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Earlier dramatic traditions. Middle Ages knew nothing of Greek drama. The Mass is the starting point for Medieval Drama, with its daily re-enactment of the Passion of Christ, essentially dramatic in structure. Elaborate ceremonies for Easter and Christmas.

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earlier dramatic traditions
Earlier dramatic traditions

Middle Ages knew nothing of Greek drama.

  • The Mass is the starting point for Medieval Drama, with its daily re-enactment of the Passion of Christ, essentially dramatic in structure.
  • Elaborate ceremonies for Easter and Christmas.
  • “Quem quaeritis?” (Xth century), Visitationes (400 examples in Europe) (liturgical drama, tied to specific festivals)
  • Tertulliano, De Spectaculis (Theatre as the “den of lasciviousness”)
earlier dramatic traditions 2
Earlier Dramatic Traditions (2)
  • No professional actors, inside the church, Latin.
  • Corpus Christi Plays as a transitional form (both Latin and vernacular).
  • (1215: doctrine of Transubstantiaton; 1264: feast of Corpus Christi, Urban IV, between May and June, not tied to the Church’s calendar, in the open; 1311: Clement V’s implementation)
medieval traditions
Medieval traditions
  • The dramatic impulse also found expression in mimes, acrobats, dancers, animal trainers, jugglers, wrestlers, minstrels, and storytellers as well as in Folk Plays.
  • By the 10th century, the Church began to incorporate pagan festivals into its own liturgical calendar.
  • Feast of Fools: end of 12th century, had the lower clergy, wearing grotesque masks or dressing as women, and costumed clergy or minstrels would then take over a church and elected a mock bishop and before holding a burlesqued mass
mystery plays
Mystery Plays
  • How does one explain the move from within the church to the outside in the vernacular?
  • Popular form of entertainment (dancing, gaming, festivals, folk rituals, etc.) contributed to it.
  • The purpose is sacred: the ordinary Christian reading the mysteries of his faith: they reinforce the sermon, presenting in dramatic form the biblical story of mankind, from Creation and Fall to Redemption and Judgement.
mystery plays 2
Mystery Plays (2)
  • Performance was the prerogative of associations of pious laymen; composite authorship.
  • Earliest plays in England date from 14th C (1325: Chester Cycle; the texts we possess 15thC and 16thC)
  • Illustration of episodes from Old and New Testament.
  • Cycles with towns performing single plays or consecutive cycles (Chester, York and Wakefield Cycles, etc.) (the whole cycle gives significance to individual episodes)
  • The trade guilds (the ‘misteries’): each guild choosing a play whose subject matter fitted with the craft it represented. (At Chester the Water-Drawers of the river took the play of Noah, etc.; The Crucifixion from the York cycle)
mystery plays 3
Mystery Plays (3)
  • Cycles played from dawn to dusk, in the open, at set points in the city on pageants (i.e, carri allegorici), wagons that consisted of roofed platforms on wheels moving from point to point. Two levels at times.
  • Scenery not very realistic. The role of the word. Elaborate costumes.
  • Corpus Christi was a favourite day (in early June)
mystery plays 4
Mystery Plays (4)
  • Biblical drama: the New Testament as the fulfilment of the Old, use of Apocryfa.
  • But also improvisation: a high voice for Pilate; Herod as a cruel tyrant. Also gratuitous scenes of comic relief. (The Second Shepherds’ Play (1400-1450) by the so-called Wakefield Master: a rustic comedy, complaints of labouring men against landlords, the troublesome wife, etc.)
the mystery cycle
The Mystery Cycle

By 12th century, the plays incorporated spoken dialogue in the vernacular and moved outside to the front of the church and were performed independent of the liturgical service.

Once these plays had moved outside of the church, they began to become more secular and were taken over by the laity and performed entirely in the vernacular.

the mystery cycle1
The Mystery Cycle

Crafts (or guilds) were known as “mysteries” because of the special knowledge that was passed to the apprentice from the master.

These plays then began to be called mysteries because they were now performed by local guilds or craft associations of masons, carpenters, and so on, who would be responsible for particular sections as appropriate.

distinction between mystery plays and miracle plays

Distinction between Mystery Plays and Miracle Plays

The Miracle Play was a type of medieval religious play, dramatizations of stories relating the life or martyrdom of a saint or of the miraculous events occurring as a result of the intervention of the Virgin Mary or the saints in response to the prayers of a true believer in need of help.

