The Theatre Of The Middle Ages On The Stage, In The Nineteenth Century, In France And England

( Originally Published 1902 )

IN FRANCE.—Liturgical Drama in 1821—Open-air performances in Brittany—Sacred Drama at Morlaix : the ceremony of August 15, 1898—Public representation of a Mystery in Paris : May 30, 1898—Latin Mysteries at the Seminary of Strassburg—Sacred Drama in the theatre at Strassburg, 1816—Mysteries in Paris theatres at the beginning of the nineteenth century—The sacred plays of MM. Grandmougin and Haraucourt at the close of the nineteenth century—Mediaeval Farce, at the Comédie-Française and the Odéon, at the end of the nineteenth century—The Monologue, and the Stage of today.

IN ENGLAND.—Unpopularity of the Mystery in England—The Pageant and the Lord Mayor's Show—Revival of the Mask in London : 1899 and 1900.


IN the north of France Sacerdotal Drama occupied the sanctuary of the church at certain periods of the year, down to the first quarter of the nineteenth century.

M. Onésime Leroy relates that in 1821 a priest, appointed shortly before Christmas to the charge of a Flemish village, of whose customs he was ignorant, had just begun the midnight mass, when he suddenly perceived an artificial star shining over his head. At the same moment a band of shepherds and shepherdesses came dancing and leaping into the church, followed by some of their flock. The stupefied curé tried to interfere, but his merry parishioners did not understand him, and only leaped the more, finally depositing their offerings of eggs and cheese at the foot of the crèche.

The Mystery, as performed in the market-places from the thirteenth century, is still represented in certain parts of Brittany. A Vie de Sainte Nonne, which dates from that period, has been played continuously in different villages of this pious district. But it is at Morlaix, in Finisterre, that the cult of the Mediaeval Theatre has been preserved with the greatest enthusiasm. The representation of the Mysteries there seems never to have been seriously interrupted. This survival has of late years attracted the attention of the literary world, who, as early as 1889, attended the interesting performance of the old mystery, Joseph Vendu par ses Frères. The mise-en-scène and acting were, however, a lamentable departure from tradition. This was perceived by an educated townsman, M. Cloarec, the mayor of Plougean. He wanted to approximate more exactly to the past, and there-fore banded together all the young people from every trade—labourers, blacksmiths, clerks, drivers, farm-hands—thus forming, on the model of the early corporations, a troop of fifteen actors, who for some years gave representations in a barn in the vicinity of Morlaix.

M. Cloarec, however, was ambitious; he dreamed of reconstituting the Theatre of the Mysteries with absolute historical fidelity. With this in view he convened a congress of all the literary men of Brittany, including also some of the Parisian literary societies, and on August 15, 1898, the new theatre, an exact reproduction of that of the Middle Ages, was inaugurated under the presidency of M. Gaston Paris, of the Académie Française. This theatre was in fact set up in the open air, against the wall of the cemetery, with a natural background of foliage, completed by magnificent hangings, the work of the fine painter Dezaunay. The religious drama chosen for this occasion was the Mystère de Saint-Gwennolé (the patron-saint of mariners), which was admirably interpreted by the little company of M. Cloarec. The performers undertook to play each year in different parts of Brittany, and even proposed a visit to Dublin, Ireland having sent a delegate to the first official representation of the renaissance of the Breton Theatre of the thirteenth century.

In Paris it was the students of the different faculties who undertook, at the end of the nineteenth century, to revive the theatrical exhibitions authorised by Charles va. in 1402 in the heart of the capital. They gave, in fact, on May 30, 1898, a representation, in the open Place de la Sorbonne, of the Mystère d'Adam, which made the complete impression of a spectacle that had been forgotten for nearly five hundred years. The open-air theatre consisted of a large stage of several inclined planes. The hindmost of these represented Paradise, with the tree of good and evil. After their fall, Adam and Eve descended to the first plane, where two or three barrow-loads of earth signified the garden they were going to cultivate. The centre of the stage represented a public space, and the entrance to Hell was there depicted as a dragon's mouth. The costumes were of rigorous historical accuracy God wearing a long white beard, and a dalmatic of the same colour. Eve wore a white peplum, Adam a red tunic.

The representation being after the fifteenth century, the meneur (according to the custom of that time) recited to the public, under the form of a prologue, a verse of the Scriptures, to which the chorus responded by chanting other verses. After Adam and Eve have eaten the apple, an angel with a sword appears as sentinel at the gate of Paradise. Adam and Eve begin to dig their little garden, and while, broken with fatigue, they take a short rest; the devil and his assistants plant thorns in the ground. At sight of this disaster the two victims give vent to cries of despair, but Satan and his devils put them in chains, and carry them off to Hell, whence a thick smoke is seen escaping. The piece was very well played, and highly applauded by the Parisian public, who shared the interest of reviving a past so distant and so full of interest. After giving the Mystère d'A dam, the students interpreted the Fête des Fous with the same success.

