The Theatre In France - Liturgical Drama, Miracle Plays, And Comedy Before The Fourteenth Century

( Originally Published 1902 )

Historical sketch—Nature of public entertainments between the sixth and eleventh centuries—Dramatic compositions of Hroswitha—Eleventh century : the Feast of Fools ; its origin—Carols—The Trope—First liturgical drama : The Wise and Foolish Virgins—Twelfth century : Drama of the Prophets—The Fête des Ânes--Compositions of Hilarius —Liturgical drama and Church festivals--The Miracle Play : Le Drame d'Adam et d'Ève—Thirteenth century : Provençal poets—Religious drama outside the Church : Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas—Earliest Guilds, and open-air theatres — Appearance of comedy: Le Jeu d'Adam ou de la Feuillée.

IN the year 359 A.D. the Franks (most formidable of the barbarian hordes that ravaged the West) obtained from the Emperor Julian the right to settle along the left bank of the Rhine, and to occupy Belgium as Allies of the Empire. But, in 486, Clovis, the head of the tribe of Salic Franks, invaded Roman Gaul (where Syagrius was at that time reigning under the nominal authority of Zeno, Emperor of the East), and, as victor at the battle of Soissons, brought all the other Frankish tribes beneath his sceptre. Placing himself at their head, he took possession of Roman Gaul, and in 500 founded the Empire of the Franks, with Paris for his capital.

Upon the death of Clovis the Frankish Empire was parcelled into several little kingdoms, ad-ministered in succession by the descendants of the king. This state of things was prolonged down to 771, at which epoch Charlemagne extended his dominion over the different parts of the Frankish Empire. In 843 this empire was finally divided into three parts—Germany, Italy, and lastly France, which was handed over to Charles the Bald.

During all this lapse of time, and down to the close of the tenth century, every trace is lost, not merely of theatrical performances properly so called, but of all kinds of dramatic composition, in the West. Chilperic, King of the Franks, had indeed, in 577, constructed circuses at Paris and at Soissons, but it was seldom that any save mountebanks and dancers performed there. As professional comedians, between the seventh and ninth centuries, there were only the jongleurs or nomad singers, who mounted on rude trestles to declaim verses, and gesticulated to the sound of instruments. Towards the ninth century, according to certain historians of the period, the jongleurs' games acquired a certain dramatic character. Dialogue succeeded to simple recitation, and several singers simultaneously acted pious scenes drawn from the legends of the saints, and entitled Urbanae cantilenae (historical canticles).

But we cannot, in the writings and gestures of these jongleurs, pretend to see any link between the Ancient Drama and the Drama of the Middle Ages. At most it might be possible to regard these nomad singers as the earliest of the professional actors, whose successors were summoned in the sixteenth century to take part in a notable competition before the members of the different corporations.

It was a Benedictine of the House of Gandersheim in Saxony, named Hroswitha, to whom we owe the earliest plays composed in the West, at the close of the tenth century. This nun was the author of six Latin dramas, imitated from Terence, which are not without value. Her works, written for the greater glory of chastity, have as their theme the legendary history of saints and confessors. The dramas of Hroswitha were never performed in public ; they were merely acted in the convent before the sisters. These compositions are really dramatic in character, but they stand as an absolutely isolated fact in the history of the Theatre in the Middle Ages, at least before the eleventh century. Since, moreover, these plays were founded on a pagan model, they exercised no influence upon the character of religious drama.

The Feast of f Fools was the first expression of the dramatic element in the bosom of the Church. Cedranus, one of the most celebrated of the Byzantine historians, who flourished about 1050, tells us that at the end of the tenth century the Eastern Church occupied itself in weaning the minds of the people from the pagan ceremonies, particularly the Bacchanalia and calendary solemnities, by the substitution of Christian spectacles, partaking of the same spirit of licentiousness. According to the same author, Theophylact, patriarch of Constantinople, introduced the practice in 990, in the Greek churches, of the Feast of Fools, as well as other farces of a similar character. The function usually took place at Christmas, but sometimes on the 1st or even the lath of January. This custom was speedily adopted in France, where we find it flourishing in the eleventh century. Thenceforward it was the custom to elect, at the date of the ancient Saturnalia, i.e. between the 6th and 18th of December, a Bishop or Archbishop of Fools. The period of these rejoicings (which lasted for three consecutive days) began before Christmas, and was prolonged during the Feast of the Innocents, of the Circumcision, and of the Epiphany. The newly elected prelate, clad in pontifical vestments, and followed by a long train of ecclesiastics dressed up as mimes or as buffoons, entered the church, where he celebrated mass in the presence of the faithful, many of whom were disguised as monsters. During the religious ceremony some chanted obscene songs in the choir, while others ate and drank near the altar. The mass over, the Bishop of Fools, in a carriage, paraded the streets of the town in procession.

It was also during the Christmas festival that the rejoicings called Carols took place in the churches. These consisted in songs and dances, or rather gallops, which began in the choir, and continued down the nave, ending as a rule in the graveyard.

