The Theatre In France - The Mysteries Of The 15th Century And Their Performance

( Originally Published 1902 )

The Spoken Mysteries : Prologue and Epilogue—General character of the Mysteries—Chief Spoken Mysteries—Popularity of Mimed Mysteries—Spoken Mysteries in the provinces : formalities anterior to the performance—Arrangement of the theatre—The mise en scène—Spectators and actors—The cry of the Mysteries—Theatrical machinery—The Mysteries in Paris—The Brothers of the Passion and the Hall of the Trinity—Confraternity of S. Crispin.

MYSTERY Plays properly so-called (that is, Spoken Mysteries) date from the fifteenth century. They are for the most part derived from the Old and, still more, from the New Testament ; but many of them also treat of the lives of the saints. These last are particularly interesting from the details in which they abound, as to the manners and customs of certain towns or provinces, and are strikingly realistic. Generally speaking, the representation of the mystery began with a prologue, and some-times after the prologue the fool came on to deliver himself of some buffoonery. This entry was the prerogative of the first actor, who was often the author in person. The object of the prologue was usually to announce the subject and to summarise its different phases, but it often included an invitation to the actors to begin the play. The mystery was divided into ` days,' two of which, however, were often acted on the same day.

The performance frequently ended with an epilogue, which gathered up the events of the day, and also invited the spectators to come again. In addition there were, in some mysteries, short prose sermons delivered by the priests, who mounted the stage in their copes to rouse the piety of the actors and audience.

Most interesting are the glimpses of contemporary life afforded us by the Mysteries. There are numerous descriptions of domestic life, and curious details as to the habits of the unclassed, more especially the beggars and thieves. As in the Miracle Plays of the fourteenth century, the poor people nearly always played the better part, while the clergy and nobility came off rather badly. The fashionable world, the coquettes and fops, were ridiculed. The Mysteries abound in anachronisms, the inevitable consequence of the passion that their authors had for parading their literary science at any cost. Since the aim of the piece was to instruct by amusing, it was imperative to introduce the element of buffoonery, and this rôle was played by the secondary characters—messengers, executioners, valets, blind men, beggars, and more especially the fools. In order to rest the minds of the spectators, a Farce was, in the fifteenth century, not infrequently interpolated between two days of the mystery. The realism of certain scenes was appalling, recalling by its brutality the horrid spectacles of the ancient Roman theatre. The executioners permitted themselves all kinds of coarse and sinister jests in presence of their victims, and endeavoured to give complete reality to the torture.

In many Mysteries the amusing parts and the serious parts occur in succession ; but unlike the English Miracle Plays, which are generally characterised by frank gaiety, the French plays have somewhat of a ferocious and cruel aspect.

The most celebrated Spoken Mysteries of the fifteenth century were, in Paris, that of S. George, acted 1422 ; of S. Crispin, I458 ; and of the Passion, played for the third and fourth time in 1473 and in I490. In the provinces the Passion Mystery was especially in vogue at Amiens, Draguignan, Metz, Rouen, Lyons. The Mysteries of S. Catherine and S. Barbara were also acted. The vogue in the fifteenth century was, however, still for Mimed Mysteries, and under this form the Passion Mystery was performed in Paris, as on the occasions of the entry of Charles vI., Charles vii., and Louis xi. A mimed mystery was also acted at the reception of Louis XII., July 2, 1498, but it was purely allegorical in character. Under the same conditions there were performances of the Mystery of the Old and New Testament, of the Nativity, and of the Legend of S. Denis.

From the beginning of the fifteenth century Spoken Mysteries were represented in all the towns of France. In the provinces they assumed an unheard-of splendour, the preparations for some mysteries beginning a whole year beforehand. All classes of the population contributed to the success of these immense sacred dramas, which sometimes included six hundred people. The municipality, religious confraternities, lay associations, professional actors, and even the clergy appeared on the stage.

By the fifteenth century the clergy had lost their hold on the Mysteries, but they were interested in encouraging the diffusion of religious teaching, and from this motive often took the initiative in the performances, and contributed to them by gifts in kind, or by the concession of a site, or more particularly by the loan of costumes. Still, the municipalities usually undertook the chief burden of the expenses. Sometimes a particular guild would apply their personal resources to the expense of representing a Mystery in honour of their patron saint. Sometimes, again, an entire corporation, as the Confraternity of the Holy Sacrament, of the Passion, of S. James, would transform themselves into dramatic associations, but these societies were invariably dissolved when the performances were over. Previous to any performance, superintendents were chosen who were conjointly liable for the different parts of the undertaking. These superintendents, like the actors, were shareholders, and had to give guarantees beforehand. The profits were then divided between the superintendents, the actors, and the administrators.

