FOR nearly a thousand years after the death of Seneca in 62 A.D., the flame of dramatic genius was smouldering. The drama of the Orient was unknown to the western world, and that of Greece was all but forgotten. Of course play-acting did not altogether cease. Gorgeous spectacles were occasionally given by the Roman emperors, though with less and less frequency, until with the general decay of the empire they disappeared. The mimes and pantomimes remained alive, though their display, being already on the lowest rung of the ladder of art, could not descend much lower. Although Rome fell, yet merchants and porters and slaves required the Tired Business Man's entertainment. Small wandering companies, similar perhaps to the modern Punch-and-Judy show, lived from hand to mouth, preserving after a fashion the seeds of the most ancient Roman art. These low-caste companies seem to disappear, only to show up again wherever and whenever public opinion sanctioned them. Like the gypsies, they never entirely died out. During these centuries of quiescence they lived in the alleys and on the edges of civilization, but still they lived.
Reappearance of play-acting in Christian ritual. While the mimes belonged to the gutters, another class of play-actors emerged from the cloisters. From the very early days of the Church occasional attempts were made by monks and priests to utilize the beauties of the classic drama in the interest of religion. As early as the fifth century living pictures were introduced into sacred services, especially on festival days; and short Latin dialogues from the Bible were chanted by the clergy to illustrate the teachings of the Mass. There developed strange exercises, such as the Feast of Fools and the Feast of the Ass which, in the beginning, were doubtless religious in intention, but soon became boisterous and licentious travesties of sacred rites. These and similar exercises seem to indicate attempts on the part of the leaders of the Church to substitute for the pagan spectacles some sort of theatrical entertainment which would be in accord with the Christian spirit.
Another group, doubtless small enough, consisted of learned priests and nuns somewhat familiar with the classic plays, who endeavored to imitate them and to preserve the knowledge of the classic tongues and literatures. Here and there, in convents and monasteries, the plays of Plautus and Terence were read and sometimes acted. Imitations of them were written in medieval Latin. The most notable of these attempts was that of Roswitha, the learned nun of Gandersheim, Germany, who, in the tenth century, wrote so-called Christian plays modeled on those of Terence. Roswitha's plays portray the miracles of saints, and are especially concerned with the teaching of chastity. According to the usage of today Roswitha is not always decorous, and lacks the gifts of individualizing her characters; but her plots are good and her dialogue is often brisk and pointed. For a woman to have achieved any excellence at all in the art of the drama in that long period of darkness and silence, seems remarkable enough. Saint Hilary (a pupil of the celebrated Abélard), who is supposed to have been an Englishman, wrote three plays in Latin with refrains in old French. The subjects are Daniel, the raising of Lazarus, and the miracle of Saint Nicholas.
Sources of European drama. In the slow rediscovery of the pleasures of the theater, there were, generally speaking, three main sources from which the art renewed itself: first, whatever was left from Greece and Rome, including not only the great plays (most of which were practically lost for centuries), but the stock of characters of comedy and farce, with the lively methods of the mimes and pantomimes; second, a new source of plot material--the Bible, together with the Apocrypha, the lives of the saints, and events connected with the holy people and places; and third, the romances of the medieval poets and story-tellers. From these three main elements were built up the medieval sacred drama and later the various national dramas in the European countries.
How political unity fostered the growth of drama. When the first signs of a revival of interest in drama began to appear, France, Germany, Italy and other European countries did not exist as nations. The general fashion of government, which reached its culmination in the latter part of the Middle Ages, was founded upon the feudal system, its chief and his body of retainers, and was practically alike throughout the different sections of middle and northern Europe. The unit of the social structure was the baron or feudal chief; and over all the units in a given section reigned a sovereign power, at least nominally supreme. This political situation created a certain similarity of thought and opinion. Ideas of conduct, pleasure, and the requirements of aristocratic life were very much the same from one feudal domain to another. There were visitations from castle to castle, and a popular song or story spread with surprising quickness. Merchants, scholars, musicians, priests, and troubadours traveled from country to country, carrying with them news, fashions, and polite learning. What more natural than that of the mystery and miracle play should be carried from one end of Europe to the other?
The religious unity of medieval Europe. Even more important than the similarity of political ideas was the domination of the Roman Church. During the first thousand years of our era the religion of Rome extended over practically the whole of Europe; and it was the universal acceptance of the Church which made the sacred plays possible. The service of the Mass was the same everywhere, although the language used for it was equally unintelligible to both knight and serf: for, broadly speaking, neither could read nor write, much less understand Latin. For the most part, only the priests understood what they were saying. Association with the Church had an importance in the medieval world that does not wholly obtain in the world of today. Every man was inside the Church. Then, too, nearly all intellectual and artistic activities, music, painting, and architecture, were closely associated with it. There spread over Europe a mania for cathedral building, so that many cities were supplied with beautiful houses of worship for the use of rich and poor alike. The officers of the Church stood with kings and emperors, sovereigns of the world. It was this powerful, unified, paternal body under whose protection European drama was born.
