In France we have the dramatic representation of the Mysteries in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, introduced by the pilgrims who had returned from the Crusades. At first these performances were given in the street, but later a company was formed, called the "Confraternity of the Passion," the suffering of Christ being its chief representation. This Mystery is the most ancient dramatic work of modern Europe, and gives the whole Gospel narrative from the birth of our Saviour until His death. Being too long for a play of one act, it was continued from day to day. What would seem irreverent on a modern stage was regarded as perfectly simple and natural in the Middle Ages, and it was a potent factor in teaching the masses the truths of their faith.
Following these Mysteries of the Passion came a host of other plays taken from the Old Testament, or from the lives of the Saints. The earliest "Miracle" on record is the Play of St. Catherine, which was represented at Dunstable about 1119, written in French; it was in all probability a rude picture of the miracles and martyrdom of the saint.
The stage was divided into three different floors, with Heaven on top, hell on the ground floor, and the earth between. Frequently the play would proceed in all three divisions at once, with angels and devils ascending and descending by means of ladders, as their help was needed in the different worlds.
The Devil generally played the part of clown or jester. The modern puppet play of Punch is a tradition handed down from these ancient miracles, in which the Evil One was alternately the conqueror or victim of the human Buffoon; who was also called by the names of Jester or Vice.
These early miracle plays were generally written in mixed prose and verse.
The oldest manuscript of a miracle play in English is The Harrowing of Hell, believed to have been written in 1350.
The Morality plays were the outcome of the Mysteries; they were either allegorical or else taken from the Parables, or from the historical events in the Bible. The chief Moralities were Everyman, Lusty Juventus, Good Counsel, and Repentance. The oldest English Morality play now extant is The Castle of Perseverance, written about 1450. It is a dramatic allegory of human life representing the many conflicting influences that surround man on his way through the world. Lusty Juventus depicts in a vivid and humorous way the extravagances and follies of a young heir surrounded by the virtues and vices, and the misery which follows a departure from the path of religion and virtue. Gradually these Moralities were corrupted and became mixed with a species of comedy called Interludes, a merry and farcical dialogue. The Four P's, one of the best of these early Interludes, was written by John Heywood, an entertainer at the Court of Henry VIII. It turns upon a dispute between a Peddler, a Palmer, a Pardoner and a Poticary, in which each tries to tell the greatest lie; plays of this kind are seen in France at the present day. In the fifteenth century the drama in France became more secularized and included political events and satire, but the French were undoubtedly the fathers of drama in the Middle Ages. Their plays were known a whole century before Spain or Italy had any theater, while the romantic drama in other countries of Europe was founded on the early French drama. Modern drama in France during the time of Corneille, Racine and Voltaire was almost entirely classic. The French regarded the Greek standard as the highest art; and sought to imitate it faithfully, so much so that the French Academy, criticizing a tragedy of Corneille, said "that the poet, from the fear of sinning against the rules of art, had chosen rather to sin against the rules of nature."
Comic drama in France from the end of the sixteenth to the middle of the seventeenth century was borrowed from Spain, and had to do with a multiplication of trap doors, dark lanterns, intrigues, and puzzling disguises, until Moliere, in his "Precieuses Ridicules" successfully attacked these follies of his age.
The Romantic drama, which arose in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, holds at present the first place in France. Its chief exponents have been Victor Hugo, the two Dumases, Sardou and Octave Feuillet. Between them and the followers of the Classic School there was for some time a lively war. The latter wanted to exclude the Romanticists from the Theatre Francais, but without success. In spite of the beauty of its French, and the polish of its style, this latest form of the drama in France frequently offends strongly against morality.