Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Order of the Virtues

The twelfth-century German nun Hildegard of Bingen wrote what is generally regarded to be the first surviving morality play, a musical drama known as The Order of the Virtues.

Hildegard is also one of the earliest known composers whose notated music is still performed today, and most of The Order of the Virtues was originally sung. While we do not know if plays by the tenth-century dramatist Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim were performed during her lifetime, nuns at the convent Hildegard founded definitely sang and danced her play, enacting such allegorical figures as Humility, Charity, and Fear of God.

However, not all of the characters in The Order of the Virtues sing. Hildegard also introduced the Devil onstage. This character was originally played by a monk named Volmar, who was Hildegard's secretary. In addition to being the only character played by a man, the Devil was also the only character who did not sing.

The Devil tries to tempt the play's protagonist, Soul, while the virtues try to lead her to salvation. In the central scene, Soul cries out:

               I am the sinner who fled from life:
               riddled with sores I'll come to you--
               you can offer me redemption's shield.
               All of you, warriors of Queen Humility,
               her white lilies and her crimson roses,
               stoop to me, who exiles myself from you like a stranger,
               and help me, that in the blood of the Son of God I may arise.

The Devil, however, is by far the most interesting character in the piece. Hildegard's Devil was the first in a long line of tempters who came to dominate medieval plays. Ironically, these devils became the most popular figures in Christian drama.