The Theatre In England - Allegorical Comedy, The Interlude, The Pageant, And The Mask In The 16th Century

( Originally Published 1902 )

Religious Moralities : The Castle of Perseverance—Dogmatic moralities—Moralities of a scientific cast—Political moralities :Albyon Knight—Dramatic moralities—Remarks on the moralities ; their representation—John Heywood and the Interlude—The Pageant—The Mask ; its different characteristics—Representations between 1512 and 158o—Influence of the Morality upon the future of Comedy—Influence of the Interlude—Influence of the Mask upon the Theatre of the sixteenth century.

IT was pointed out in Chapter III. that the allegorical element had made its appearance in the Coventry Plays, as early as the second half of the fifteenth century, thus heralding the approach of the Moral proper, which was already flourishing in France at the same epoch.

The first regular piece of this type in England is the religious Moral of the Castle of Perseverance, which dates from the reign of Henry vi. The subject of this play is the warfare carried on against Humanum Genus (the human race) and his companions, the Seven Cardinal Virtues, by the Seven Deadly Sins and their commanders, Mundus, Belial, and Caro. He is besieged by them in the Castle of Perseverance, where Confessio has bidden him take up his abode ; and in his old age he gives way to the persuasions of Avaritia. His soul is finally arraigned by Pater sedens in judicio, and apparently saved at the last. This action is a type of the general contents of these moralities, as exhibiting the contest between the good and evil powers for the soul of man. There are indications of a French origin for this Moral Play : it may have been based upon a French Morality of the year 1506, which treats of the same subject. The World and the Child (printed 1522, but written earlier) is another simple but effective Moral. Man is represented in the several stages of his life ; first he appears as Infans, and then, under the names of Wanton and Manhode (given him successively by Mundus), wages a long struggle with the Seven Deadly Sins. The allegorical personages are Conscyence, Perseueraunce, Repentance, etc.

The teachings of the Reformation are implied, though with no controversial intention, in the Moral of Every-Man, written before 1531 by a Catholic, in favour of his religion. Every-Man is summoned before the divine tribunal to give an account of his life. There he is forsaken by his companions Felowship, Jolyte, Strength, Pleasure, and Beauty. His Good-Dedes alone are true to him, and with Knowledge introduce him to Confessyon, who finally absolves him. The Moral of Lusty Juventus, written in 1550, in the reign of Edward v1., by R. Wever, is the first play in favour of the Reformation. The anonymous piece of New Custome, printed in 1573, and the Conflict of Conscience (1581), are purely controversial. The latter is especially interesting, inasmuch as it for the first time contains a character taken from actual history.

Besides these Morals of a religious tendency, we find two others, probably belonging to the Reformation period (reign of Henry VIII.), which indicate the wide range of ideas opened to the literary mind by the Renaissance. The Nature of the Four Elements teaches the advantage of the pursuit of science, urged on Humanity by Natura Naturata, Studious Desire, and Experience, while he is tempted astray by Sensual Appetite and Ignorance. The second, entitled Wyt and Science (by John Redford), resembles the preceding ; the principal characters are Wit, Science, and ` father Reson,' and on the other side, Idleness, Ignorance, and Tediousness.

Among the Political Morals, Albyon Knight takes an important place. Fragments only of this play have come down to us, but its object would appear to have been to remove the ill-feeling on the part of the commonalty against the nobility, as well as the jealousy between the lords spiritual and the lords temporal.

The Three Lordes and Three Ladies of London, another Political Comedy (printed in 1590, referred to above as an allegorical piece), is conjectured by Collier to have been the work of the actor named Robert Wilson. The Ladies are Lucre, Love, and Conscience, wooed by three series of gallants Policy, Pomp, and Pleasure (Lords of London), Pride, Ambition, and Tyranny (Lords of Spain), Desire, Delight, and Devotion (Lords of Lincoln). The London and Spanish Lords engage in a con-test manifestly intended to refer to the times of the Spanish Armada, in which this play must have been written (about 1588).

During the second half of the sixteenth century, a great number of plays were composed on the boundary line between Morals and Comedies or Tragedies, in which we find allegorical abstractions and real human characters or types ; showing, in fact, the rapid progress of the Moral Play towards true Comedy. In this category, the allegorical personages generally occupy the largest place. Such is the case with the play, Tom Tiler and his Wife, where allegorical characters, Desire the Vice among them, mix with Tom Tiler and Tom Tailor. In the Nice Wanton (1560), Iniquity figures along with ` Three branches of an ill tree, The Mother and her children three, Two naught and one godly.' Bale's Kyng Johan (1548), and Apius and Virginia belong to the same class of moralities in virtue of their allegorical personages, though the action and the main characters are historical.

It was not until the reign of Edward v1. (1549), that the Moral Plays, as a weapon in the hands of the parties hostile or favourable to the Reformation, acquire interest as a mirror of the religious struggle. And their ascendency was of brief duration, for the final triumph of the National Drama was at hand. From 1549 to 1575 these moralities were acted by troops of strolling players, for the most part in the castle halls and country-houses, on holidays. The public performances took place in the courts and galleries of inns, on scaffolds erected for the occasion. It was the duty of a herald to explain the play in a prologue before the performance began. These travelling bands consisted of four or five actors only. The chief player took the part of the Vice, and was also director of the company ; the female parts were acted by boys. From the beginning of the sixteenth century the great nobles, the Percys, Oxfords, Buckinghams, had their private companies of players, called the `servants' or 'players of the nobility.' It was only when not in the service of the nobles to whom they were attached that these companies travelled to the towns, where, from 1575, they obtained from Queen Elizabeth permission to set up their scaffolds on the market-places, instead of installing them in the inn-yards. The Moralities dwindled in importance after 1580, and disappeared entirely from the stage at the commencement of the seventeenth century.

