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WHEN, after the reinstitution of the festival of Corpus Christi in 1311, the miracle plays began in England to be a function of the guilds, their secularisation, even though the clerks still participated in the acting, was but a question of time; and the injection of crude comedy was a natural response to the civic demand. Indeed, if we consider comedy in its higher meaning as the play of the individual achieving his ends, not by revolt, but by adjustment to circumstance and convention, the miracle play was in its essence a preparation for comedy rather than tragedy. For the theme of these dramas is, in a word, Christian: the career of the individual as an integral part of the social organism, of the religious whole. So, also, their aim: the welfare of the social individual. They do not exist for the purpose of portraying immoderate self-assertion and the vengeance that rides after, but the beauty of holiness or the comfort of contrition. Herod, Judas, and Antichrist are foils, not heroes. The hero of the miracle seals his salvation by accepting the spiritual ideal of the community. These plays, accordingly, contribute in a positive manner to the maintenance of the social organism. The tragedies of life and literature, on the other hand, proceed from secular histories, histories of personages liable to disaster because of excessive peculiarity,--of person or position. Tragedy is the drama of Cain, of the individual in opposition to the social, political, divine; its occasion is an upheaval of the social organism. The dramatic tone of the miracle cycle is, therefore, determined by the conservative character of Christianity in general; the nature of the several plays is, however, modified by the relation of each to one or other of the supreme crises in the biblical history of God's ways toward man. The Massacre of the Innocents emphasises not the weeping of Rachel, but the joyous escape of the Virgin and the Child. In all such stories the horrible is kept in the background or used by way of suspense before the happy outcome, or frequently as material for mirth. The murder of Abel gradually passes into a comedy of the grotesque. Upon the sweet and joyous character of the pageants of Joseph and Mary and the Child we shall in due course dwell. They are of the very essence of comedy. Indeed, it must be said that in the old cycles the plays surrounding even the Crucifixion are not tragedy; they are specimens of the serious drama, of tragedy averted. The drama of the cross is a triumph. In no cycle does the consummation est close the pageant of the Crucifixion; the actors announce, and the spectators believe, that this is "Goddis Sone," whom within three days they shall again behold, though he has been "nayled on a tree unworthilye to die."

But though the dramatic edifice constructed by our medieval forbears is generally comedy, it is also divine. And not for a moment did these builders lose their reverence for the House Spiritual that was sacred, nor once forget that the stones which they ignorantly and often mirthfully swung into strange juxtaposition were themselves hewn by Other Hands. The comic scenes of the English Miracle should, therefore, be regarded not as interruptions to the sacred drama, nor as independent episodes, but as counterpoint or dramatic relief. Regarding the plays as units, we may discover in one, like the beautiful Brome play of Abraham and Isaac, or its allied pageants of Chester, York, and Wakefield, a preponderance of the pathetic; in another, like the York of the Wakefield Scourging of Christ, a preponderance of the horrible; in the Joseph and Mary plays of the Ludus Coventriæ a preponderance of the romantic, and so on. But when we regard them as interdependent scenes of the cycles to which they might, or do, belong, the varied emotional colours blend: indigo, gamboge, vermilion producing an effect, gorgeous--sometimes disquieting, but always definite. Not only definite, but homogeneous and reposeful, when, in moments of historic vision, the tints grow misty, subliminal, and all is moss-green, lavender, or grey,--as when with self-obliteration one contemplates the stained glass window of a medieval church, King's College Chapel, St. Mark's of Venice, or Nôtre Dame.

The best comedies of the cycles--the York and Wakefield pageants of the Flood, the N-Town Trial of Joseph and Mary--pass from jest to earnest as imperceptibly as autumn through an Indian summer. In the Second Shepherds' Play, one cannot but remark the propriety of the charm, as well as the dramatic effect, with which the foreground of the sheep-stealing fades into the radiant picture of the Nativity. The pastoral atmosphere is already shot with a prophetic gleam; the fulfilment is, therefore, no shock or contrast, but a transfiguration--an epiphany. It is, moreover, to be remembered that such characters and episodes as are comically treated are of secular derivation, or, if scriptural, of no sacred significance. Thus the comic and the realistic in the poet were set free; and it is just when he is embroidering the material of mystery with the stammel-red or russet of his homespun that he is of most interest to us. When the plays have passed into the hands of the guilds, the playwright puts himself most readily into sympathy with the literary consciousness as well as the untutored aesthetic taste of the public if he colours the spectacle, old or new, with what is pre-eminently popular and distinctively national. In the minster and out of it, all through the Christian year, the townsfolk of York or Chester had as much of ritual, scriptural narrative, and tragic mystery as they desired, and probably more. When the pageants were acted, they listened with simple credulity, no doubt, to the sacred history, and with a reverence that our age of illumination can neither emulate nor understand; but we may be sure that they awaited with keenest expectation those invented episodes where tradition conformed itself to familiar life--the impromptu sallies, the cloth-yard shafts of civic and domestic satire sped by well-known wags of town or guild. Of the appropriateness of these insertions the spectators made no question, and the dramatists themselves do not seem to have thought it necessary to apologise for their aesthetic creed or practice.

It is propædeutic to comedy, then, rather than tragedy that I prefer to treat the miracle plays. And I find it easier to trace some order of dramatic development by approaching them from this point of view.


This article was originally published in Plays of Our Forefathers. Charles Mills Gayley. New York: Duffield & Co., 1907. pp. 144-52.


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