Discuss the influence of the Catholic Church on what audiences experienced through the art of theatre during this time period.

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

During the Middle Ages (also known as the medieval period), there was no separation of Church and State. The Church controlled almost every aspect of life.

...the people of Western Europe belonged to one homogeneous society with a common culture and a common set of beliefs.

The Church was able to move beyond the boundaries that separated countries, as well as across the barriers of language.

[The control of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe would not be challenged until Henry VIII requested a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (because he wanted a male heir), and the Church refused.]

Before this time, there was no theater to speak of. Drama, which was to become the mainstay of Renaissance entertainment, had yet to make an appearance. The forerunners of that movement were found during the medieval period.

There were several kinds of plays performed that dealt with subjects promoted by the Church, such as moral living. These plays were generally organized by trade guilds and presented in the town square, on the back of a large wagon (or on a platform), often during the celebration of "religious festivals." The different kinds of plays were the miracle, morality and mystery plays.

With the miracle plays...

[T]he stories were usually on biblical subjects or parables. Later examples of this genre were called moralities.

The evil characters in these kinds of plays (even the Devil) were the butt of jokes—presented as humorous figures. The plays centered around the defeat of the wicked, much to the entertainment of the crowds. However, with the advent of the plague years, the Church adopted a more severe tone, as it believed the plague was punishment for sins.

These new plays were allegorical in nature—one character might be "Charity;" another might be "Hope."—and they were more "elaborate and sophisticated."

...characters representing various virtues and vices confronted one another.

Everyman was the most popular morality play of the time, believed to be of Dutch origin. It was translated into English and quickly became very popular, and influential:

Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus is often cited as an example of how the medieval morality play influenced later theatre.

The purpose of the play was to point out that people had lost their way, that death was inevitable, that Christ's sacrifice had been made for all, and mankind needed to get its affairs in order. Death is personified in the play; Everyman, the main character, is confronted by his end, and asks Death for time to find someone to accompany him on his final walk. The only "friend" that stays with him as an Angel comes to collect Everyman is Good Deeds.

Mystery plays also dramatized Bible stories, presented in the church as...

...tableaux with accompanying antiphonal song.

Some sources state that there were three different kinds of plays. With other sources, names (e.g., "morality" and "mystery") are interchangeable. Despite this "overlap," all of these plays were supported by the Church to show the common man (and woman) the error of his (or her) ways. While the plays were not performed by members of the clergy, the content was based strictly on messages the Church endeavored to bring to the audience's attention, giving them stories that provided examples of the life one should attempt to live, and the dangers of failing to do so.

Additional Source:

Adventures in English Literature. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers: Orlando, 1985.

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