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The Theatre In England - Religious Drama In The 16th Century

( Originally Published 1902 )



Miracle Plays in the Nicholls collection, and in the Bodleian Library—The complete collection of the Chester Plays—Miracle Plays in the provinces—Latest representations of Miracle Plays—Tragedy of the Destruction of Jerusalem—Earliest printed religious plays—Performances in London : the Parish-Clerks at the Guildhall—The Mystery of the Passion at Greyfriars — First allegorical plays—Practical utility of the Miracle Plays in the Middle Ages—Last Miracle Play performed in England—Influence of the Mysteries upon the destinies of the English Theatre—Historic, comic, grotesque, and satiric elements of the Romantic Drama latent in the Miracle Plays ; various examples—The Twelfth Woodkirk Play and the first specimen of Comedy.

IN addition to the four cycles of Miracle Plays described in the previous chapters, there exists a fifth collection in manuscript, belonging to Mr. Nicholls. The plays in this collection differ very little from the Chester Plays, but they contain more allusions to the manners of the period.

Lastly, the Bodleian Library at Oxford contains a third collection of Mysteries, the manuscript of which dates back to the beginning of the sixteenth century. These mysteries treat of the Conversion of S. Paul, the life of Mary Magdalene, and the Massacre of the Innocents.

It was, moreover, at the end of the sixteenth century, or quite at the beginning of the seventeenth, that the Chester Plays, which we have already considered, were described in the form in which they have come down to us, comprising the twenty-four divisions that follow :—i. The Fall of Lucifer ; 2. De Creatione Mundi ; 3. De Diluvio Noae ; 4. De Abrahamo, Melchisedech, et Loth ; 5. De Mose et Rege Balaak et Balaam Prophetâ ; 6. De Salutatione et Nativitate Salvatoris ; 7. De Pastoribus greges pascentibus ; 8. De Tribus Regibus Orientalibus ; 9. De Oblatione Tertium Regum ; I o. De occisione Innocentium ; 11. De Purificatione Virginis ; 12. De Tentatione Salvatoris 13. De Chelidomo et de Resurrectione Lazari ; 14. De Jesu intrante domum Simeonis Leprosi ; 15. De Coenâ Domini ; 16. De Passione Christi ; 17. De Descensu Christi ad Infernos ; 18. De Resurrectione Jesu-Christi; 19. De Christo ad Castellam Emaüs ; 20. De Ascensione Domini ; 21. De Electione Mathiae ; 22. Ezechiel ; 23. De Adventu Antichristi ; 24. De Judicio extremo.

Little is known as to the representations of Miracle Plays in the other towns of England. Very probably every district had its own performance. It is at any rate certain, according to Collier's account, that religious drama was very popular, during the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, at Preston, Lancaster, Kendal, Dublin, Tewkesbury, Reading, and Newcastle.

The most famous performances were those at Smithfield (1407), where the actors played one Mystery for eight consecutive days; at Windsor (in 14I6), where the Mystery of a Play of St. George of Cappadocia was acted before Henry v. and the Emperor Sigismund ; at Bristol (in the commencement of the sixteenth century), where Noah's Ark was performed with success.

The latest representations of the great cycles of Miracle Plays took place at York in I579, at Woodkirk about the same time, and at Chester in I600. The Coventry Plays had been suppressed in 1580, and replaced by what appeared to be quite a different type, but was in reality only a miracle play disguised. This was the tragedy, The Destruction of Jerusalem, relating the events of the life of Joseph, and designed to revive all the attractions of the previous mysteries, under a form calculated to still the scruples of the authorities. This ` miracle play' composed by John Smith, of St. John's College, Oxford, contained a chorus, and the staging was particularly effective. It was played for the last time, in 159I, at Coventry ; and was the latest re-presentation of a pageant in that town. In other English towns, however, as at Preston, Lancaster, and Kendal, religious plays of the type of the Destruction of Jerusalem were acted at the be-ginning of James the First's reign. Prynne, the Puritan pamphleteer, moreover informs us that the Catholics performed a Passion Play in certain districts of England at the same period.

