Though early Christians opposed the theatre, their rituals were themselves dramatic. At the heart of Christian religious services was in fact a re-enactment of the Last Supper, the final meal of Jesus Christ before his crucifixion and death. This sacred meal would later become very important to the history of Western drama, but it was actually the celebration of Easter--the feast commemorating Christ's resurrection--that gave rise to the first recorded Christian liturgical dramas.
The earliest liturgical dramas trace their ancestry at least to the early tenth century, when the monks in the Swiss monastery of St. Gall sang a trope beginning with the line "Quem quaeritis?" or "Whom do you seek?" It is clear that the so-called Quem Quaeritis Trope soon had a distinctly theatrical staging. Instructions from a tenth-century bishop, Ethelwold of Winchester, called for one singer impersonating an angel to ask, "Whom do you seek in the sepulcher, O Christian woman?" Then, three singers representing the three women at the tomb were to respond, "Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified, O heavenly one." The angel was then to sing, "He is not here; He is arisen, as He foretold. Go and announce that he is risen from the dead."
From these humble beginnings arose elaborate plays performed inside churches. For these performances, we have records of costumes, sets, and impressive special effects, including an Ascension play in which an actor playing Christ was hoisted up into wool clouds inside the church. Other plays portrayed processions of prophets, shepherds coming to see the infant Christ, and the visitation of the three magi. The action of the plays frequently began on raised platforms called mansions erected inside the church. Stage directions sometimes called for actors to come down from the mansions and perform on a common playing area known as the platea, which was on the same level as the audience.
These early plays were in Latin, but in the twelfth century plays in the local vernacular began to appear. One, The Play of Adam, which was performed in northern France, was written mostly in Norman French, though it has substantial passages in Latin. From the stage directions, it seems clear the play was performed in front of a church, with characters occasionally exiting into the church. In later centuries, many plays took place away from churches entirely and were performed not by churchmen but by lay actors speaking (and only occasionally singing) in the vernacular.
Corpus Christi Plays
In 1208, a canoness named Juliana of Liege (in present-day Belgium) reported having a mystical vision of Christ urging her to work for a new feast for the church. The vision told her there must be a specific feast to celebrate Christ's bodily presence in the Eucharist, the sacrament served during the ritual re-enactment of the Last Supper. Juliana claimed to have had the vision over and over again for years before she finally related it to her confessor. The confessor told the bishop, who proclaimed in Liege a Feast of Corpus Christi, Latin for "Body of Christ." After a former Archdeacon of Liege became Pope Urban IV in 1264, the feast spread across Europe.
Traditionally, people celebrated Corpus Christi by taking a consecrated wafer, believed to be the Body of Christ, out of the church and parading it through the streets of the town. In some places, the Feast of Corpus Christi came to be associated with a procession of plays through the streets. These plays told the history of the entire world, as Christians understood it, from the Fall of Lucifer, to the Last Judgment. They focused, however, on how through Christ humanity came to be saved. Each play could be associated with a different guild or craft, known as a mystery, hence the plays are often called mystery plays.
Cycles of mystery plays were performed throughout Europe, but they were particularly popular in England. Each guild generally sponsored a different play and produced it every year or few years. A guild might take charge of a particular play for practical reasons, for instance the shipwrights' guild performing the play of Noah's Ark. There was generally a symbolic reason for the guild to perform a play as well. In York, the Pinners' Guild, which made nails, performed the Crucifixion.
The guilds built elaborate carts that paraded through the streets, stopping periodically to perform the plays. In some cases, the performance sites were close enough together that the audience would be able to vaguely hear the previous play at the next site and the next play at the previous site. This could have emphasized the idea that each scene was a part of a larger narrative involving the cosmic history of humanity's redemption. Because there were so many plays, performances of an entire cycle lasted from one to three days, and sometimes even longer. Performances began at dawn and ended at sundown.
After the Protestant Reformation, the government in England banned the performance of these plays, though some cities managed to hold onto the tradition well into the reign of Elizabeth I. Scripts for four nearly complete cycles survive in English. They are the cycles for York, Wakefield, Chester, and a city designated in the script as "N-town." There are many theories about where "N-town" might have been, or whether that name was just a placeholder, and the name of any city could have been used in the script depending on where the plays were performed.