The Moral was followed, in the early part of the sixteenth century, by another type of comedy—the Interlude, which marked a new step in development, for it delivered the Drama from allegory. It was in fact true comedy, but without divisions or sequence. This type, which corresponds to the French Farce, was perfected by John Heywood (died 1565), who unfortunately found no imitators. The three Interludes for which we are indebted to him, and which illustrate this hardly developed type, are : The Mery Play between Johan Johan the Husbonde, Tyb his Wile, and Syr Jhon the Freest (composed in 1533) ; The Four P.s : the Palmer, the Pardoner, the Poticary, the Pedlar (1540) ; and The Mery Play between the Pardoner and the Frere, the Curate and negbour Pratte (printed 1533, but apparently written before 1521).

Alongside of the Mysteries and Morals, a fourth type of play was flourishing in the principal towns of England, more particularly in London — the Pageant, a sort of allegorical spectacle which assumed the form of a procession, and was used to celebrate such events as the entry of the sovereign into London after a successful war., or visit to some provincial town. This type of play really corresponded with the Mimed Mystery of France. The first Pageant on record dates from 1236, and celebrated the marriage of Henry III. with Eleanor of Provence. The finest pageants were those exhibited at the election of the Lord Mayor. This kind of drama occupied a very secondary place in the history of the English Theatre, for it had no influence upon the latter other than to develop the taste of the masses for play-going. Several of the poets and dramatic writers of the time of Elizabeth exercised their ingenuity upon these Pageants ; and Peele, Munday, Dekker, Thomas Heywood, and Middleton contributed to this class of production. The Pageants were maintained till the beginning of the seventeenth century as a regular spectacle. And, indeed, this mode of theatrical entertainment has left its traces to our own day, since the election of the Lord Mayor is celebrated year by year in London by a magnificent pro-cession, which is nothing more than the Pageant of the Middle Ages.

The first experiments in the Mask, another dramatic type which was to be regularised later on by Ben Jonson, date from the commencement of the reign of Henry VIII., about 1512 or 1513. The play began in a dialogue, sung or spoken, which took the place of the explanatory prologue. This was followed by a series of dances, executed at first by the masks alone, then by couples formed of these and the partners they chose from among the spectators ; and finally, after a set of varied figures, men and women alike were confounded in a general maze. Sometimes, however, the songs were multi-plied until they constituted the cardinal part of the play. The principal idea round which the different parts of the mask evolved themselves had to be gay ; a note of seriousness might be added to it, but only in the form of some elevated thought. The poet was charged with the general plan, and the duty of writing down the words to be recited, or more often sung to the accompaniment of violins and wind instruments, was also incumbent on him. The poet, again, had to draw up an account of the play. This included the description of scenes and costumes as well as of the dances, with an account of the literary part. The author had, moreover, to mention the names of his collaborators, and to praise the nobles and courtiers who had taken part in the play. This printed booklet was preserved as a precious token by those who had assisted at the performance. The poet's collaborators were the mechanician, the painter, the leader of the orchestra, the director of the ballet. The artistic part of the Mask was executed by the gentry, the purely dramatic parts being interpreted by professionals. In the reign of Mary Tudor a sort of mask was played entitled The Pageant of f the Nine Worthies. A State document of the year 1563 is filled with details referring to the expenses of a Mask given in that year. Other documents of the period, dated 1571, 1574, 1575, 1576, and 1580, allude to the expenses of staging at these different periods.' In fact, in the reign of Elizabeth, Masks were seldom represented at court, for the Queen shrank from the enormous expenses entailed by this sort of spectacle. It was not till some few years later, in the time of James 1,. and Charles 1., that the Masks assumed any real splendour.

The influence of the Moral upon the destinies of Comedy was not so much felt in England as in France. As was shown in Chapter IV., the comic element reached an appreciable development in the Miracle Play. The greatest service rendered by the Moral under these circumstances was that it accustomed men's minds to shake off the yoke of tradition, and to exercise their faculty of invention. The introduction of the secular element under the form of an abstraction was, moreover, too arid and too far from the reach of ordinary minds to deter-mine the establishment of a dramatic type ; hence, as we shall see later on, it was the study of national history, joined with a knowledge of foreign literature, which was to make of a mere sketch a complete and durable work.

As to the Interlude, its action was in some measure nil, for the influence of the Classical and Italian type had already been confirmed for some years in the Drama, when the farces of John Heywood made their appearance on the scene.

Although the Mask had not attained its full development by the end of the sixteenth century, it was, even at this epoch, exerting a certain influence on the Drama. Shakespeare did not disdain to compose a play on this model. In fact, A Midsummer Night's Dream is nothing more than a Mask ; and if the name has been denied it, this is only because the play was designed for the theatre and not for the court. The great poet, by introducing the type afresh in The Tempest, gave triumphant witness to its dramatic utility.

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