The theatre was usually installed in the marketplace, the court of a monastery, or the adjoining graveyard, but in certain towns the old arenas were made use of. The stage was some hundred feet wide by one hundred feet in depth. It consisted of ` mansions,' that included a number of compartments intended to figure in perspective on various planes at different heights, as heaven, hell, the world, etc. Since only the action travelled, the actors moved to the several compartments indicated by labels or inscriptions each time the scene changed, and then returned to seat them-selves on the steps of the theatre. When the mise en scène was too complicated, its different parts were enumerated in a prologue.

The spectators were frequently accommodated in big amphitheatres with several timber stages, capable of seating eighty thousand persons. Linen sheets spread above protected audience (sitting or standing) and actors from the rain : the latter were sometimes separated from the people by a ditch filled with water, and other barriers. The show was generally free, for the municipality under-took the necessary expenses ; but on some occasions an entrance-fee, varying from ten sous to two francs fifty centimes, according to the place, was charged. In the other case, each placed himself according to his rank and condition : the nobles and chief personages occupied the best places ; the citizens and people stood or sat upon the ground, the men on the right, the women on the left, as in the churches.

The principal actors (who were mostly, as we have said, the rich inhabitants of the town) exhibited an incredible luxury in their costumes. These belonged to the period they were living in, their chief pre-occupation being to reproduce the habits and surroundings of the epoch in which the Mystery was performed. The secondary actors usually wore ornaments lent them by the ecclesiastics. The spectators, on their side, vied in magnificence with the artists. In short, these performances of Mysteries were really society gatherings of the same character as our race-meetings. As the Mysteries often included seventy or eighty thousand lines, an interval of several days occurred between the parts. The performances were announced like royal and municipal commands in the public places of the town. This proclamation was known as the `cry:' The object of the proclamation was to impress the services of all men of good will.

` The art of the mechanician was fairly developed in the construction of the theatre for these Mystery Plays, although there were no changes of scene. As early as the fourteenth century, it was possible, with the aid of the improved machinery, not merely to make the actors disappear within the clouds, but also to navigate boats and run carriages round. Smoke was used to imitate night and darkness. Thunder-claps were produced by means of stones rolled about in a tub, and by the fifteenth century the progress of pyrotechnics admitted of a lightning display. The decoration of the principal mysteries was the work of the best painters, who varied their productions ad infinitum. The scenes were often as gigantic as those of the modern opera. Since there were no studios in those days, the painters worked at their scenes upon the actual scaffolding. Before executing them, they proposed their scheme to the municipality, by whom they were accepted, refused, or modified.'

All these details refer to the provincial representations of Mystery Plays, for in Paris, from the outset of the fifteenth century, the Spoken Mystery was usually acted in a permanent theatre. Towards 1398 a society, formed of citizens, master-masons, lockmakers, and others, united in Paris to give various pious plays drawn from the New Testament, for the benefit of the public. After their expulsion from the village of Saint-Maur, where they had set up a provisional theatre, they obtained letters patent from Charles vii. in I402, which conferred on them all the privileges of a corporation. Thus organised as the Confrérie de la Passion, they hired the Hall of the Hôpital de la Trinité in Paris, and converted it into a permanent theatre, where they gave themselves up entirely to the performance of Passion Plays on Sundays and holidays. It should be remembered that although the Passion Drama had been given in the fourteenth century, it was acted as a mimed mystery. There was, indeed, another spoken ` Mystery of the Passion' at the close of the fourteenth century, but written in the langue d'oc. This Confraternity accordingly inaugurated the famous Passion Plays in Paris, comprising as many as thirty to forty thousand lines.

The Salle de la Trinité was 40 metres long by 12 wide. The stage was at one end. The parterre was separated from it by a barrier and benches, behind which stood the spectators, irrespective of rank or condition. The stage had three platforms : the highest represented Paradise, the middle one Earth, the third Hell and the dragon's mouth. The stages communicated by revolving stairs or ladders. The actors (as in the provinces) seated themselves, when not playing, upon the benches at either side of the stage, in full view of the audience. In Paris, as we have said, the longest mysteries did not exceed forty thousand lines ; hence the performances were much shorter than in the provinces, where the religious plays contained seventy or eighty thousand lines. Before commencing the play, a procession was formed through the most frequented streets of the capital, and the costumes of those who took part were no less costly than in the provinces.

Along with the Brothers of the Passion, we must mention another famous confraternity, which came into existence first, and maintained its privileges : this was the Guild of S. Crispin, consisting of shoemakers. It was the custom for the members of this society to walk in procession to Notre-Dame on the 25th of October in each year, preceded by the bâton of the saint and the arms of the corporation, and there to perform the Mystery of their patron.

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