The Medieval Plays

  January 03, 2022   Read time 3 min
The Medieval Plays
All the fine arts have been powerfully affected sooner or later by the universal craving for dramatic impression. Dramaticness is a quality in art not easily defined. It usually involves features or arrangements that represent· or suggest a story, with personages, action, developing situations and' a denouement of some sort, predestined.

The fascination of dramatic art in all forms rests upon the fact that it recalls living experiences; continually piques curiosity as to the outcome, and in its climaxes is sensationally exciting. The impulse to it is universal in all ages. In modern society the drama stands as a separate and independent fine art. But it is not always remembered that other fine arts are constantly handled dramatically, even the static arts of sculpture, painting and architecture, and of course the mobile arts of poetry and music in all their larger forms. This general thesis may be extensively developed. It is here mentioned simply to justify references to the general taste for drama, of which the musical drama was a result and by which at first it was dominated.

The entire modern drama-theatre and opera-is imrnediately descended from practices in the Middle Ages that were instituted and sustained by the Church. The beginning was doubtless in the liturgy itself - the Mass, for instance, being a sort of reenactment of the sacrifice of Christ. But the connection is clearest with the particular undertakings known as Mysteries, Miracle-Playsand Moralities, all of which were originally designed to live religious instruction and edification, though from the first tending to pass over into secular diversions. These were the direct precursors of the opera and the oratorio, even though originally they may have contained no important musical features whatever.

The Mystery was properly a representation of some Biblical story. Its development was most natural in connection with the stories of Easter, including all the events from the Betrayal to the Resurrection, and of Christmas; but it was early extended to subjects like the Creation, the Flood, the Exodus, the lives of Biblical characters, and the Last Judgment. The words were taken from the Bible direct as far as possible. The earlier renderings were by ecclesiastics in churches or monasteries. Gradually these expansions of church services became protracted performances, occupying parts of several days, which tended more and Inore to swing away from the Church. The common tongue replaced the Latin, liberties were taken with the narratives, and by-play of a comic kind was slipped in, with not a little superstition as well.

These features, with the accent upon Inere amusement, from the 13th century caused the form to be less approved by the church authorities, so that it betook itself to the market-places or the fields, where large crowds could gather and every kind of topic and treatment could be tolerated. The further development of these public plays varied in different countries. In many cases their maintenance became a municipal function, while in others they were undertaken by the various guilds of craftsmen. As a rule, Mysteries ceased with the Reformation, but survivals exist even now, as the Passion-Play at Oberammergau in Bavaria.

The Miracle-Play was an offshoot of the foregoing, its materials being taken from the legendary lives of the saints. Its tendency was to emphasize heroic, romantic or magical incidents, often with great freedom of treatment. Though not so closely liturgical in origin, its first purpose was ecclesiastical, and one variety of it consisted in elaborations of formulze like the Lord's Prayer or the Creed. It passed over readily into mythological or historical dramas, varying widely in subject.

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