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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.


VERY closely allied to the mystery was the miracle-play, which may have come into being even before the Easter cycle had elaborated itself intoa passion-play. A sequence of episodes taken from Holy Writ we now call a mystery; and what we now call a miracle-play is a sequence of episodes taken from the life of some wonder-working saint. In England the mystery was much the more frequent; but in France the miracle-play was perhaps the more popular, as it was probably almost as ancient. Indeed, in the middle ages no one seems ever to have made any distinction between the two kinds of play, as the medieval mind was not trained to discriminate between the canonical books and the Apocrypha, or even between the Scriptures and the legends of the saints. In miracle-play, as in mystery, we find the same naïve treatment of life, the same panoramic construction of the story, the same admixture of comic incidents, and the same apparent irreverence; and the circumstances of the performance would be the same also.

The middle ages had an appetite for allegory quite as vigorous as the liking for legend; and after the saintly biographies had been set on the stage as miracle-plays, allegory was also cast into dialogue, and thus we have the moral-plays. The morality was a medieval forerunner of our modern novel-with-a-purpose, as unconvincingly didactic as it is inevitably dull. The morality may even be defined as an attempt to dramatize a sermon,--whereas the mystery is simply a dramatization of the text. Written to be presented before an audience used to the primitive methods of the passion-play, the authors make free use of the device of the stations, for instance. In one morality, the CASTLE OF CONSTANCY, there were six stations: one was a castellated structure open below to reveal a bed for the chief character, who personified the Human Race; and the other five stations were disposed around this loftier stage, one in the east for God, one in the northeast for Greed, one in the west for the World, one in the south for the Flesh, and one in the north for the Devil. The hero of this string of argumentative conversations, Human Race, appears at first as a child, and the Angels of Good and of Evil come to him. He is tempted off to the World by the Evil Angel; and later, as a young man, he is introduced to the Seven Deadly Sins. In time Repentance leads him to Confession; and as a man of forty we see him in the Castle of Constancy, surrounded by the Seven Most Excellent Virtues. Thereupon the Castle itself is besieged by three evil powers and the Seven Deadly Sins and their allies. Then at last, as an old man, Human Race backslides again, and the Evil Angel is bearing him away, when a formal trial takes place before God, at which Justice and Truth accuse him, while he is defended by Mercy and Peace.

The morality was an attempt to depict character, but with the aid of violent colors only, and with a harsh juxtaposition of light and darkness. Yet it helped along the development of the drama in that it permitted a freer handling of the action, since the writer of moralities had always to invent his plots, whereas the maker of mysteries had his stories ready-made to his hand. The morality was frankly fiction, while the miracle-play gave itself out for fact. Then, also, the tendency seems irresistible for an author who has any appreciation of human nature to go speedily from the abstract to the concrete and to substitute for the cold figure of Pride itself the less frigid portrait of an actual man who is proud. Thus mere allegory, barren and chill, is swiftly warmed into social satire, tingling with individuality; and so we have here before us the germ out of which a living comedy was to be evolved. It is to be noted that when the morality had achieved a certain freedom for itself in plot and in character, it seems to have exerted a healthy influence upon the contemporary mystery and miracle-play.

In fact, the medieval mind did not distinguish the three kinds of drama sharply, and we find them commingled in more than one example,--notably in the English MARY MAGDALENE. We discover the same confusion of species in all uncritical periods, when production is spontaneous and unconscious. In method the mystery and the miracle-play are alike; and by no certain mark can we set off the morality from the interlude in English or the monologue from the burlesque-sermon in French. The more elevated the effort, the more likely was an admixture of the grotesque. Immediately before or after the loftiest moments of a tragic theme, the nimble devils would come capering forth to make the spectator shriek with laughter at their buffoonery as they bore away some evil-doer to be cast into Hell-mouth.

Popular as these plays were, it is only in a chance episode that any one of them is really raised into literature. The drama must be the most democratic of all the arts, since its very existence depends on the multitude; and it is therefore likely always to represent the average intelligence of any era. The long period known as the middle ages, whatever its literary unattractiveness, brought about a new birth of the acted drama. It aroused in the people the desire for the pleasures of the theater; and it began to train actors against the time when acting should once more become a profession.

In considering the deficiencies of the medieval drama, we must never forget that the actors were all amateurs,--priests at first, and then burghers and craftsmen, students and clerks. They might be paid for their services, or they might choose to perform as a labor of love; but acting was not their calling, and their opportunities for improving themselves in the art were infrequent. The accomplished actor stimulates the dramatist, and the playwright is ever developing the performer; each is necessary to the other, and in the middle ages we find neither. Yet slowly the traditions of a theater were getting themselves established. There was acting, such as it was; there were plays, such as they were, not so much dramas as mere panoramas of successive episodes; there were audiences, rude and gross, no doubt, but composed of human beings, after all, and therefore ever ready to be entranced and thrilled by the art of the master-craftsman. But in the medieval drama we seek in vain for a master-craftsman; he is not to be found in France or in England, in Spain, in Italy, or in Germany. The elements of a vital drama were all there, ready to the hand of a true dramatist who might know how to make use of them; they were awaiting the grasp of a poet-playwright who might be able to present with technical skill and with imaginative insight the perpetual struggle of good and evil, of God and the Devil.

But in all medieval literature there is no born playwright; and there is no born poet who wrought in dialogue and action. The one indestructible work of art which gives utterance to the intentions of the middle ages, to the ideals of that dark time, and to its aspirations, was not made to be represented within the church or out of it, either by priests or by laymen, even though it bore the name of the DIVINE COMEDY.

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