Eight of the plays in the York cycle are written in an alliterative verse identified with an anonymous playwright scholars have dubbed the York Realist. These plays all deal with the Passion of Christ, from the conspiracy to arrest Jesus to his body's burial. Written sometime in the fifteenth century, the plays of the York Realist achieve an emotional intensity rarely exceeded in medieval drama. The characters in these plays maintain a believable psychology even as they sometimes address the audience directly.
Even more famous is a playwright known as the Wakefield Master, who wrote in an equally distinctive verse form. The Wakefield Master wrote the better part of at least six plays, including not one but two plays about shepherds visiting the infant Christ. The First Shepherd's Play shows three petty shepherds who are so foolish they argue with each other over imaginary sheep. After an angel appears to them, however, they become humbled. They travel to Bethlehem while singing a song and then offer simple gifts to the newborn child.
The Second Shepherd's Play is an even more famous depiction of the same events. The shepherds have the same names as in the former play, but it is unclear if the plays were performed together or alternated on different years. The Second Shepherd's Play is notable for a folk-tale plot that precedes the main action. In the folk-tale plot, a thief named Mak steals a sheep and takes it home to his wife. The wife pretends the sheep is a newborn child to whom she has just given birth, but the shepherds see through the ruse and punish Mak, tossing him in a blanket. An angel then appears, and the shepherds visit a real infant who in Christian theology is known as "the Lamb of God."
As can be seen, mystery plays went beyond the depiction of events as described in the Bible. While they sometimes adhered closely to biblical narratives, they also added in accounts from other sources, such as folk traditions, Apocryphal Gospels, and medieval poems. Often they contained songs, the most famous of these coming from The Shearmen and Tailors' Play. This piece comes from a cycle of mystery plays (only two of which have survived) that were performed in Coventry in the fifteenth century. It ends with three songs, one of which is still frequently sung at Christmastime. The song, generally known as "The Coventry Carol," laments the innocent children slaughtered by King Herod.
Herod was in fact one of the great characters of the medieval stage. A famous stage direction in The Shearmen and Tailors' Play reads: "Here Erode ragis in the pagond and in the strete also." This seems to indicate that upon occasion the action of plays spilled over from the pageant wagons and into the audience. The passions of Herod, who would call out things like, "I stampe! I stare! I loke all abowtt!" were remembered well beyond the middle ages. Shakespeare's Hamlet recalls such antics when he remarks that overacting "out-herods Herod."
European Passion Plays
Biblical cycle plays telling multiple stories but focusing on the life and death of Christ were performed on the European continent as well as in England. Since these plays usually focused on the "Passion" of Christ (Christ's betrayal, trial, and execution) they are often referred to as passion plays. The earliest surviving play depicting the crucifixion of Christ is a twelve-scene play from Montecassino, Italy that dates from the middle of the twelfth century. The thirteenth-century manuscript known as the Carmina Burana, which was discovered in the monastery of Benediktbeuern in German, also contains two passion plays. Though the first passion plays appear to have been performed inside churches, later plays were staged outside in public places.
Rather than having guilds stage cycle plays, many places in Europe formed special associations to produce their annual or semi-annual passion plays. For instance, in the town of Lucerne in Switzerland the Confederation of the Crown of Thorns staged a passion play that took place over two twelve-hour performances. That play took place in the town square. On one side of the square was a mansion representing Paradise, and at its base was the Garden of Eden. In a corner on the other side of the square was a mansion representing the mouth of Hell.
Such Hell Mouths were typical of medieval plays. They were literal demonic mouths through which demons would emerge to drag characters into Hell. Smoke billowed out of the mouth, and medieval technicians staged small explosions there, which unfortunately went wrong upon occasion, causing injuries. Opposite the Hell Mouth was typically Paradise, which contemporary reports considered the grandest of all the mansions. One representation of Paradise in Florence had ten rotating wheels bedecked with copper lanterns to represent stars.
