This article was originally published in A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1927. pp. 132-7.

IT is probable that the sacred play was brought to England from France after the Norman conquest. Throughout the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries there was a constant supply of mysteries and miracles. More than one hundred English towns, some of them very small, are known to have been provided with these entertainments, which in some places were given every year. Usually, however, an interval of a few years elapsed between productions. Corpus Christi day, which falls in early June, was the most popular time, though Whitsuntide and occasionally other Church festal days were marked by performances. On one occasion the Parish Clerks gave a pageant which lasted for three days, and again one lasting for eight days. The boy choristers of Saint Paul's in London became celebrated for their histrionic ability, and in 1378 they begged Parliament to issue an injunction against "unskilled performers." In 1416 Henry V entertained the Emperor Sigismund at Windsor with a play on the subject of Saint George; and in the following year the English bishops who were delegated to the Council of Constance--the same Council which promised safe conduct to John Huss and then burned him at the stake--entertained their hosts with a Christmas play in three parts, the Nativity, the Visit of the Magi, and the Slaughter of the Innocents. Two performances were given, one for their fellow councillors and themselves, the other for the burghers of the town.

Some of the extant manuscripts. The usual name for these plays in England was miracle, or the Latin ludus, or sometimes the word history. The name mystery is said to have been first applied, in England, in the early eighteenth century by Dodsley, the editor of a volume of old plays. Of the extant manuscripts, the earliest is probably the Harrowing of Hell, in three versions, all of which were probably taken from the French. It is simply a dramatic dialogue in verse, in which Christ and Satan argue over the ownership of the souls in hell; and it belongs naturally with the Easter group of plays. Two plays were discovered during the twentieth century, one on the subject of Abraham and Isaac; the other, belonging to the lost Newcastle Cycle, on the Building of the Ark, both probably surviving from the fourteenth century.

The Cycles. The greater part of the important manuscripts of biblical drama belongs to the cycles--a medieval product in a sense peculiar to England--which attempted to cover the history of Man from his creation to the Day of Judgment. In these cycles there appeared, almost unconsciously, something like the principle of unity: first came the creation, then the fall of Man, which necessitated his redemption. This redemption, after being foretold by the prophets, was accomplished by the birth and passion of Christ, with his resurrection. The series, taken as a whole, formed a true dramatic sequence, in which the soul of Man was the hero.

There are commonly counted four important English cycles: Chester, York, Coventry, and Towneley (also called Wakefield). Cycles are also known to have been produced at Newcastle, Canterbury, and Lincoln. Of those that survive, the Chester cycle is probably the earliest. Of the Newcastle cycle but one play remains, The Building of the Ark, in which there are five characters, and Noah's wife is represented as a vixen. Such is her stubborn temper that Noah is constrained to say to her,

"The devil of hell thee speed
To ship when thou shalt go!"

The cycles vary in quality, and the plays are not always the work of one hand, nor even of one century. The manuscripts, as we have them, have been revised, edited, and arranged, probably from several earlier models, possibly in some cases from the French. In the different cycles there is naturally great similarity both in subject matter and in the sequence of plays; but there are also interesting differences of treatment.

The Pageant. Doubtless biblical plays were often given in England in the continental manner, on a stationary platform with the "mansions" arranged in proper order. Gradually, however, the pageant became specially associated with the English play. The word first meant the movable scaffolding upon which the play was given, but was afterward applied to the play itself. Reduced to its simplest elements, the pageant was a play on wheels. This of course was not a new thing. Tradition assigns a cart to Thespis; there were "carriage plays" in Spain; and traveling shows in Japan. In England, as a rule, each play of the cycle had its own carriage, and all moved along in procession, each wagon giving its play in turn at each stopping place. Usually the pageant began very early in the morning. In the proclamation of the York performances in 1415, it was announced that the plays would begin between four and five o'clock in the morning.

