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Outlines of English and American Literature|
The Religious Drama
by Long, William J.
|In its simplicity the drama is a familiar story retold
to the eye by actors who "make believe" that they are the heroes of the
action. In this elemental form the play is almost as old as humanity.
Indeed, it seems to be a natural impulse of children to act a story which
has given them pleasure; of primitive men also, who from time immemorial
have kept alive the memory of tribal heroes by representing their deeds in
play or pantomime. Thus, certain parts of Hiawatha are survivals of
dramatic myths that were once acted at the spring assembly of the Algonquin
Indians. An interesting fact concerning these primitive dramas, whether in
India or Greece or Persia, is that they were invariably associated with
some religious belief or festival.
The First Miracles
A later example of this is found in the Church, which at an early age began
to make its holy-day services more impressive by means of Miracle plays and
Mysteries. [Footnote: In France any play representing the life of a saint
was called miracle, and a play dealing with the life of Christ was
called mystère. In England no such distinction was made, the name
"Miracle" being given to any drama dealing with Bible history or with the
lives of the saints.] At Christmas time, for example, the beautiful story
of Bethlehem would be made more vivid by placing in a corner of the parish
church an image of a babe in a manger, with shepherds and the Magi at hand,
and the choir in white garments chanting the Gloria in excelsis.
Other festivals were celebrated in a similar way until a cycle of simple
dramas had been prepared, clustering around four cardinal points of
Christian teaching; namely, Creation, the Fall, Redemption, and Doomsday or
the Last Judgment.
Growth of the Miracles
At first such plays were given in the church, and were deeply religious in
spirit. They made a profound impression in England especially, where people
flocked in such numbers to see them that presently they overflowed to the
churchyard, and from there to the city squares or the town common. Once
outside the church, they were taken up by the guilds or trades-unions, in
whose hands they lost much of their religious character. Actors were
trained for the stage rather than for the church, and to please the crowds
elements of comedy and buffoonery were introduced, [Footnote: In the
"Shepherd's Play" or "Play of the Nativity," for example, the adoration of
the Magi is interrupted by Mak, who steals a sheep and carries it to his
wife. She hides the carcass in a cradle, and sings a lullaby to it while
the indignant shepherds are searching the house.] until the sacred drama
degenerated into a farce. Here and there, however, a true Miracle survived
and kept its character unspotted even to our own day, as in the famous
Passion Play at Oberammergau.
Cycles of Plays
When and how these plays came to England is unknown. By the year 1300 they
were extremely popular, and continued so until they were replaced by the
Elizabethan drama. Most of the important towns of England had each its own
cycle of plays [Footnote: At present only four good cycles of Miracles are
known to exist; namely, the Chester, York, Townley (or Wakefield) and
Coventry plays. The number of plays varies, from twenty-five in the Chester
to forty-eight in the York cycle.] which were given once a year, the
performance lasting from three to eight days in a prolonged festival. Every
guild responsible for a play had its own stage, which was set on wheels and
drawn about the town to appointed open places, where a crowd was waiting
for it. When it passed on, to repeat the play to a different audience,
another stage took its place. The play of "Creation" would be succeeded by
the "Temptation of Adam and Eve," and so on until the whole cycle of
Miracles from "Creation" to "Doomsday" had been performed. It was the play
not the audience that moved, and in this trundling about of the stage van
we are reminded of Thespis, the alleged founder of Greek tragedy, who went
about with his cart and his play from one festival to another.