Primitive nature of medieval drama. The revived drama, born in the Church, is termed religious, sacred, liturgical, or ecclesiastical, and flourished from about the ninth century to the sixteenth. Mystery, miracle, and the Latin word ludus were names frequently used. Some writers distinguish the terms mystery and miracle as meaning, respectively, a play based upon a biblical episode and one based upon the history of a saint or Church father. The nomenclature, however, has never been exact. Comparatively few of the plays were ever written down; and of the surviving manuscripts only a small number have been published.
Medieval playwrights began at the bottom of the ladder. In considering their first attempts, one would gain the impression that the art had never been tried before. All that had been learned by the ancients about constructing a play, about machinery for the stage, about acting, about the use of masks, the rules of the unities, the proper subjects for tragedy--all these things were temporarily lost. Those who made the new plays neither knew nor cared about them. They began just where the Dionysiac revelers and the Hopi Indians began: with the attempt to represent an event in the life of the god whom they worshiped. This beginning of sacred drama is all the more interesting because it is the first and last time we are enabled to watch the process of development. We can trace it almost step by step from the first simple scene before the altar to the lates spectacle of our own day. For three or four centuries this "new" art was left to flourish undisturbed by any influence from outside sources.
The Easter plays. The first scene suggesting itself to the priests for representation in dramatic form was the Quem quæritis episode, which takes place at the tomb the third day after the burial of Jesus. In its earliest form it was probably something like living pictures or dumb show. The dialogue was recited in Latin by the priests. The next step was doubtless the presentation of the scene which immediately precedes the Resurrection--the laying of Jesus in the tomb. There are churches still in existence which have the sepulcher of wood or stone in the floor of the chancel. In this the crucifix was laid, to be taken forth again on Easter morning amid the joyous hallelujahs of the choir. In the course of time other scenes were chosen. It would be natural to preced the Burial and Resurrection with the Entry into Jerusalem and the Trial before Pilate; until finally a great part of the life of Jesus was represented.
The Christmas plays. Another event which became the nucleus of a series of plays was the Birth at Bethlehem. The picturesque scene at the manger, the visit of the Wise Men, the movement of the Star--all these things could be presented with ease. The Star could be moved forward on a wire until it paused in the right place, and the whole story could be made appealing and interesting, aside from its religious meaning. The stories embodied the central truths ofthe Christian doctrine, so that their representation, or attendance upon representations, was counted to credit the believer. Tradition says that there was a promise from one of the popes of release from purgatory for a thousand days to all who should attend the miracles performed at Chester. The Christmas play became even more popular than the Easter mystery. Saint Francis of Assisi in the twelfth century presented the Bethlehem scene at an altar which he had built for himself in the forest. There was a manager with a real child, and near by stood a real ox and a real ass.
Immediately after Bethlehem came the Slaughter of the Innocents, which was enacted on the twenty-eighth of December. It was strikingly presented by a procession of choir boys dressed in white, with the figure of the Lamb preceding them. From his throne Herod ordered the children to be murdered; and when the deed was accomplished the children were called to heaven. They made this journey by ascending to the choir-loft, where they sang the Te Deum.
A third center around which sacred plays were built was the story of the Old Testament Prophets, together with incidents in the lives of the early Church fathers. Saint Augustine is represented as preaching to the Jews, endeavoring to convince them of the divinity of Christ. He invokes Isaiah, Nehemiah, and other biblical characters, adding to the group Virgil, Nebuchadnezzar and the mythological Sybil. At the close of the scene the whole company, being convinced of their error, fall in adoration of the Christ child.
Here then are the three most important nuclei around which the new drama arranged itself. It is not known just when or where these dumb shows and simple dialogues were first added to the service of the Church. The custom was pretty well established by the end of the ninth century, though it was not until three or four hundred years later that the plays were committed to writing. They became immensely popular and spread over all Europe. The Christian Church possessed many of the same external elements of worship as were employed in the rituals of primitive peoples: the procession, the bearing of the sacred emblems by the priest, the singing and chanting before the altar, and the use of special costumes and a distinctive speech. When these elements were combined with the story of the life of Jesus, the result was a dramatic spectacle full of human interest, and susceptible of harmless elaboration.
The writers and managers of the earliest plays, most of whom were probably monks, are not known by name. The dialogue parts were generally improvised or transmitted orally from one set of actors to another. There was no division into acts or scenes, and stage appliances were of the simplest description, since, up to the twelfth century, the chancel of the church was itself the stage. The actors were priests, and the occasion of the performances was some festival day of the Church. There were no professional actors, and if there had been the performance would not have been entrusted to them. In the chancel, or just without, on the floor of the church, would be placed the designated localities or stations: the manger, Herod's throne, the House of Pilate, or whatever else was required by the play. At an early period lyrical passages were added to the prose of the dialogue; and though the original speech was Latin, the language of the common people quickly crept in. Hymns and chants from the service of the day provided music.
Until about the middle of the thirteenth century the story of the rise and development of the liturgical play is practically the same for all countries of continental Europe. It was not a French, German, or Italian product, but a popular European movement. From the thirteenth century on, however, characteristic differences began to show themselves in the various countries.
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