The term is often confusingly applied also to the mystery plays, which form a distinct body of drama based on biblical stories

morality plays
Morality Plays
  • Morality Plays develop at around the same time as the Mystery Plays.
  • A single play, not a cycle; time-span is individual life on earth considered allegorically. Still mostly in the North of England.
  • Dramatizes the conflict between Good and Evil; Man is surrounded by the personified figures of various temptations, and by other figures embodying the choices open for him; in sum, Virtue and Vice struggling for the Soul of Man (Psychomachia, 400 AD, the battle for the Soul)
  • Didactic plays.
morality plays 2
Morality Plays (2)
  • Everyman is the most famous (1485 but not published until 1528 or 1529).
  • Earliest: The Castle of Perseverance (1429) (contains earliest illustration of theatrical setting: a circular area surrounded by a ditch full of water; in the middle the castle itself; across the ditch five scaffolds: Flesh, Word, etc.; on a bed the protagonist Mankind).
  • Mankind (1475) has some lighter elements, such as comic characters (Mischief, Naught, etc.), sometimes turns into a farce, frequent reference to excrements, etc.; performed in a tavern?
  • Skelton’s Magnificence (1515) : struggle for the ‘soul’ of the sovereign Magnificence. Warning for the powerful. (Interpreted as an attack on Wolsey, counsellor to Henry VIII)
  • Everyman: sombre in tone, a little atypical (not a battle for man’s soul, but shows Everyman stripped of his worldly gifts; concentrates on the increasing isolation of a man on the point of death, until he descends into his grave, with Good Deeds between him and Judgement.)
  • We must always be prepared to die. Everyman is not wholly evil, but excessive attachment to worldly goods is wrong. None of them can bring him to salvation. Knowledge and acknowledgment of sin and contrition is a way of recognising the true way to Heaven.
the vice character
The Vice Character

The Vice was the most popular character in the moralities, the chief comic tempter.

The Vice would dart about the stage, disguising himself as a virtue, playing tricks on virtues and vices alike, and generally indulging in generous slapstick comedy.

At times, the Vice might even directly address the audience, sharing his thoughts about his nefarious deeds.

  • (Intermezzo) (end of 15th –beginning of 16th century) Lay, private form of entertainment, in an enclosed space, during a banquet. In its most elaborate form, it is divided into two parts, following each meal of the day. Sometimes related to the themes of moralities, sometimes pure entertainment.
  • Henry Medwall’s Fulgens and Lucrece (around 1500): the first drama in English whose characters are not from the Bible or purely allegorical.
interlude 2
Interlude (2)
  • Appearance of the subplot (so crucial for E. drama): A and B (the two servants) introduce the plot: Flaminius (a wise plebeian) and Cornelius (a dissolute patrician) are both in love with Lucrece; experiments with theatrical illusion; integrity of character or noble blood, relevant to the politics of Tudor court.
  • John Heywoood’s The Play Called the Four P’s (Pedlar, Pardoner, Palmer and Pothecary): the biggest lie. Pedlar wins. In his pilgrimages he has never found a woman who loses her patience.
  • The Play of The Weather (10 characters asking Jove to give them the weather that suits them most.)
humanist theatre
‘Humanist’ Theatre
  • Interludes
  • Classical drama performed in Schools, University, Law Courts (as a way of teaching the classics also).
  • First comedy, an imitation of Plautus: Nicholas Udall’s Ralph Roister Doister (1553), remaking of the miles gloriosius but in an English context, with a parasite, etc. Unity of time, place and action. Five acts.
  • Gammer Gurton’s Needle (In both the appearance of the ‘Vice’.)
seneca and machiavelli
Seneca and Machiavelli
  • Translation of Seneca, from the 1550s on, but previous interest in his tragedies.
  • Complete works in 1581.
  • Great influence on Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy.
  • Gordobuc by Norton and Sackville (1562): first (?) English tragedy, influenced by Seneca. Abdication of a king causes the tragedy. Warning to Elizabeth?
  • Senecan sensationalism, horror, the ghost, chorus.
earlier tragedies
Earlier tragedies
  • Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (1587): one of the most popular plays of the Elizabethan age. Andrea and the spirit of Revenge sit above the stage to witness how his death at the hand of the Portuguese Balthazar is to be avenged. Intricate plot. Bel-imperia, Lorenzo’s sister and former lover to Andrea. Hieronimo (Horatio’s father) contrives a play within the play in which the guilty parties suffer real death.
  • Machiavelli known through Gentillet’s Contre-Machiavel, translated from the French in 1577, or in Italian. But The Prince translated only in 1640.
  • ‘Politic’, ‘Machiavellian’, etc. combines with Senecan horror in the tradition of tragedy.
acting spaces
Acting / Spaces
  • Amateurs in medieval drama (members of guilds, etc.)
  • Monarchs and noblemen keeping ‘players of interludes’ as part of their retinue.
  • Part of the household (Fulgens and Lucrece), occasionally travelled, taking their repertoire to a wider public; drama strengthened by its contact with vigourous popular tradition.
  • Companies of children and acting as part of the process of learning the classics.
  • No professional theatre.