything with you after death, only your spiritual well being. The play ends with an Angel taking Everyman's spirit up to Heaven.
There are two levels to the story. The first is Everyman's physical journey to find a companion, and to death. The end of the story actually plays out what happens to us as we head toward death. Our faculties desert us: first our Beauty, then Strength, next our Discretion, our Wits and lastly our Knowledge. One by one these attributes leave Everyman before he crawls into the tomb with Good-Deeds only by his side.
Secondly, there is his spiritual journey from a frivolous young man to one who is prepared to stand before God. As with all Morality plays Everyman looks at what man must do to save his soul. That is the most important aspect of life - how man treats his soul. The body that he lives in is only on loan from God. Character after character tell Everyman that his vision of life (such as the accumulation of wealth) is completely wrong. Material wealth means nothing and the fact that he focused on earthly pursuits has brought about his own downfall.
GOODS: Did you think I was yours Everyman?
EVERYMAN: I thought so.
GOODS: Only a loan, poor boy. You may have risen to the top, temporarily, but don't you understand? My job is to kill men's souls. And say I save one, there's a thousand I drag down. Go with you? I'll never go with you.
Read the modern language version of play and then see if you can answer the following questions.
In Medieval times, once plays fell into the hands of the towns and guilds, plays found a way to mix the religious message with current language and references. This was how they connected to the audience. In groups, put together a mystery play on the Noah's Ark story. Combine the original story with current language and references to connect to a 21st century audience.
Create a pageant wagon out of a shoebox. Decide which guild is building the wagon (bakers, shipbuilders, carpenters) and then do research as to which play that guild was assigned. Decorate the wagon so that it reflects the story as well as the Guild. Find a way to show heaven and hell on your wagon.
Pick three of the Allegorical characters in Everyman. Based on their symbolic name, come up with a physical description for each. Describe the costume for each character. What one prop would this symbolic character hold?
In groups, create a modern morality play based on Everyman. The story of your play is that the main character is a senior student who has been called before the principal to give an account as to why he/she should graduate. The question to be answered in the play is what does a student have to do in order to graduate? The play must have 3-5 allegorical characters. What symbols would stand in the way of a student trying to study? How will your play end? Will the main character graduate or not??