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English Drama


Liturgical drama (ca. 10th to 13th century)

During the Middle Ages learning was largely confined to the clergy, kings and nobles being frequently unable to read and write. Since the Church service was conducted in Latin, it was unintelligible to the vast majority of communicants. Consequently, as early as the fifth century, perhaps earlier, the clergy conceived of presenting tableaux to elucidate the service and to place biblical stories before their ignorant congregations.

The Church ritual was full of dramatic possibilities and a vested choir and robed clergy were ready at hand. There was the blending of symbolic action, Scriptural narrative, outbursts of song. The biblical stories lent themselves easily to presentation.

At first groups of clerics merely presented tableaux—living pictures—to depict to the eye what was being expressed in an unknown tongue to the ear. By the tenth century dialogue was chanted by the choir. Action and gesture emphasized meaning.

Biblical narrative thus treated gave rise to what are known as liturgical plays. An example follows:

Quem Quaeritis Trope (early tenth century)

Whom seek ye in the sepulcher, O followers of Christ?
Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, O celestial ones.
He is not here; he is arisen, as he foretold.
Go, announce that he is risen from the sepulcher.

1st line
This was chanted by section of choir, assuming roles of angels at
the tomb.

2nd line
These voices represented the Marys.

3rd and 4th lines
These were repeated by the initial singers.

Thus, English drama, like the Greek, had its beginnings in
. It included simple movement, costuming, and appropriate gestures. By 1200, liturgical drama grew in length and complexity.

The Church became too limited to accommodate the crowds that were attracted by these plays. The space surrounding it was used next, but the excited spectators accidentally despoiled graves while crowding around to watch. Then street corners were appropriated, and the farther away the plays got from the Church, the control of the priests lessened. Other people wanted to become involved. In the secularization, considerable humor and levity crept into the plays (e.g., poking fun at Herod, Pilate, Judas, Noah).

Mystery and Miracle Plays

Mystery plays dramatized biblical text. (They were usually held during summer festivals with both civic and religious value.)

Miracle plays dramatized the lives of the saints.

1210: Pope Innocent III banned drama from the Church, and by the 14th century the Church had removed drama from Church lands altogether (the inevitable rabble, drunks, and the like were unacceptable under Church auspices, as was the changing content of the plays).

Guilds undertook the drama, which had become so popular that it couldn't be squelched. Pageant wagons moved the tableau through the town, dramatizing biblical text.

Extant cycles of Mystery plays:N-Town (43 plays), York (48 plays), Chester, Wakefield CTowneleyl (32 plays)

There may have been 20 cycles at one time.

Morality Plays

Morality plays were dramatized sermons. The theme was always the same the fall and redemption of mankind. As people grew tired of the same lengthy religious cycles, a need developed for a different type of entertainment. Thus, it carne about that instead of treating the Bible or humanity as a whole, someone began to consider just one example: everyman, anyman, an abstract man.

These plays developed great flexibility in staging. lays Since life is a continual strife between good and evil, the plays came to depict that strife. They showed that man has choice. By making plain the result of wrong choosing, moral lessons could be brought more forcefully home than they could in normal sermons. Thus, the morality concerns itself with Christian conduct.

The one important step in dramatic development which the morality plays manifest is plot.

The oldest surviving morality is The Castle of Perseverance; the best known is Everyman.

The plays are allegorical, and present abstract personifications. As we said, they focus on the contest of Vice and Virtue for the human soul.

The Castle of Perseverance (ca. 1425)
(Required 22 actors)

I. Bad Angel secures the soul of Man in a struggle with Good Angel. The World gives as guides to Man: Pleasure, Folly, Backbiter, and the Seven Deadly Sins. The Good Angel appeals to Confession, Shrift, and Penitence, who lodge Man in the Castle of Perseverance.

II. The forces of Hell can't overwhelm the Castle, which is guarded by the forces of Heaven, but aging Man is enticed outside by Avarice; Death strikes Man down, but he dies repentant.

III. The Four Daughters of God (Mercy, Peace, Truth, and Righteousness) debate the disposal of Man's soul, with Mercy triumphant.


In addition to the religious mystery plays on pageant wagons and on circular stages resembling modern "theatres in the round," dramatic entertainments were performed in the great halls of royal and noble houses. Plays were also offered by traveling bands of actors on portable stages set up at fairs and other crowd-gathering occasions. In the sixteenth century, enclosed innyards were also used.

The first permanent theatre in England was located in Middlesex, just outside the walls of London. The Theatre, as it was called, was created by James Burbage, father of Richard Burbage, the famous actor. There is little direct information about the appearance of The Theatre. It was dismantled in 1598 and its timbers were carried to Bankside, south of London across the Thames River. When it was reassembled in 1599 it was called The Globe. What is known about The Globe probably applies to The Theatre as well.

The age of Shakespeare—and of Marlowe, Kyd, Chapman, Ben Jonson and a host of other dramatists—extends roughly from 1590 to 1625. During this period London probably had more theatre space in ratio to its population than at any other time. Excluding informal theatre spaces such as the great halls of the nobility and such organizations as the Inns of Court (where England's lawyers were trained), there were seven open-air theatres and four indoor theatres. The open-air theatres could accommodate audiences of 2000 to 3000 spectators. The indoor theatres were much smaller and could accommodate 300 to 400 spectators.

The outdoor theatres relied on natural light. They used few stage props and no stage sets in the modern sense of the-term. These seeming limitations encouraged several of the most brilliant features of Elizabethan drama. The lack of stage sets allowed the dramatists to create rapid, extremely fluid actions. Scenes succeeded each other without interruption, somewhat in the manner of twentieth-century movies. The lack of stage sets forced the Elizabethan dramatists to create what might be called a theatre of imagination. Since the scenes were not presented visually, they had to be evoked by poetic language. When we speak today of Shakespeare's magnificent poetry, we are referring to an element of his dramas that resulted from this absence of scenery.

A look at  The Globe

The Elizabethan stage was a thrust stage surrounded on three (perhaps on all four) sides by the audience. There was continuous contact between the actors and the spectators. Taking advantage of this, Shakespeare and his contemporaries filled their plays with asides, anachronisms, topical allusions and other devices that allowed the actor to speak directly to the audience. The most brilliant of these devices is the Shakespearean soliloquy, but a careful reader will find innumerable other examples throughout the plays. The glories of Shakespeare's drama are thus directly related to the characteristics on which they were originally presented.

(The information on the Elizabethan theatre is taken from the text accompanying a slde set from the Folger Library.)

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© Scott Foll 2000. All rights reserved.