English Mystery Cycle Dramas The Nature Of Dramatic Performances

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The Nature Of Dramatic Performances

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Katharine Lee Bates (essay date 1893)

SOURCE: "Miracle Plays—Description," in The English Religious Drama, The Macmillan Company, 1913, pp. 35-87.

[In the following essayoriginally a lecture delivered in July, 1893Bates describes the nature of dramatic performance in the medieval community, noting the role of the guilds in the production of the miracle plays and interpretive variations in French, English, and German performances of the plays.]

The Miracle Play was the training-school of the romantic drama. In England, during the slow lapse of some five centuries, the Miracle, with its tremendous theme and mighty religious passion, was preparing the day of the Elizabethan stage, for despite all crudities, prolixities, and absurdities of detail, these English Miracle Cycles are nobly dramatic both in range and spirit. In verbal expression they are almost invariably weak and bald, but on the mediæval scaffold-stage the actor counted for more than the author, and the religious faith and feeling of the audience filled in the homely lines with an unwritten poetry. Within the vast extent of these cyclic dramas, as within the length and breadth of the great cathedrals, there was room, however, for human life in all its various aspects. As the grotesque found place among the beautiful carvings of chapter-house and choir, so under the ample canopy of the old Miracle Play comedy grew up by the very side of tragedy, bringing the theatre at once into collision with the Church.

As long as the religious plays, although they had departed from the sacred edifice, remained under the exclusive control of the clergy, there was but little loss in solemn and tragic effect. Even in France, whose light and restless genius was the first to introduce a farcical element into the Mysteries, the Passion was acted with such intensity that, in one instance at least, the young priest personating Christ fainted on the cross. As for Germany, it is recorded that the play of the Foolish Virgins, presented at Eisenach, Easter, 1322, in the royal park, undermined with its horror the reason of the most distinguished beholder, the Landgrave Frederic of the Scarred Cheek. But it is not long before we find the Church regarding these out-of-door plays, whose language was fast slipping from Latin into the vernacular, with a doubtful countenance. By the middle of the thirteenth century, many of the bishops were inclined to prohibit the clergy from taking part in Mysteries set forth in "churchyards, streets, or green places," permitting them to act only in the liturgical dramas still played beneath the consecrated roofs at Christmas and at Easter. The way thus opened, a new class of actors came speedily to the front.

The conditions of feudal life, and the exactions of the pleasure-loving Keltic temperament, had early brought into existence, on the Continent, a class of joculatores, men skilled in any or all of the several arts of minstrelsy, story-telling, dancing, jugglery, mimicry, and it was natural,—indeed, inevitable that the Miracle Plays, decorously and piously performed in the first instance by clergy within their ecclesiastical domains, should, as soon as they had ventured out from the "dim religious light" of choir and nave into the merry sunshine, be seized upon by these profane imitators, who soon became rivals and supplanters, too often turning what had been illustrated Scripture into scandal and buffoonery. The Norman conquest naturally scattered these Gallic joculatores or histriones over England, where they soon fell under ecclesiastical condemnation. But here the clergy, aided by the fact that these gay Frenchmen could not readily gain the ear of the humiliated, angry Saxon peasantry, held their own fairly well, and maintained the lead in the establishment of the national theatre. The priests, nevertheless, did not preserve their laurels as playwrights and actors without condescending to some of the tricks in trade of their opponents.

But by the time we find...

(The entire section is 8,190 words.)