These revels were of such an unseemly character that a Council assembled at Rome in the eleventh century, decreed that the priests must warn the men and women who assembled in the churches on festival days, that they should not unite in dances, with singing and leaping, after the manner of the pagans.

Finally, a little after the year 1000, we discover the earliest germs of Liturgical Drama in the Trope, its first timid manifestation. The two most ancient tropes known to us are as follows : the first, ` Quern quaeritis in praesepe (manger), pastores, dicite ?—Respondent, Salvatorem Christum Dominum,'being interpolated in the Christmas office ; the second, ' Quern quaeritis in sepulchro, O Christicolae,'—Respondent, Jesum Nazarenum crucifixum,'—in the Easter office.

During the greater part of the eleventh century Liturgical Drama excluded all invention, and admitted only transcripts from the Holy Scriptures : it was a simple drama, entirely in prose. But, from 1080 onwards, some versification was introduced, and then, on the appearance of the vulgar tongue, we find dramas, half French, or Provençal, and half Latin.

The most ancient of these liturgical dramas is that entitled The Wise and Foolish Virgins, a mixture of Latin and French (langue d'oc, along with a few words of langue d'oïl). This drama appears to be contemporaneous with the Chanson de Roland, is prefaced by a Latin prologue, and commences thus -

Oiet virgines, aiso que vos dirum ;
Aiscet presen que vos commandarum
Attendet un espos, Jhesu salvaire a nom
Gaire no i dormez'

Lines which may be translated --

` Virgins, hearken to our lay,
List to our Commandment.
Wait your spouse, hight Jesu Saviour,
Never slumber.'

Another no less celebrated liturgical drama is that of The Prophets, which was entirely in rhymed Latin verse, and in its earliest form dates from the year 1100. This play underwent numerous transformations, and became the Fête des Anes, which was performed at Rouen with extraordinary pomp. This feast was instituted in honour of the ass privileged to carry our Saviour. It was celebrated on Christmas Day. Balaam, mounted on a wooden ass in which a living person was en-closed, entered the church in procession, followed by the Prophets, six Jews, and six Gentiles. The mass then began, and during the ceremony a hymn was sung in honour of the ass, with the following refrain taken up by the faithful --

'Hez, sire asne, car chantez
Belle bouChe rechinez
Vous aurez du foin assez
Et de l'avoine à plantez.'

In the course of the service the Gloria Patri and the Credo were followed by the cry hee-haw, repeated three times by the priest, who also employed the same formula instead of the Ite missa est.

According to the mss. of the Abbey of Saint-Martial, where The Wise and Foolish Virgins and The Prophets are preserved, this latter play required twenty-seven characters, a funeral-pile, and the representation of a fire ; indicating that the mise-en-scéne even in the bosom of the Church was of some importance.

Hilarius, the disciple of Abélard, was the author of two plays famous in the twelfth century : Historia de Daniel representanda and Suscitatio Lazari. The first, which is wholly in Latin, betrays the invasion of profane elements into the liturgical drama, for it presents the queen, Daniel, soldiers, nobles, etc. The second, which is a mixture of Latin and French, contains valuable indications as to the staging, and from the details given, we may conclude that the performances in the church in no wise differed from those of the theatre proper. In effect, we find a bed on which Lazarus was lying, his sisters Mary and Martha arriving in company with four Jews ; we are told that these visitors sat near the sick man and sang to him, etc.

Since the admission of Liturgical Drama into the Church was designed to enhance the attractions of the religious offices, its dramatic character was most pronounced at the chief festivals of Christmas, Easter, the Epiphany, the Ascension, and Pentecost. At Easter, for instance, the priests acted the part of the three Holy Women, covering their faces with veils to complete the illusion. At the Ascension, a priest equipped with wings, climbed to a gallery outside the church, and simulated an ascent into heaven.

Among all the liturgical dramas, that of the Resurrection of Christ, inscribed in a ms. of the Abbey of Saint-Martial, under the title of La Nuit de Pâques, was the most often represented.

Along with the Liturgical Drama, another dramatic type of a religious character developed from the twelfth century. This was the Miracle Play, which concerned itself with the miraculous life of the saints. At the outset the miracle play assumed the form of a chanted dialogue to celebrate the glory of the saint and to exalt his virtues. This kind of play was nearly always performed on the outside gallery of the church. Exception, how-ever, was made in favour of a Miracle of S. Paul and a Play upon the Image of S. Nicolas, which were honoured within the sanctuary, notwithstanding their essentially lay character. The text of the Gospel being now no more than a canvas upon which profane legends were embroidered, it was felt necessary to bring the drama out from the Church. A few liturgical dramas were, however, composed till the close of the thirteenth century, and were represented in the churches, particularly at Rouen, Aix, Bourges, Bayeux, and Lisieux.

The most important work of the twelfth century is perhaps the Drame d'Adam et d'Ève, which may be regarded as a link between the Liturgical Drama and the Mystery Play. This composition, the work of a Norman author, dates back to the first part of the twelfth century, and is really the first religious play written in French, while it is at the same time the most characteristic of the performances which were then beginning at the doors of the churches. The play is divided into three parts, accompanied by choruses, and closing with an epilogue. The first act covers the Fall of Man ; the second, the murder of Abel ; the third, the appearance of the Prophets who came as the forerunners of the Saviour. At intervals the chorus sing Latin verses, and the epilogue consists in a sermon on the need for penitence. This Mystery, which unites the three modes of tragedy, pantomime, and opera, was certainly performed, but where and by whom is unknown.

