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This article was originally published in The Development of the Drama. Brander Matthews. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1912. pp. 107-146.


THE change from the Latin language to the speech of the people, the transfer of control from the clergy to the laity, the removal from the inside of the church to the outside, were all made gradually and tentatively, and with no intent to bring about any radical transformation. When the laymen took charge, they desired to do just what the priests had done, no more and no less; and if we seek to understand the circumstances of the performances outside the church, we must recall what the conditions were originally inside the sacred edifice. In the cycle of the Nativity we saw that the manger was set up near the altar, and that not far distant there was erected a throne for Herod. Each of these places was thus what came to be known as a "station"; and the action of the play went on, not only at the one or the other of the stations, but also in other parts of the church, extending now and again even to the doors. The Easter cycle would also require several stations,--three at least, one with a throne for Pilate, another with the cross, a third with the open grave. The acting of the play was carried on chiefly in the open space between and in front of the several stations, the characters belonging to each of these remaining there, silent and motionless, until the time came for them to enter with the story. Then they might leave the station for a while, and go out into the open space, only to return to their own places so soon as the progress of the plot called for the characters of some other station.

When the Christmas cycle and the Easter cycle were combined together, and when the few intermediate scenes were also cast into dialogue, so that the whole earthly life of Jesus might be shown, from his birth to his resurrection, then the nave of the church would be inconveniently crowded with the many stations requisite for the whole gospel-story; and there would be left between them, and in front, an inadequate area for what might be termed the neutral ground, the open space for the acting of the many scenes which did not call for special stations--such, for instance, as the Entry into Jerusalem, or the Betrayal at Gethsemane. Those who began to act out the sacred story in the church had no thought of scenery,--which, indeed, was a thing to them not only unknown, but wholly inconceivable. They were seeking to show what had happened on the very day they were commemorating. Even when the incidents had cohered into a sequence, it was the action itself that was all important, and the place where it came to pass was without significance except when it needed to be specified. So the most of the acting was always in the more open space in the center; and stations were utilized only when they were really necessary. Probably as the mysteries increased in length the number of necessary stations became cumbersome, and only in the larger cathedrals would it be possible to avoid an awkward cluttering within the chancel. Quite possibly, this multiplication was an added reason for removing the performance of the mysteries outside the church, so some ampler place, where the several stations might be more widely separated.

When this removal did take place, and the mysteries were presented in the open air, what the laymen who took charge of them would undoubtedly seek to do would be to preserve carefully such traditions as had been established in the course of the performances given by the clergy. These laymen would therefore avail themselves of the device of the stations, modifying these as might be required by the new conditions of performance. In England this modification came in time to be somewhat different from that obtaining in France; but as the English mystery is derived from French models, the French form demands attention first, the more so as elsewhere in Europe there is a closer resemblance to French usage than to English.

In France, then, a mystery would be acted upon a platform put up in some public place, often in the open square in front of the cathedral. To provide reserved seats for the dignitaries of the church, the officials of the city, and the distinguished strangers invited to attend, grandstands would be erected facing the platform and along the sides, the central area being left free for the populace, who were always eager to crowd in, while the gaily draped windows of the surrounding houses would be available as private boxes. The platform, intended to serve as a stage, was perhaps a hundred and fifty feet long, and some fifty or sixty feet deep. The front part was generally free and clear, so that the actors could move to and fro, while at the back were ranged the stations--which in France came soon to be known as "mansions." At the extreme left of the spectators, and raised high on pillars, was Heaven, wherein God sat, often with a gilded face, the better to suggest the shining glory of his countenance. At the extreme right of the spectators was Hell-mouth, the fiery cavern where the Devil and all his imps had their abode. Then stretching from Heaven to Hell-mouth was the line of mansions, those earliest in use being on the left. A wall, pierced by a door, might indicate Nazareth; next an altar covered by a canopy and protected by a balustrade would suggest the Temple; and a second wall with its gate could serve to call up the idea of Jerusalem itself. In the center there might be a more elaborate construction, with columns and a throne, intended for the palace of Pontius Pilate. A third wall with two doors might be made to serve as the house of the high-priest and as the Golden Gate; while in front of this and not far from Hell-mouth there might be a tank of real water, with a little boat floating on it, so as to simulate the Sea of Gennesaret.

These are the mansions that are depicted in a miniature on the manuscript of a mystery acted in Valenciennes in the middle of the sixteenth century. In other places, and at other times, there might be more or there might be less, for there was never any uniformity of custom; and even here we see that many of the most important episodes of the gospel-narrative must have been performed on the front part of the platform and wholly unrelated to any of the mansions ranged at the back. The mansions were employed only when certain portions of the sacred story could, by their use, be made clearer or more striking; and even when they were set up, however elaborate their decoration might be, it was never in any way deceptive. The mansions were not intended actually to represent the special places; the most they were expected to do was to suggest them so that a few columns would indicate a palace or a temple, and so that a wall and a door sufficed to evoke the idea of a city.

Thus we see that in France the stations used inside the church were set up side by side on the open-air stage outside of the church, where they were known as mansions. In England, when the passion-play was taken out of the sacred edifice, another arrangement was adopted: the stations were separated and each was shown by itself, being called a "pageant." Sometimes these were immovable, and sometimes they were ambulatory; and in the latter case, which seems to have been the more frequent, the pageant was apparently not unlike the elaborately decorated "floats" familiar in modern parades, such as that of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Corpus Christi day was early chosen as the festival most fit for the performance of the mysteries; and in Great Britain the pageants followed in the wake of the Corpus Christi procession through the town. The first pageant, with its appropriate decorations and its own groups of performers, would draw up before the church-door as the end of the procession emerged therefrom; and the first episode of the play would then be represented there, sometimes on the broad platform of the wagon, but often in the street itself,--just as most of the acting in the French mysteries took place not so much in the mansions themselves as in the neutral ground in front of the stage. One stage-direction in an English manuscript is curiously significant: "Here Herod shall rage on the pageant and in the street."

