T heatre in the middle ages
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T heatre in the Middle ages. Or Medieval Period In Western Europe. Time Line. A.D. 500 – 1400 referred to as the Middle Ages 1400-1650 referred to as the Renaissance Brief overview of history: -Western Roman Empire collapsed before the Eastern Roman Empire.

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T heatre in the Middle ages

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T heatre in the middle ages

Theatre in the Middle ages

Or Medieval Period

In Western Europe

Time line

Time Line

  • A.D. 500 – 1400

    referred to as the Middle Ages

  • 1400-1650

    referred to as the Renaissance

    Brief overview of history:

    -Western Roman Empire collapsed before the Eastern Roman Empire.

Historical overview cont

Historical overview cont.:

  • The western world came in contact with Byzantium during The Crusades or religious wars of the 12th century to prevent the expansion of Islam.

  • The western world had always looked on the Eastern Empire as a secondary civilization. A sharp split between East and West occurred in 1054, when Eastern Christianity broke from Western Christianity, refusing to acknowledge the supremacy of the papacy.

History cont

History cont.:

In our study of theatre we are mostly concerned with Western developments from the Early Middle Ages through the high Middle Ages, taking us to 1400.

  • 500 – 1000, Dark Ages

    -few cultural or historical advances were made. However, on closer look it laid the ground work for further developments.

History cont1

History cont.:

  • During the Early Middle Ages, the vestiges of the roman empire were overrun by barbarians form the north, and institutions established by Rome were toppled; towns and roadways fell into disuse.

  • The institution that provided a semblance of order to the chaotic society was the Roman Catholic church. By 1000, medieval society had begun to establish its own pattern of organization. During this period, the powerful church, though frequently questioned and threatened, was ever-present.

The catholic church and theatre

The Catholic Church and Theatre

  • Catholic church dominates all levels of society

  • Church drama developed along with the changes in liturgical music.

  • By the 9th century, extended musical passages, called tropes, had been added to the services.

    -later, lyrics were written for these passages

    -These tropes, which were sung or chanted in Latin to musical accompaniment, were in most cases performed in monasteries.

Spoken or sung tropes

Spoken or sung Tropes


    “Whom do you seek?” by an angel to the 3 Mary's at the tomb of Christ

    “Give us Barabbas” by the crowd to Pontius Pilot at Christ’s trial.

  • Finally priests present these dramas using altar boys as actors on mansions or stages, set around the open church.

How the performances change

How the performances change

  • - later they will become too big for the church and will move outside onto the church steps.

  • - and still later they will move to movable pageant wagons produced by guilds (specific clubs or groups of men with a special trade)

  • Historians still debate how medieval vernacular (the speech of the common public) dramas originated.

Latin to the vernacular

Latin to the vernacular

  • Some suggest that church dramas performed in Latin simply metamorphosed (changed, transformed), in to vernacular.

  • Some also believe that in addition to changing from Latin to the vernacular, religious plays moved from inside the church buildings to stages erected just outside on the steps.



  • .

T heatre in the middle ages


  • Productions were becoming increasingly elaborate and were therefore difficult to stage in churches

  • The cost was too large for the church

  • Church officials were opposed to using holy spaces for theatre

What scholars say

What scholars say:

  • Scholars have separated religious vernacular dramas into three general categories:

  • Mystery (cycle)

    -dramatize a series of biblical events, from the creation to the last judgment.

    -They were not presented as part of a religious ceremony but short dramas presented as part of a sequence. When a number of plays were presented in sequence, they constituted a “cycle”.

T heatre in the middle ages

2. Morality Plays

-taught a moral lesson

3. Miracle Plays

-dramatized the lives of the saints

They were all short plays.

Second shepherds play

Second Shepherds’ Play

  • Uses most of the standard dramatic techniques of medieval cycle plays.

  • Written in the vernacular and in verse

  • It is filled with anachronisms

    -shepherds are characters out of the Middle Ages, not the bible

    -they complain about their lords and feudal conditions

    -even though Christ is not born until the close of the play, they pray to him and to various saints throughout the first section.

Extensive play structure

Extensive Play Structure

Extensive play structure begins during the later half of the Middle Ages.

  • Many locals

  • Uses many characters

  • Many scenes

  • much action leads up to the final showdown

  • Early starting point, we take part in the exposition

  • Panoramic view (broad large picture)

What was a pageant wagon

What was a Pageant wagon?

  • Could be rolled into a town or nearby field

  • Drawn by horses

  • Would be set up to serve as a stage with a backstage area for costume changes.

  • Two wagons could be placed side by side, one serving as a stage platform and the other as a place for changing costumes and hiding special effects.

    • OR

T heatre in the middle ages


    - a series of small scenic platforms were erected side by side

    - in an open courtyard

    - special effects, called secrets, could be performed.(storing barrels of water for Noah’s flood on the roof above the platform stage, releasing at the right time)

Decline of religious drama

Decline of religious drama

  • The weakening of the church in the sixteenth century, culminating in the widespread Protestant Reformation, was one reason for the demise of religious theatre.

  • Protestantism considered religious drama a tool of Catholicism: so Elizabeth I, as head of the Anglican church, banned religious drama in England in 1559.

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