Topics so far –
Beginnings of the English Drama
Among the Greeks it attained high distinction.
Among the Romans it was less popular, as conditions in the Roman Empire were politically disturbed, and the populace preferred to shout and cheer at the chariot races and gladiatorial combats of the circus and amphitheatre rather than quietly watch a play. The theatre apparently did not attract the best literary talents in Italy.
Plautus and Terence (Roman playwrights) are not comparable to Virgil, Horace, or Livy in other forms of literature, and Seneca’s tragedies were ‘closet dramas’.
The most popular theatrical entertainments were the performances of mimes in which coarse humor and indecency combined to secure at times the attention of the vulgar. With the rise of Christianity the theatre ran into other difficulties. The Church objected to its associations with paganism, to the fact that in its lower forms it often ridiculed the new religion, and perhaps most of all to the immorality of both performances and performers. With the fall of the Empire, Roman drama disappeared, and for five hundred years only a faint dramatic tradition may have survived, passed on from the mimes to the medieval minstrel.
It is ironical that the Church, the force that had done most to drive Roman drama out of existence, should have been the institution in which modern drama was to take its rise. For the drama of the Middle Ages is not a continuation of Roman drama but a development from entirely new beginnings in the services of the Church, first in the more solemn service of the Mass.
(a) THE MIRACLE-PLAY. It is in the Church and its liturgy that we find the stimulus which leads to the rebirth of drama. The commonly used antiphonal singing had in it the elements of dialogue, while the obvious dramatic possibilities in the Roman Catholic ritual, especially in the Mass, were gradually developed as part of the elaborate ceremonial of the great religious feasts like Easter. As early as the tenth century we hear of Easter representations of the empty tomb of Christ, with dialogue between one figure sitting outside and three others who come in as if seeking something. The authorities were quick to appreciate the instructional value of such presentations as an addition to the Latin liturgy, and to this dramatization of the quern quceritis (whom seek ye?) rapid additions seem to have been made, both at Easter and at other feasts.
The writers seem to have turned next to other New Testament stories, such as the Annunciation and the Nativity, and then to the Old Testament, where the Fall and the stories of Noah and Daniel were among the most popular. By the fourteenth century we have the evolution of complete cycles of plays, covering the history of the world from the Creation to the Day of Judgment, and there is a common tendency to incorporate into them material from legend and the saints' lives. It has long been the fashion to call the Biblical plays 'mysteries' and those dealing with saints' lives 'miracles,' but there is no evidence to justify this distinction in England, though it seems to have been used in France. We hear of no play being called a 'mystery' in England before the eighteenth century, and it seems probable that all out-of-door liturgical dramas in this country were known as 'miracles.'
This growth necessitated the moving of the presentation from the choir (its original place) to the nave of the church, and rapidly the liturgical drama grew to overshadow the ritual of which it had been a very small part. By the twelfth century the dramas, in quest of still more space, seem to have moved into the open, and the organization had begun to pass from ecclesiastical to lay hands. The vernacular was by now the usual medium, and the growing secularization of the drama is reflected in an edict of 1210 forbidding clergy to take part in the plays.
From the clergy, control passed first to the religious and social guilds, and then to the trade guilds, under the general control of the council of the town. The guilds, which were wealthy, and keen rivals in public show, became responsible for the productions. Each guild took on a separate episode from a cycle--often an episode suited to its own interests. Thus at Chester the water-leaders and drawers of the Dee performed Noah's Deluge.
The growing elaboration of presentation, stimulated by guild rivalry, and the extension of the cycles led to the evolution of the ambulatory cycle, in which each episode was performed on a two-decked cart, or pageant. This pageant consisted of one enclosed room, which served both as Hell and as a tiring room, and a second storey open to the sky, on which the action was performed. It was towed round the town so that the play could be performed at fixed points, and at York we read of twelve places at which each play was given in a sequence which began at 4.30 A.M. and went on until the light failed. In London, about 1500, the plays, which were presented very elaborately, lasted from four to seven days.
For such elaborate cycles presented out of doors only summer festivals were really suitable, and after the creation, in 1311, of the feast of Corpus Christi, which fell in May or June, when weather was likely to be good and the hours of daylight were long, most of the play cycles began to attach themselves to that feast. Here and there, however, and notably at Chester, the plays were associated with Whitsuntide. The cycles, some of which were performed annually, and some only at intervals of several years, made Corpus Christi a great public holiday. Soon the licence and revelry of the crowds congregated in the great religious centres on this occasion were arousing strong ecclesiastical opposition and leading to a deterioration in the religious significance and spirit of the plays. Though their composition probably remained in clerical hands, a growing secularization of tone is clearly discernible. A realistic note, often coarse, but always vigorous, was creeping in, while Herod, Pilate, and Pharaoh, among others, were developed as popular comic roles, on which the dramatist gave his imagination free rein. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries traces can be found of miracle plays in about forty different districts in England, most frequently in the North and East. Many texts, most of them very corrupt, are still preserved, among them three complete cycles - those of Chester, York, and Wakefield. The Chester cycle (probably the earliest of the three) is of uncertain date, but was composed between 1350 and 1450. A complete cycle from the Fall of Satan to the Day of Judgment, it is more truly religious than the other two. The York cycle contains forty-eight plays, examination of which suggests that they may be the result of three separate periods of production at some time between 1350 and 1400, while the Wakefield plays (often known as the Towneley plays, from the name of the family which owned the manuscripts for many years) date from about 1430, and are notable for a very strong vein of realism which runs through many of them.