When the first episode had been played out, the second pageant appeared; and the first pageant was dragged away along the line of march of the Corpus Christi procession to another appointed spot, where the first episode was acted again, while the performers attached to the second pageant were presenting the second episode before the doors of the church. Then a third pageant would take the place of the second; and thus it was that, in the course of the long summer day, the spectator, no matter at which of the chosen spots he might chance to stand, could see all the successive incidents of the mystery represented before him, partly on the pageants, with their elementary attempts to indicate the actual place where the action was supposed to be passing, and partly in the open street in the space that was kept clear for the actors. For certain of the episodes, such as the Trial of Jesus, for example, two pageants were necessary, and the performers passed from one to the other as the incidents of the narrative might require.

This use of ambulatory pageants seems to have obtained chiefly in the English towns; and in the rural districts the pageants were not decorated wagons, but platforms set up along the route of the Corpus Christi procession. There was a stage for each of the important episodes of the play, thus recalling the original stations devised for the performance when it took place inside the church. The spectators, following the procession, would halt in front of the first platform and witness the acting of the first episode; and when that was concluded they would pass along to the second platform to behold the second episode; and so on until they had seen the entire mystery. The English were thus setting up separately the stations which the French had preferred to put side by side upon one very long platform. But these variations of custom between the French and the English are external only, and of no immediate importance, although they account in part for the divergence to be observed in the development of the later dramatic literatures of the two languages.

Essentially the mystery is the same, wherever it is acted, and in whatever language, French or English, German or Italian. It is the same in its long-windedness and in its loose-jointedness, in its homely directness of speech alternating with turgid bombast, in its occasional touches of genuine feeling and of unrestrained pathos, in the introduction of humorous scenes, in the frank realism of the dialogue, and, above all, in the simple faith of those who wrote it, of those who acted it, and of those who beheld its performance. The influence of the audience must always be taken into account: and the medieval spectators for whose edification the mystery was devised were unlearned and without culture; they were ignorant and even gross; they had no tincture of letters; they were credulous and superstitious and wonder-loving; they were at once devout and irreverent,--or at least they seem so to us; they had a liking for broad fun and for a robust realism of treatment; they were shocked by no vulgarity and they resented incongruity, for they were wholly devoid of the historic sense (as we moderns call it.)

Although the English mysteries were of Anglo-Norman origin and follow the French tradition in the main, yet the bond of unity was broken when Latin was abandoned for the vernacular; and there are other differences between the performances in French and those in English besides the modification of the station into the mansion in the one country and into the pageant in the other. In England, the entire mystery--shortened now and again by the occasional omission of one episode or another--seems sometimes to have been presented in a single day, the exhibition beginning as early as four in the morning. In France the performance was more likely to continue over several successive days, very much as the Wagnerian cycle is now given at Bayreuth,--although it may be doubted whether any modern audience could have the patience of the medieval spectators of Bourges who in the sixteenth century were entertained by a mystery of the ACTS OF THE APOSTLES, the performance of which took forty days.

In England, as we have seen, the pageants followed the religious procession; whereas in France, where the mansions were immovable on a single platform, it was not unusual for the whole troop of performers to make a street-parade before the acting began, quite in the manner of the modern travelling circus. In France, again, when the church gave up control of the mysteries, they were turned over to lay organizations of burghers, founded especially to perform the sacred plays; whereas in England this task was assumed by the gilds, each of which undertook the episode which its craftsmanship best fitted it to carry out, the Carpenters, for instance, being responsible for Noah's Ark, and the Goldsmiths undertaking the Three Kings, because they could best provide the royal diadems.

Further differences there are also between the mysteries as performed in France or in England and the sacred-representations of the Italians; and again between the dramatizations of the Scriptures as acted in Germany and those to be seen in Spain. But these differences are matters of detail merely; and the line of development was everywhere the same throughout those parts of Europe that had been ruled by Rome. Everywhere also was the production of a mystery considered as a good deed, as an act pleasing to Heaven, and certain to win favor from the Deity and from the saints. Such performances were often, therefore, given in a season or pestilence to placate the wrath of God or to deserve the protection of some particular saint. Such an exhibition took place in Constantinople, within Saint Sophia itself, in the middle of the fifteenth century, just before the capture of the capital of the Western Empire by the Turks. Mysteries were also performed in certain towns after an escape from impending danger and as a testimony of gratitude to Heaven for its intervention; and it is to this sentiment that we owe the continued performance of the passion-play, which is still to be seen every tenth summer at Oberammergau.

The majority of the mysteries preserved to us in manuscript are anonymous, and of only a few are we acquainted with the exact date of composition. Most of the authors are to be considered rather as compilers; lacking individuality, they were satisfied to accept the play as they found it, modifying the framework but little after it had once been constructed, and satisfying themselves with adding or subtracting episodes at will. Each of them freely availed himself of the labors of those of his predessors with which he chanced to be familiar. Sometimes he rewrote what he borrowed, and sometimes he copied it slavishly, careless of any diversity of diction. So there is not often harmony of style in any single mystery; and yet there is an immense monotony when a number of them are compared together.


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