During the early part of the nineteenth century some representations of Mysteries, less comformable indeed with historical tradition, but none the less interesting, were also given at Strassburg.

The pupils of the Jesuit College there were in the habit of performing every evening, in the fortnight before the holidays, Latin Mysteries, composed upon the different subjects of the Old and New Testament, from the Creation to the Crucifixion. This custom dates back to the year 1769.

Some highly original performances of Mysteries were also given in the large theatre of Strassburg in 1816. These consisted of a series of tableaux, which were the exact representation of the principal events of the life of Christ, after the pictures by the great masters of the same subjects. There was no spoken part, merely some religious chanting accompanied at times by quiet gesture. Under these curious conditions were represented the Annunciation of Guido ; the Disciples of Emmaus, by Titian ; Rembrandt's Offerings of the Wise Men ; Rubens' Peter washing the Feet of Christ ; The Descent from the Cross, by Raphael. The public theatres of Paris also attempted at two different moments in the last century, at its outset and its close, to give performances of Religious Mysteries, and thus indirectly to link the modern stage with the Theatre of the Middle Ages. The year 1817 was the point de départ of this curious dramatic innovation, and the newspapers of the day speak with great admiration of a Mystère du Vieux Testament, played with applause at the Théâtre Porte Saint-Martin ; of another religious drama, Le Passage de la Mer Rouge, represented at the Gaîté ; and a religious pantomime, entitled' Daniel, ou la Fosse aux Lions.

This dramatic style, forgotten for nearly half a century, reappeared on the stage some twenty-five years ago, and has since then held its own, notably at certain seasons of the year, as at Christmas and at Easter.

Among the Sacred Dramas most relished by the public, we must in the first instance note the works of the two fine poets and dramatic authors : MM. Charles Grandmougin and Edmond Haraucourt. The first, with his sacred drama Le Christ and his famous mystery L'Enfant Jésus ; the second, with his admirable mystery of La Passion, have secured the final triumph of the Evangelical Drama on the stage of the Parisian theatres. Nor must we omit to mention the Mystére de Noël of M. Bouchor, with choruses and music, and La Rédemption of M. Charles Vincent.

The Dramatic Morality may be regarded as an extinct type since the sixteenth century. As was shown above, it was transformed into the Comedy of Character.

The Farce, which was written in prose during the first quarter of the seventeenth century, was afterwards transformed into the Comedy of Manners, and left as its prime chef-d'oeuvre to the modern stage the famous Maître Pathelin, which since 1872 has very properly been included in the repertory of the Comédie-Française. Some other minor satirical pieces of Mediaeval Comedy, such as Le Cuvier, Le Pont aux Anes, were played at the national theatre of the Odéon in 1897 and 1898.

The isolated monologue of the sixteenth century came into fashion again at the end of the nineteenth, and enjoyed as much popularity in private drawing-rooms as it did upon the stage. La Grève des Forgerons, by François Coppée, may be taken as the masterpiece of this type.


The career of the English Miracle Play is not supposed to have extended beyond the sixteenth century.

Massinger's Virgin Martyr, however (played in 1619), as well as Shirley's S. Patrick for Ireland (performed in Dublin, 1640), while entitled respectively a drama and a comedy, are really the two latest specimens of the Miracle Play.

Sir Henry Irving, the famous actor, endeavoured to revive this style, forgotten for more than two hundred and fifty years. Under his direction The Gift of Tongues was put on the stage in London some few years ago ; but the experiment was a complete failure, and has not been attempted since.

The Moralities and Interludes have completely disappeared from the stage since the seventeenth century, although in July 1901, the Elizabethan Stage Society gave three highly interesting performances of the Moral Play of Every Man (ante, p. 178), revived from a copy of the original manuscript still existing in the Library of Lincoln Cathedral. This was followed by `an episode' from the Chester Miracle Plays, written in the fourteenth century, and known as the Sacrifice of Isaac (ante, p. 119). These performances took place in the Master's Court of the Charterhouse.

Every Man was played again at University College, Oxford, in August 1901.

The Pageant, or Allegorical Pantomime, which survived into the eighteenth century as a recognised spectacle, has left appreciable traces in the annual procession of the Lord Mayor's Show, which is in fact the Pageant of old days.

The Mask, after slumbering for two hundred and sixty years, made a triumphant reappearance in June 1899 at the Guildhall, where the Art Workers gave a fine performance of a mask composed on the model of Ben Jonson, entitled Beauty's Awakening, A Masque of Winter and of Spring (by A. Ashbee). This very artistic effort met with great success, and led to the production, eight months later (February 1900), of a second mask entitled Peace and War, which was especially got up by the élite of London society in aid of the soldiers wounded in the Transvaal. In this the different parts were undertaken by well-known members of society, and the performance in every way resembled the splendid shows of the seventeenth century.

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