The Theatre In France - Miracle Plays And Mimed Mysteries In The 14th Century

( Originally Published 1902 )

Miracle Plays of Notre-Dame, and the Puys—Provençal Mysteries—The Religious Drama and the Church—Mimed Mysteries, and the first Passion Play—Absolute sterility of the comic vein.

OF new compositions in the fourteenth century, we know only forty-three Miracles of Notre-Dame, one secular Mystery, five Provençal Mysteries, and one Mystery of the Passion.

The religious plays of the fourteenth century were named Miracles of Notre-Dame. All bore the same character: the representation, namely, of some miraculous event produced by the intervention of Our Lady. Besides great crudity of language, these plays contained attacks upon the Pope, for which double reason their performance within the sanctuary, or at the door of the church, became an impossible matter. Hence they were always performed in the guys, or semi-religious assemblies, described above. Some of the Miracles of Notre-Dame give valuable information as to the manners of the nobility, the bourgeoisie, the people, and the ecclesiastical world in the fourteenth century. The Pope, the cardinals, and the kings are presented under an aspect little favourable. The lower orders are described as cowardly, but gentle and compassionate. Women, above all married women, are treated with respect, and often play the part of sufferer, of calumniated wife, the victim of a too-credulous husband. For the rest we find many of the situations dear to modern melodrama in the theatre of the fourteenth century. The most celebrated of the miracle plays of Our Lady is La Légende de Robert le Diable, the primitive text of which was revised by Ed. Fournier, and represented in Paris in 1879.

The following extract shows the fourteenth-century French in which the Miracles of Notre-Dame were written --

Guibour, dire vous vueil m'entente
Je m'en vois sanz plus faire attente
Aux champs visiter mes gaignages
Afin que d'ouvriers commes sages
Soie pourveuz sans faillir.'

In addition, we have from the fourteenth century a manuscript Histoire de Grisélidis. This miracle play is in reality nothing more than a pathetic little drama, which borrowed some of its characters from the legendary moralities. Lastly, five Provençal Mysteries (the most famous being that of S. Agnes), and one Passion Play, complete the category of fourteenth-century compositions ; all of which, most probably, were performed in a puy. Of the mise-en-scène in these guys we only know that it was extremely complicated ; there was no division into acts, nor shifting of scenery, and the different changes of scene were indicated by means of written notices.

Throughout the fourteenth century the French and also the Latin Mystery Plays were performed in the churches and graveyards, or in the market-places, with the same ceremonial as in the thirteenth century. M. Petit de Julleville has been able to locate the performance of several of these Mysteries—more particularly those of the Nativity, the Passion, the Resurrection, and that of S. Catherine —in the provinces, as well as in Paris, and gives definite dates between 1333 and 1402.

The invention of Mimed Mysteries again must be placed at the beginning of the fourteenth century. These plays were a kind of pantomime with a dramatic scheme, designed to celebrate national victories, or the entry of a sovereign into a city. The acting took place on scaffoldings set up along the path of the 'cortège. The first Passion Play, that is, the whole history of Jesus Christ from the Nativity to the Crucifixion, was thus represented by dumb show in 1313. A Mystery of Pentecost was played under the same conditions in Paris in 1389.

While there was but a scanty production of Religious Dramas in the fourteenth century, this sterility was even more marked on the side of Comedy, for there is not a single composition of this period worthy of the name. One poet, Eustache Deschamps, indeed gives this pretentious title to two of his works, but the first, Le Dit des Quatre Offices de l'Hôtel du Roi, is little more than a morality, the principal characters of which are Panneterie, Echansonnerie, Cuisine, and Saucerie (Pantry, Cellar, Kitchen, and Sauces). This kind of piece was also called an entremet, because it made a sort of interlude in the royal feasts. The other production of Eustache Deschamps, Maitre Trubert et Antroignart, is a kind of story in dialogue. It is not likely that these plays were ever acted. They represent our only trace of Comedy in the fourteenth century : so that it is impossible to say whether there was an interruption of nearly a century and a half in Comedy, or if the works in this vein have all perished.

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