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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.

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