Decline of Classical Drama
Often set aside as naïve and unoriginal, medieval theater on the European continent kept alive the natural human desire to act, to mimic, and to experience vicariously what could not be known in a given life. For its inspiration, it used two great sources of ideas: the Christian Scriptures and contemporary life. It explored these sources to the fullest and took all sorts of people as its performers: clergy, religious laymen and laywomen, and professional companies of actors. Drama in the Middle Ages was popular, of the people and for the people. Never for such a long period in human history did popular entertainment survive. Rejected as naïve and undeveloped, it left its seeds in the great dramatists to follow, who combined the scholarship and subtlety taught by the classical models with the simplicity, wit, and directness of the medieval theater.
Medieval drama, like Greek drama , was born at the foot of the altar and was intimately associated with religious feasts. Despite their common origin, however, classical and medieval drama appear not to be linked, according to all current evidence. The last known writer of tragedy was Pomponius Secundus, who lived during the reign of Claudius I. The great Greek tragedies, although seemingly forgotten, were preserved in a few Western monasteries, notably in Ireland, but there is no evidence to support any performances in the Middle Ages. Their apparent disappearance seems attributable more to the loss of the study of Greek than to any prejudice against their content.
The continued existence of Roman comedy is more evident. Numerous manuscripts of Terence were copied in medieval scriptoria. Some ancient Roman theaters did escape the pillaging of the barbarians, among them Arles, Autun, Narbonne, Orange, and Paris, but their original purpose seems to have disappeared. Early manuscripts speak of actors and acting; however, even before the fall of...
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