In France, the town of Valenciennes staged a passion play with more than 100 roles, though the production did utilize some doubling. Actors in the Valenciennes passion play had to take an oath that they would follow through with their duties and appear in the performance. Actors were fined for breaking rules or missing performances. In Valenciennes, final rehearsals took place in the morning, and scenes from the play were performed in the afternoon. The play took a full 25 days to perform the entire cycle.
Gradually, these massive performances faded, but fortunately for us, some of them were recorded for us visually. In 1577, the painter Hubert Cailleau created a color illustration of the Valenciennes passion play, which he had designed thirty years earlier. The illustration shows only a few of the mansions, which might have numbered as many as 70. However, it is likely some mansions were refitted for multiple uses. In Lucerne, for instance, 32 mansions provided about 70 locales. For all of the limitations of Cailleau's illustration, it is one of the best depictions we have of medieval passion plays.
Not all medieval plays focused on the life of Christ. Also popular were miracle plays, which told the stories of miraculous events and often focused on the life of a saint. One of the best depictions of a miracle play is an illustration done by the 15th-century artist Jean Fouquet of a play depicting the martyrdom of St. Appollonia. The illustration shows a series of mansions, including a Hell Mouth. Overseeing the proceedings is a man with a book and a staff, who appears to be directing the action.
Many of these plays focused on the life of the Virgin Mary or on St. Nicholas. Miracle plays were particularly popular in England, but Henry VIII banned them in the 16th century, and few of them survive. One of these, The Conversion of St. Paul is a relatively short piece probably performed in conjunction with the feast day commemorating the apostle's conversion. Another English miracle play, The Play of the Sacrament, does not tell the story of any particular saint, but rather relates an anti-Semitic folktale about a host miraculously surviving torture from non-believers.
The longest and most famous of the English miracle plays is Mary Magdalene. This two-part play begins with Biblical accounts of Mary Magdalene, as they were interpreted during the middle ages, conflating several different women into a single character. The second half of the play continues the story of Mary, using legends about her converting the King and Queen of Marculle. The play also utilizes characters such as "World," "Flesh," "Devil," and allegorical figures of the Seven Deadly Sins. Because of this, Mary Magdalene also crosses over into another genre of medieval theatre, the morality play.
Morality plays were particularly popular in the later middle ages. They portrayed individuals dealing with the temptations of life and relied heavily on allegorical figures. The most famous morality play is the anonymous Everyman, which also exists in a Dutch version called Elckerlijc, though it is unclear which version came first. In the play, God sends Death to the titular character. Everyman must account for his life, but all of his boon companions, such as Fellowship, Kindred, and Worldly Goods, abandon him. Ultimately, only a character known as Good Deeds will accompany him as he comes before God.
Another morality play, Mankind, also uses a generalized protagonist and allegorical figures. Unlike the somber Everyman, however, it uses outrageous scatological humor to keep the audience interested. During the play, actors portraying various vices ask the audience to give money if they want to see the devil Titivillus, a demon they promise will be highly entertaining. After the audience pays up, Titivillus makes Mankind's life miserable and convinces him to engage in a life of sin. Though Mankind ultimately accepts Mercy and is saved, the play reminds the audience that they were complicit in bringing about Mankind's sufferings.
While there is little evidence about how these plays were performed, the manuscript for the morality play The Castle of Perseverance contains numerous stage directions and even a drawing of the setup for the stage. From the drawing, it appears that the play took place in the round with five mansions around the perimeter. In the center of the action was a castle in which the character of Mankind took refuge from enemies including World, Flesh, and the Devil. When Mankind died, a character named Soul emerged from under his bed. Like other morality plays, The Castle of Perseverance ends with the judgment of the protagonist and a warning for the audience.
Farces and Interludes
Not all medieval plays in Europe were religious in nature. There was also a strong secular tradition of theatre at markets and fairs as well as before the courts of nobles and royalty. The anonymous 13th-century play The Boy and the Blind Man is the oldest surviving farce from the middle ages. It uses only two characters and could be performed practically anywhere. The play's depiction of a boy robbing and beating an old blind man might not sound very funny to us, but it seems to have entertained crowds well enough to convince them to give donations to the performers.