In the category of ` disguised mysteries,' we must include certain printed religious plays, which go by the name of tragedies or comedies, but are really sacred dramas. These are The Three Lands of Nature, God's Promises, John the Baptist preaching in the Wilderness. These are the earliest printed plays ; they date from the reign of Elizabeth, and are remarkable as containing the first unmistakable references of a controversial character in favour of the Reformation.

It is not possible to trace the exact career of the religious drama in London; but, according to the historian Strype, the Guild of the Parish Clerks gave in 155I, at the Guildhall, a performance of a religious character, followed by a magnificent procession in the streets of the city. Warton further tells us that in I556 and I577, the Mystery of the Passion was represented at the Greyfriars before the Lord Mayor and several corporations of the kingdom.

It was at much the same period that a new series of plays appeared in England, and set forth the allegorical personages of the Moral—Infidelity, Pride, Concupiscence. The most famous Moral Plays are : The Trial of Pleasure (printed in 1567) ; All for Money (1578) ; The Three Ladies of London (I584) ; The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London (1590) ; in all which the development of the characters betrays the influence of the comedies and tragedies written at this epoch on classical and Italian models.

Until the end of the reign of Elizabeth, Miracle Plays were represented along with the Moralities and Classical Plays, and even with the Romantic Drama. This extraordinary vitality of the religious drama arises from the fact that the direct aim of the miracle play was the diffusion of religious knowledge. The comic element, and the element of buffoonery came in time to occupy an important place, but the Miracle Play remained none the less the channel by which the ignorant were taught the truths of religion. So true is this, that in the middle of the seventeenth century there were still, according to Halliwell Phillipps, Catholics whose religious instruction was limited to a knowledge of the facts of Scripture as presented in the miracle plays. From 1580 onwards, the doctrines of the Reformation rendered such performances increasingly difficult, but they continued to exert a salutary influence in certain Catholic districts. According to William Prynne, the latest performance of a mystery took place in London on the evening of Good Friday, at Ely House, in Holborn, during the latter half of the reign of James r., before Gondomar, the Spanish Ambassador, and thousands of spectators.

Nor was the propagation of the truths of the Catholic Church the sole function of the Miracle Plays ; they were further invaluable inasmuch as they developed a love of the drama in almost every county of England, and thus in some sort prepared the way for the establishment of the National Theatre. Neither indeed was their influence limited to this preliminary and remote action : it was more direct, seeing that the Miracle Play, from the fourteenth century, contained the capital elements of the Shakespearean Drama—historical, comic, grotesque, dramatic—as well as that element of satire which is so largely utilised in the Elizabethan Plays. In short, it is an interesting point that the English Drama did not wait on the master-pieces of Marlowe and Shakespeare to translate its temperament, and convert the Theatre into a mirror of life. Already from the fourteenth century, the Miracle Play, in setting side by side the terrible and the grotesque, the tragic and the comic, had antedated the Romantic Drama by several generations.

We pointed out above that the York Play on The Creation and Fall of Lucifer, which contains the development of an important historical situation, may be regarded as the earliest indication of this note upon the stage. The dramatic spirit is very pronounced in the Chester Play De Abrahamo, which relates the sacrifice of Isaac—one of the most pathetic incidents conceivable, and by its clever development constituting a true tragedy. The Lament of Mary at the foot of the Cross afforded another highly dramatic incident.

The eighth and ninth Chester Plays, the fifteenth Woodkirk Play, the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first Coventry Plays, contain all the several elements of melodrama : Herod abandons himself to fits of terrible fury ; he brandishes a huge sword, flourishes it up and down, and finally breaks it in the extremity of his passion. Death in the shape of a spectre glides across the scene, and smites the king during a banquet.

The true comic element appears in the Miracles as early as the thirteenth century, for the third Chester Play, Noah's Flood, which we take as an instance, is certainly prior to the fourteenth century. The dispute between Noah and his wife, who refuses to enter the Ark if she may not take in her friends, is full of humour. She says: --

` But I have my gossippes every eichone,
One foote further I will not gone,
The(y) shall not drowne, by Saint John,
And I maye save there life.