From the thirteenth century the Provençal poets began to make themselves known as writers of comedies or plays of a secular character.

The first of these poets is Armand Daniel, born 1189, at Tarascon, the author of comedies by which Petrarch was inspired. Anselme Faydix, son of a bourgeois at Avignon, also composed some comedies. From the service of Richard Coeur-de-Lion, King of England, he passed to that of the Marquis de Montferrat, at whose court his most celebrated piece, L'Hérésie des Pères, was performed about the year 1215. Petrarch mentions this poet.

Pierre de Saint-Remi, who belonged to one of the most illustrious families of Provence, composed several comedies, and a satirical work directed against the inhabitants of the principal towns of France. He died in 1263.

The Provençal poets are held by some authors to be the inventors of Comedy. But this can only be granted to a certain point, for their compositions resemble satiric dialogues rather than dramatic works.

It was towards the middle of the thirteenth century that religious drama became definitively secularised. Abandoning the sanctuary and the doors of the churches, it was presented upon a kind of theatre set up for the occasion, either in the market-place or in some castle-hall. The first drama performed under these conditions (and the second to be written in French) goes by the name of the Jeu de Saint Nicolas. It was the work of a poor poet named Bodel. From the Latin legend which celebrated the miracles of S. Nicholas he produced a real drama, which comes under the category of miracle plays, as a narrative of super-natural acts attributed to a saint. This play, written in the dialect of Northern France and performed in that district (at Arras), occupies an important position in the history of the Drama. Its author, in fact, transferred it to the time of the first crusade of S. Louis (1248), connecting it indirectly with con-temporary events. By thus combining modern with ecclesiastical history, he transformed the drama into a work of realism, and determined its final emancipation.

In addition to the Jeu de Saint Nicolas, the thirteenth-century manuscripts afford us only one other miracle play: that of S. Theophilus, composed by Rutebeuf (about 128o). Many other miracle plays were doubtless written in the course of the thirteenth century, but no trace is left of them. Tradition, however, establishes as a fact that a miracle play of Saint-Martial was acted by the burghers of Cahors, in the cemetery of Saint-Martial, May to, 1290.

In this connection it should be remarked that the trade-guilds had for some years previously begun to organise themselves into religious confraternities for the performance of Mystery Plays. Although in this respect competing with the ecclesiastics, these associations had the support, not only of the urban magistrates, but also of the clergy, who saw in them an instrument for the propagation of religious teaching. Permanent theatres were still unknown, and these confraternities resorted, for their performances, to scaffolding in two super-posed stages. The upper of these represented Paradise, with God and the Virgin seated on a throne surrounded by the Heavenly Court. The lower platform was reserved for scenes of a secular character, and was divided by partitions, or curtains, into as many boxes as there were different localities in the play. The upper platform communicated with the lower by a circular stair at either side of the stage. By this path the celestial inhabitants descended to the lower platform when the exigencies of the piece required it. The theatre was erected in a field, a graveyard, or more rarely in the marketplace. Such was the arrangement of the earliest temporary theatres during the thirteenth century, and indeed down to the epoch at which the first poems on the Old Testament, the Passion, and the Acts of the Apostles appeared.

While the Mystery Play was thus brought out of the Church, and its secular character accentuated, Comedy tried to make its way into the Drama, and this is the most important event in the history of the Theatre in the thirteenth century.

We have seen that the plays of the Provençal poets were little more than dialogues, notwithstanding their pretentious titles of comedies.

To the poet Adam de la Halle, a native of Arras, must be attributed the honour of producing the first specimen of comedy properly so-called, in Le Jeu d'Adam ou de la Feuillée, composed about 1262. This production is sufficiently bizarre and inconsequent, eighteen characters being jumbled up in it, among them the author himself, his father, five burghers of the town of Arras, a Greek, a monk, a fool, a lady, an innkeeper, etc.

Despite its incoherence, this play is invested with considerable importance, from the historical as well as from the literary point of view. It teems with allusions to contemporary affairs, and covers violent attacks directed not only at the prominent personages of the town of Arras, but against the political bodies, and more particularly at Pope Alexander, who censured the marriages of clerks in holy orders with widows. The most curious part of this production is its close resemblance to the comedy of Aristophanes, from which Adam de la Halle appears to have borrowed his bitterness, crudity of language, and even his disordered composition. We are absolutely ignorant of the conditions under which Le feu d'Adam was acted, but there is every reason to believe that it was represented in a Puy, that is, in one of the semi-religious, semi-secular academies, numerous enough in the Middle Ages, in which performances, half public and half private, were given, as in modern society. This play is the only important composition in the department of Comedy that the thirteenth century has bequeathed to us. We must conclude that the style created by Adam de la Halle did not survive him.

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