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The following article was originally published in The Outlines of Literature: English and American. Truman J. Backus. New York: Sheldon and Company, 1897. pp. 80-84.

In the dramas of Greece and Rome the unities of action, time, and place controlled the unfolding of plot. There was one main action to which every minor part must contribute; the incidents of the play should naturally happen within twenty-four hours; and the entire action should occur, naturally, in one place. These rules of the ancient drama are known as "the dramatic unities." The early play-writers of other European countries were limited by these rules; but to Spain and England belongs the distinction of creating new types of dramatic literature. From the first, nearly all English dramatists ignored the unities. In representing character and passion their succeeding scenes transplanted one over impracticable distances, their time might include a long life, and subordinate parts of a play were unified only by the author's method of delineating passion or character.


The dawning of the English dramatic literature can be traced to a period soon after the Norman Conquest, when the Church began to popularize in England the mysteries with which she supplanted the Roman mimes. To these the names of Miracle plays and Mysteries were indiscriminately given in England. The earliest "miracle" of English record is the Play of Saint Catherine. It was represented at Dunstable about 1110, was written in French, and was in all probability a rude representation of the miracles and martyrdom of the saint. These performances were encouraged by the clergy, since they gave religious instruction to the people and strengthened the influence of the Church. At first the plays were composed and acted by monks, and were performed in the cathedral close. The ecclesiastical stage was a platform in three divisions, representing Heaven, Earth, and Hell rising one over the other. The costumes were furnished from the vestry of the church. The dramatists boldly exhibited supernatural beings, angels, devils, saints, martyrs, even the persons of the Trinity. It was necessary that some comic element should be introduced to enliven the graver scenes; and this was supplied by representing the wicked personages of the drama placed in ludicrous situations. The Devil usually played the part of the clown or jester, and was exhibited in a light half terrific and half farcical. The modern puppet-play of Punch is a reminiscence of these ancient miracles, in which the Evil One was alternately the conqueror and the victim of the human buffoon, jester, or vice, as he was called. The times did not condemn the use of vulgar or profane language, or scenes.

Some idea of those religious dramas may be formed from their titles. The Creation of the World, the Fall of man, the story of Cain and Abel, the Crucifixion of Our Lord, the Massacre of the Innocents, The Play of the Blessed Sacrament, the Deluge, are in the list, besides an infinite multitude of subjects taken from the lives and miracles of the saints. The plays though abounding in absurdities, contain passages of simple and natural pathos, and scenes of genuine humor. In the Deluge, a comic scene is produced by the refusal of Noah's wife to enter the Ark, and by the beating which terminates her noisy resistance; while, on the other hand, a Mystery entitled the Sacrifice of Isaac contains a pathetic dialogue between Abraham and his son. The oldest manuscript of a Miracle play in English is that of the Harrowing of Hell, i.e., the conquering of Hell by Christ, believed to have been written about 1350.

A curious revival of these Miracles or Passion plays began in 1633 at Ammergau, near the southern frontier of Bavaria, and is continued till the present time. It is notable in keeping both the reverence and the dramatic skill of the devoutest age of such representations.


The Miracle plays and Mysteries continued to be popular from the eleventh to the end of the fourteenth century, when they were supplanted by the Moralities. These new dramas were simply an adaptation to dramatic use of the allegory which had been universally popular for two centuries. The persons who figure in the Moralities are, Every Man, a general type of humanity; Lusty Juventus, who represents the follies and weakness of youth; Good Counsel, Repentence, Gluttony, Pride, Avarice, and the like. The Devil was retained, and his hard blows and scoldings with the Vice, furnished many "a fit of mirth." The oldest English Morality now extant is The Castle of Perseverance, which was written about 1450. It is a dramatic allegory of human life, representing the many conflicting influences that surround Man in his way through the world. Lusty Juventus contains a vivid and humorous picture of the extravagance and debauchery of a young heir surrounded by the Virtues and Vices, and ends with a demonstration of the misery which follows a departure from the path of virtue and religion.


Springing from the Moralities, and making an approach to the regular drama, are the Interludes, much shorter in extent and more merry and farcical. Here typical personages are substituted for allegorical characters. They were generally played in the intervals of a festival, and were exceedingly popular. The most noted author of these merry pieces was John Heywood, a man of learning and accomplishments, who seems to have performed the duties of entertainer at the court of Henry VIII. His Four P's is a good specimen of this phase of drama. It turns upon a dispute between a Peddler, a Pardoner, a Palmer and a Poticary, in which each tries to tell the greatest lie. They tax their powers, until at last, by chance, the Palmer says that he never saw a woman out of temper; whereupon the others acknowledge him the victor.


The national taste for dramatic entertainments was still further fostered by pageants intended to gratify the vanity of citizens or to compliment an illustrious visitor. On some lofty platform, in the porch or church-yard of a cathedral, in the town hall or over the city gate, one or more figures, suitably dressed, declaimed in verse and represented Cupid, Muses, and other classical personages. Such spectacles were frequently exhibited at the universities, where the Latin tongue was used and Latin plays were imitated. These dramas, however, do not appear to have exercised any appreciable influence on the growth of the English stage.


The earliest composition in our language possessing all the requisites of a regular tragedy, and the first in blank verse, is the play of Gorboduc, or Ferrex and Porrex, written by Thomas Sackville (the principal writer in the Mirror for Magistrates), and acted in 1562 for the entertainment of Queen Elizabeth. Its subject is borrowed from the old half-mythological Chronicles of Britain. Its dialogue is regularly and carefully constructed; but the sentences almost invariably terminate with the line, and the effect of the whole is tedious. The action is oppressively tragic, being a dismal succession of slaughters, ending with the desolation of an entire kingdom.

The first English comedy was Ralph Royster Doyster, acted in 1551, and written by Nicholas Udall, master of Eton College. This was followed, about fifteen years later, by Gammer Gurton's Needle, composed by John Still, afterward bishop of Bath and Wells, who had previously been master of Saint John's and Trinity Colleges in Cambridge. This play was probably acted by the students of those colleges. The action of Ralph Royster Doyster takes place in London. The principal characters are a rich and pretty widow, her lover, and an irrepressible suitor, who gives the title to the play. This ridiculous pretender to gayety and love is betrayed into all sorts of absurd and humiliating scrapes. The piece ends with the return of the favored lover from a voyage which he had untertaken in a momentary pique. The manners represented are those of the middle class of the period; and the picture given of life in London in the sixteenth century is animated and natural. The movement and utterance are rudely comic.

Gammer Gurton's Needle is a composition of a more farcical order. The scene is laid in the humblest rustic life, and all the dramatis personae belong to the uneducated class. The principal action of the comedy is the sudden loss of a needle with which Gammer (Good Mother) Gurton has been mending a garment of her man Hodge, a loss comparatively serious when needles were rare and costly. The whole intrigue consists in the search instituted after this unfortunate little implement, which is at last discovered by Hodge himself, on suddenly sitting down, sticking in the garment which Gammer Gurton had been repairing.

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