French farce seems to have directly influenced the English playwright John Heywood. Heywood wrote numerous court performances for Henry VIII. His most famous farce is Johan Johan the Husband, Tyb his Wife, and Sir Johan, the Priest, which also supplies the cast list in its title. The play makes fun of all of the characters, but especially the cuckolded husband whose wife is having an affair with the local priest. Such anti-clericism was typical of medieval humor, though the Protestant Reformation no doubt made it more politically desirable.
Entertainments like Heywood's were sometimes performed between courses of a feast, which might be the reason they came to be called interludes. Other interludes could be entirely mimed. They might be allegorical, like morality plays, but instead deal with secular topics. One Heywood interlude, The Play of the Weather, portrays several people asking Jupiter for different types of weather. Another play, The Four P's, depicts individuals of different professions. Interludes appear to have been common in courts throughout Europe during the medieval period.
Outside in the town square regular people were more likely to see quick farces like The Boy and the Blindman or folk plays depicting popular heroes like St. George or Robin Hood. The texts of these plays tend to be quite short, but they likely contained music, dancing, and mimed action. Some entertainments, such as those performed by costumed mummers were entirely mimed. Mummers disguised themselves as animals, wild men, or fantastic beasts. In addition to dancing, they sometimes played gambling games with the host of a feast, usually letting the host win.
Similar mimed performances were also given during triumphal processions. Performers dressed as allegorical figures, for instance, might greet a monarch entering a city. These performers sometimes created a living picture known as a tableau vivant.
The Medieval Inheritance
Many medieval traditions, including mummers, folk plays, and tableau vivants, continue until this day. Others, such as the English mystery cycles, have been revived in later centuries as an expression of historical interest and civic pride. Medieval plays influenced the Renaissance dramas of the golden age of theatre that was to come. Later playwrights, including Strindberg, have also looked to medieval drama for inspiration. While the middle ages seem remote in many respects, in other ways they are still with us.
One example of the dual nature of the medieval inheritance is the passion play performed in the German town of Oberammergau. Passion plays were already an old-fashioned throwback when from 1632 to 1633 the bubonic plague struck the town of Oberammergau. Residents vowed that if God spared them, they would for the rest of time produce a play depicting the life and death of Christ. In 1634, the town produced the play for the first time. Though originally Oberammergau put on the play every year, the town later shifted to producing the play once every 10 years.
Today, the people of Oberammergau still produce a passion play once every decade. The huge undertaking now involves more than 2,000 performers, musicians, and stagehands. About half a million people come from all over the world to witness the event. The play is now performed in a specially built outdoor theatre from May to October in years ending with zero. Each performance lasts about seven hours and includes a meal break.
While Oberammergau has the longest tradition of performing a passion play, many other communities have revived this medieval form for the modern era. Frequently, they have adapted it drastically for modern tastes and sensibilities. The New Jerusalem Theatre in Brejo da Madre de Deus in Brazil hosts an annual passion play in what is probably the largest outdoor theatrical space in the world. Since 1968, Eureka Springs, Arkansas has played host to one of the largest annual passion plays in the United States, which takes place in a 4,000-seat amphitheatre. The Mormon Miracle Pageant in Manti, Utah includes a non-biblical episode about Christ appearing to Native Americans that appears in The Book of Mormon.
The popularity of biblical movie epics from the films of Cecil B. DeMille to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ also owe a great deal to the medieval inheritance. Critics have attacked all of these productions for perpetuating negative traditions of the middle ages, including anti-Semitism. Supporters of these plays argue they are inspired by genuine religious conviction, that they teach important lessons, that they build civic pride, and that they help generate money for the local economy. All of these motivations are shared with the original guilds, confraternities, and professional acting troupes that performed drama in the middle ages. Also, some medieval critics leveled similar charges that passion plays created mischief and perpetuated erroneous doctrines. In more ways than one, the middle ages are closer to us than we might think.