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Outlines of English and American Literature
The Secular Drama
by Long, William J.


When the Normans came to England they brought with them a love of pageants, or spectacles, that was destined to have an important influence on the drama. These pageants, representing scenes from history or mythology (such as the bout between Richard and Saladin, or the combat between St. George and the Dragon), were staged to celebrate feasts, royal weddings, treaties or any other event that seemed of special importance. From Norman times they increased steadily in favor until Elizabeth began her "progresses" through England, when every castle or town must prepare a play or pageant to entertain the royal visitor.

The Masque

From simple pantomime the pageant developed into a masque; that is, a dramatic entertainment accompanied by poetry and music. Hundreds of such masques were written and acted before Shakespeare's day; the taste for them survived long after the Elizabethan drama had decayed; and a few of them, such as The Sad Shepherd of Ben Jonson and the Comus of Milton, may still be read with pleasure.

Popular Comedy

While the nobles were thus occupied with pageants and masques, the common people were developing a crude drama in which comedy predominated. Such were the Christmas plays or "mummings," introducing the characters of Merry Andrew and Old King Cole, which began in England before the Conquest, and which survived in country places down to our own times. [Footnote: In Hardy's novel The Return of the Native may be found a description of these mummings (from "mum," a mask) in the nineteenth century. In Scott's novel The Abbot we have a glimpse of other mummings, such as were given to celebrate feast days of the Church.] More widespread than the mummings were crude spectacles prepared in celebration of secular holidays,--the May Day plays, for example, which represented the adventures of Robin Hood and his merry men. To these popular comedies the Church contributed liberally, though unwillingly; its holy days became holidays to the crowd, and its solemn fasts were given over to merriment, to the festa fatuorum, or play of fools, in which such characters as Boy Bishop, Lord of Misrule and various clowns or jesters made a scandalous caricature of things ecclesiastical. Such plays, prepared largely by clerks and choir boys, were repeatedly denounced by priest or bishop, but they increased rapidly from the twelfth to the sixteenth century.

Spread of the Drama

By the latter date England seemed in danger of going spectacle-mad; and we may understand the symptoms if we remember that the play was then almost the only form of popular amusement; that it took the place of the modern newspaper, novel, political election and ball game, all combined. The trade guilds, having trained actors for the springtime Miracles, continued to give other plays throughout the year. The servants of a nobleman, having given a pageant to welcome the queen, went out through the country in search of money or adventure, and presented the same spectacle wherever they could find an audience. When the Renaissance came, reviving interest in the classics, Latin plays were taken up eagerly and presented in modified form by every important school or university in England. In this way our first regular comedy, Ralph Royster Doyster (written by Nicholas Udall, Master of Eton, and acted by his schoolboys cir. 1552), was adapted from an old Latin comedy, the Miles Gloriosus of Plautus.

Boy Actors

The awakened interest in music had also its influences on the English drama. The choir boys of a church were frequently called upon to furnish music at a play, and from this it was but a step to furnish both the play and the music. So great was the demand to hear these boys that certain choir masters (those of St. Paul's and the Chapel Royal) obtained the right to take any poor boy with a good voice and train him, ostensibly for the service of the Church, but in reality to make a profitable actor out of him. This dangerous practice was stimulated by the fact that the feminine parts in all plays had to be taken by boys, the stage being then deemed an unfit place for a woman. And it certainly was. If a boy "took to his lines," his services were sold from one company to another, much as the popular ball player is now sold, but with this difference, that the poor boy had no voice or profit in the transaction. Some of these lads were cruelly treated; all were in danger of moral degradation. The abuse was finally suppressed by Parliament, but not until the choir-boy players were rivals of the regular companies, in which Shakespeare and Ben Jonson played their parts.

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