` The(y) loven me full well, by Christe !
But thou lett them into thy cheiste ;
Elles rowe nowe wher' thy leiste
And gette the a newe wiffe.'

To which Noah responds : --

' Come_ in, wife, in twenty devills' way,
Or else stande there all day.'

When at last forced in, she strikes him, exclaiming —

` Have thou that for thy note.'

This farcical element is brought to perfection in the twelfth Woodkirk Play, which dates from the middle of the fifteenth century, and includes, as a ' diversion,' the following curious episode. The three shepherds, after conversing on their shrewish wives and other familiar topics, are about to sing, when they are interrupted by the arrival of an acquaintance, named Mak, who, it seems, does not bear the best reputation for honesty. After supper they all lie down to sleep, but the shepherds take care that Mak shall lie between them, that he may not get up unobserved, and steal their sheep. While they are snoring, he, nevertheless, contrives to escape, and makes off with a fat wether, which he carries home to his wife, as he had done often before. She is afraid of his being at last detected and hanged, and Mak is himself in considerable alarm lest the shepherds should wake, and finding both him and the sheep missing, conclude that he had stolen it, and pay him a visit. The wife proposes this scheme :—that if the shepherds came, Mak should pretend that she had just been brought to bed, and that the sheep, which was to be covered up in the cradle, was the child she had produced. Mak agrees to the plan, but to avoid suspicion returns, and lies down again with the shepherds, without his absence having been noticed. When the shepherds wake, they walk to the fold, and Mak hastens home, where he takes care that his wife and the dead sheep are put to bed and cradled in due form. The shepherds soon miss their wether, and suspect Mak : they go to his cottage, and making a noise to be admitted, Mak entreats them not to disturb his poor wife, telling them that she has a baby. She, too, joins in the entreaty, as the least sound goes through her head, and the shepherds are for a time imposed upon. They are on the point of departing, but return and ask to see the child, and one of them offers to give it sixpence. Mak replies that it is sleeping, and that it cries sadly when it is waked; but he cannot keep them from lifting up the coverlet of the cradle. There they see their sheep, and recognise it by the ear-mark, although the wife would fain persuade them that it is her child, which had been trans-formed by an evil spirit.

Such was the famous humorous tale of Mak and the shepherds—a real gem, in which are already united all the elements of true comedy, and which in the fifteenth century inaugurated a type that was but continued by Udal and Shakespeare. In this respect the Miracle Play needed only the division into acts to have robbed Udal of the glory of having, nearly a century later, created the first English comedy proper.

The satiric note is struck with peculiar emphasis in several of the Miracles of these different collections.

Thus in the twenty-sixth Coventry Play we find Satan declaring himself Lord Lucifer, Prince of this World, and Grand Duke of Hell. Then he describes the air and manners befitting a gentle-man. He tells us that a gallant ought to be a corrupter of morals and consciences, and to have the fighting temperament. He ought to mock at civil and religious laws, and to obey no precept nor commandment. Satan, moreover, proclaims that a woman who is â la mode should be clad in ermine, and, if poor, should have no scruples in obtaining money by the most dishonest means. This play was doubtless composed in the reign of Henry vI., and its sarcasms relate to the corrupt manners of society at that period.

Other mysteries read like a rough sketch for the Comedy of Manners, and give us curious details of certain ancient customs.

The seventh Chester Play, for instance (which must date back to the beginning of the fourteenth century), implies that the ` jannocks of Lancashire, butter of Blacon, cheese, and Halton ale' were specially appreciated.

The seventeenth Chester Play contains a passage by which we may conclude that there was formerly much to complain of in the proprietors of the taverns and bars of Chester. A woman who had been a ` taverner and tapster' in Chester addresses `Sir Sathanas, sergeant of hell,' after his dominions had been emptied : having related how she had cheated her customers, with bad wine and small measures, she declares that she will remain and keep the devil company.

And again, in the twenty-eighth Woodkirk Play, we hear of the way in which the women arranged their hair, that it was ` horned like a cowe.'



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