All our knowledge concerning the method of presenting the pageant comes from a report left by one Archdeacon Rogers, who wrote of it in quaint English about the year 1517. He said that each carriage had a higher and a lower room, the lower "where they appareled themselves," and the higher where they played. Temporary stands were built for spectators, and good seats sold for high prices. Sometimes the action of the play called for horsemen, in which case obviously the action would spread out beyond the limits of the stage. The celebration opened with a procession, and after its close there was an orderly round-up by the councilmen and mayor. One writer says:

"To a medieval town the performance of a mystery was an event of immense interest. . . . the magistrates ordered all the shops to be closed, and forbade all noisy work. The streets were empty, the houses locked up, and none but solitary armed watch-men, specially engaged for the occasion, were seen about the residences. All were gathered in the public square." [1]

The Guilds. We have seen how in France the production of plays, once having left the hands of the clergy, passed into the care of certain Brotherhoods. In England the production was managed by the tradesmen's guilds. Each play was arranged, acted, costumed, and financed by its own guild. A study of the distribution of the plays among the guilds forms one of the diverting features of this medieval carnival. In the York cycle the tinners began with God Creating Heaven; the plasterers followed with God Creating the Earth; and then came the card-makers, with God Creating Man. Of course, the ship-builders and seamen played Noah and the Ark, while the goldsmiths enacted the Three Kings, because they could furnish gold crowns. The guilds took pride in making a good showing, being inspired doubtless by both the spirit of good workmanship and the desire to advertise their wares. The smiths had the task of affixing the body of Christ to the cross. A dialogue between the torturers in one of the Towneley plays indicates how one holds down the limbs with all his might. They then congratulated themselves that neither "lewde man ne clerke nothing better shuld."

Scenery, costumes, and finance. In the larger towns considerable time and care were spent in preparation for the pageants. The scenery and stage appliances must have been somewhat scant, if all were accommodated in a rolling greenroom and stage combined. The splendor of the costumes perhaps made up for anything that was lacking in the setting. It was the custom for God to wear a white coat and have his face gilded. Herod, and miscreants generally, were dressed in Saracens, they being the stage villains of the Middle Ages. The expenses, which were often large, were sometimes partly met by a nobleman or other public spirited benefactor; but in general the citizens or guilds financed the production. A collection was taken up at the time of the procession; and, in addition, a tax, ranging from a penny to fourpence and called pageant silver, was imposed upon each member of the guilds. It was paid over to the pageant master, who was elected each year. Today he would be called the business manager, or impresario. The actors and "drawers" were paid for their services; but there was a fine for bad acting or undue forgetfulness of the parts, also fines for guilds which were slow in handing over their pageant silver.

The most impressive of all the mysteries was the Passion of Christ; and this was, as we have seen, also the earliest to be dramatized. In England it took shape about the fourteenth century, gradually showing the conflict between the spiritual strength of Jesus, on the one hand, and on the other the combined forces of the Jewish and Roman worlds. Of all the ecclesiastical plays, this alone can still be seen enacted in modern times.

Lack of artistic quality in biblical plays. Theoretically, the escape of the liturgical plays from the control of the Church, the extension of subjects and the possibility of greater freedom of treatment, ought to have enabled the dramatists to produce at least one masterpiece; but none such exists. Here and there are passages of such sturdy simplicity, so sincere and pleasing, that they for a moment seem to lift the play out of a dull and commonplace atmosphere into one of life and reality; but there is not one genius of the first rank, not one play of the quality of Macbeth or Oedipus in all the enormous output of the Middle Ages. One mystery is just about as good, and just about as dull, as another. So poor did the plays become that a celebrated French writer, Du Bellay, publicly advocated the importation of Greek and Roman tragedy to take the place of the native mysteries. There was none of that struggling with the problems of life and destiny which marks the tragedy of the Greeks; no attainment of an artificial but beautiful conventional form, such as appeared in the No plays of the Japanese; only an occasional naïve touch, interesting because of its spontaneous simplicity.

The decline and disappearance of the biblical play. The next phase of the sacred play is just what might be expected, namely, its condemnation by the Church under whose protection it had risen. It was condemned, however, not only by the Church. The time came when the hollowness, the absence of all religious feeling, made the performance a disgrace and a scandal. A pious habit had become a conventionalized and empty show. Both Romanists and Protestants ultimately frowned upon the mysteries, and denounced them for their childishness and coarseness. The guilds, which had once gladly given time and money for their preparation, now felt the yearly tax a burden. The cycle of sacred drama had run its course. In France, performances were forbidden during the latter part of the sixteenth century. In Spain and in Catholic Germany, as well as in Italy, they persisted somewhat longer. In England they were forbidden by Henry VIII, but were restored again for a brief time under Mary. There were few performances after 1600. The last York play was in 1597, the last Newcastle play in 1589. The Chester plays died out with the sixteenth century. The most important result of all this dramatic activity was perhaps the fostering of a love for the theater, and the shaping of native material into rough dramatic form.

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1 Karl Mantzius, History of the Theatrical Art.

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