(b) THE MORALITY-PLAY registered a further advance. In such plays virtues and vices were presented on the stage as allegorical creations, often of much liveliness. Abstractions such as Justice, Mercy, Gluttony, and Vice were among the commonest characters. An important feature of this class of play is the development of characterization. It is almost crude; but it is often strongly marked and strongly contrasted, with broad farcical elements. The favourite comic character was Vice, whose chief duty was to tease the Devil.
Everyman (about 1490), perhaps the best of the morality-plays, is represented by the brief extract here given. The characters are simply but effectively drawn, and the play does not lack a noble pathos.
(c) THE INTERLUDE. The last predecessor of the drama proper was the interlude, which flourished about the middle of the sixteenth century. It had several distinguishing points: it was a short play that introduced real characters, usually of humble rank, such as citizens and friars; there was an absence of allegorical figures; there was much broad farcical humour, often coarse; and there were set scenes, a new feature in the English drama. It will be observed that the interlude was a great advance upon the morality-play. John Heywood, who lived throughout much of the sixteenth century, was the most gifted writer of the interlude. The Four P's is one of his best. It is composed in doggerel verse, and describes a lying-match between a Pedlar, a Palmer, a Pardoner, and a Potycary. His Johan Johan has much sharp wit and many clever sayings.
(d) THE EARLIEST DRAMAS. Our earliest dramas began to appear about 1550. Their immediate cause was the renewed study of the classical drama, especially the plays of Seneca (3 B.C.- A.D. 65), whose mannerisms were easily imitated by dramatic apprentices. The classical drama gave English drama its five acts, its set scenes, and many other features.
1) Tragedies. The first tragedies had the Senecan stiffness of style, the conventional characters and plot, though in some cases they adopted the 'dumb show,' an English feature.
Gorboduc (1562), afterwards called Ferrex and Porrex, written by Sackville and Norton, was most probably the earliest, and was acted at the Christmas revels of the Inner Temple. The metre was a wooden type of regular blank verse. Other plays of a similar character were Appius and Virginia (1563), of anonymous authorship; the Historie of Horestes (1567), also anonymous; Jocasta (1566); and Preston's Cambyses, King of Percia (1570).
Hughes's Misfortunes of Arthur (1588) broke away from the classical theme, but, like the others, it was a servile imitation of classical models. Many of the plays, however, preserved a peculiarly English feature in the retention of the comic Vice.
2) Histories. Along with the alien classical tragedy arose a healthier native breed of historical plays. These plays, the predecessors of the historical plays of Shakespeare, were dramatized forms of the early chronicles, and combined both tragic and comic elements. This union of tragedy and comedy was alien to the classical drama, and was the chief glory of the Elizabethan stage. Early historical plays were The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth (before 1588), a mixture of crude verse and prose; The Troublesome Raigne of King John (before 1591); and The Chronicle History of King Leir (1594).
3) Comedies. Though the comedies drew much upon Latin comic authors, like Plautus, and on Italian models also, they were to a great extent the growth of the English mumming element. They were composed usually in mixed verse and prose, the humour was of a primitive character, but the best of them had verve and high good-humour, and they were distinguished by some worthy songs and ditties. Ralph Roister Doister (1551), by Nicholas Udall, is the earliest extant comedy. Its author was the headmaster of Eton, and the play seems to have been composed as a variant upon the Latin dramas that were the stock-in-trade of the schoolboy actors then common. Another comedy was Gammer Gurton's Needle (1575), the authorship of which is in dispute. The plot is slight, but the humour, though the reverse of delicate, is abundant, and the play gives interesting glimpses of contemporary English life. We add a short scene from an early comedy. It shows the doggerel verse and the uninspired style - the homely natural speech of the time.
Next topic –
The Renaissance in England
English Literature by Edward Albert [Revised by J. A. Stone]
History of English Literature, by Legouis and Cazamian
The Routledge History of Literature in English: Britain and Ireland, by Ronald Carter and John McRaeA Literary History of England. II Edition. Edited by Albert C. Baugh. Volume I
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