Ancient Theatre 
Medieval Theatre
16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century
20th Century

Email Us


THROUGH practically a thousand years while the European theater was "dark" the Christian Church was unable to stamp out completely the festive element among the common people that manifested itself particularly at the spring planting time and the harvest season. It is probable, had not the church itself responded to the primitive desire of people to "act out" the stories of their lives, that secular drama would have sprung up in place of the Mystery, Miracle and Morality plays of the Middle Ages.

It must be remembered, too, that everywhere the service of the church was conducted in Latin rendering it quite unintelligible to the masses of the people. If they were to be familiar with the stories of the Bible that knowledge must come to them through the medium of a portrayal of events in the life of Christ and of his saints. When the early attempts were made by the priests to act out the stories of the Christmas and Easter seasons, there was little or no national consciousness in continental Europe. It was, to all intents and purposes, one vast domain living under a feudal system and acknowledging a nominal allegiance first to Charlemagne and later to the "Holy Roman Emperor of the German people." There was, too, but one religion. This religious and political unity made it extremely easy for the ideas of the Mystery and Miracle plays to spread through the agency of the bards and troubadors that wandered from court to court of the feudal barons.

At first only the priests took part in acting out the events from the lives of Christ and the saints and the portrayal took place in the Church proper. Later as the performances grew more elaborate and space became an important item the Mysteries and Miracles were pushed out into the courtyards of the churches and laymen began to take part in the acting.

By the beginning of the twelfth century national boundaries were becoming more or less marked. England by its geographical position was isolated from the currents of thought that flowed through continental Europe, and there, as the people took over the responsibility for the acting of the sacred plays, it became the custom to turn individual incidents over to the guilds of the various crafts. Also, there arose a feeling of need to present, not only isolated incidents or groups of related incidents at Christmas and Easter, but the whole history of man from his creation to the day of judgment. The various incidents of this long story were divided among the guilds of a district, staged on wagons easily drawn from one place to another, and were presented in proper sequence at set stations throughout the district. This complete history enacted by the various guilds came to be referred to as a "cycle" and for further identification was referred to by the name of the district in which it was presented. Viewed from the light of modern times the four most important cycles were those of Chester, York, Coventry, and Towneley (also called Wakefield). That these cycles, even though religious in nature, took into account the popular love of comedy is evidenced by the fact that in the only surviving incident of the Newcastle cycle Noah's wife is represented as a vixen.

About the same time, both in England and on the continent, the idea was conceived of representing the Virtues and Vices by name in the persons of actors, to afford the audience a "moral" lesson. From this grew the Moralities of which the most famous are the English Castell of Perseverance and Everyman ... the latter presumably an import from Holland.

Both the Mystery and the Morality plays were often long winded and frequently dull. To relieve the tedium "interludes" were presented which were nothing more nor less than slapstick farces as a rule more distinguished for their vulgarity than their humor. Most of these farces came originally from France or Italy and dealt either with the subject of sex or digestion. At their best, however, they carry on the true tradition of the Greek comedy writers and the Roman Plautus and Terence. From these "interludes" (literally "between the games," which was their actual use in Italy) developed a swift moving farce that was acted independently of any other performance. The best and most famous of these farces of the Middle Ages is the French Farce of Pierre Pathelin.

This article was originally published in Minute History of the Drama. Alice B. Fort & Herbert S. Kates. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1935. p. 7-8.


© 2002 TheatreDatabase.com