The following essay is reprinted from A Complete Manual of English Literature. Thomas B. Shaw. New York: Sheldon & Company, 1867.
To trace the gradual changes which establish the affiliation from the early Mysteries or Mystery plays of the twelfth century to the regular drama of modern times, is nothing else but to point out the steps by which the dramatic art, from an exclusively religious character acquired more and more of a lay or worldly spirit in its subjects and its personages. The Mysteries, once the only form of dramatic representation, continued to be popular from the eleventh to the end of the fourteenth century; nay, in some pastoral and remote corners of Europe, where the primitive faith glows in all its ancient ardor, and where the manners of the people have been little modified by contact with foreign civilization, something very similar to the Mysteries may be still seen even in the present day. In the retired valleys of Catholic Switzerland, in the Tyrol, and in some little-visited districts of Germany [Ober-Ammergau], the peasants still annually perform dramatic spectacles representing episodes in the life of Christ.
The first stage in the process of laicizing the drama was the substitution for the Miracle-play of another kind of representation, entitled a Morality or Morality play. This species of entertainment seems to have been popular from about the beginning of the fifteenth century, and gradually supplanted the exclusively religious Mystery. It is quite evident that the composition as well as the representation of these pieces was far less exclusively in the hands of the ecclesiastics, who thus began to lose that influence over the popular mind which they had derived from their monopoly of knowledge. Perhaps, however, it would be a more legitimate explanation of this change to say, that the spread of civilization among the laity, and the hostility which was gradually but rapidly undermining the foundations of Catholicism in England, had contributed to put an end to that monopoly; for many of our early Morality plays, though the production of Churchmen, as in the case of Bishop Bale, were the production of Churchmen strongly tainted with the unorthodox opinions of the early reformers. The subjects of these dramas, instead of being purely religious, were moral, as their name implies; and the ethical lessons were conveyed by an action and dramatis personæ of an abstract or allegorical kind. Thus, instead of the Deity and his angels, the Saints, the Patriarchs, and the characters of the Old and New Testament, the persons who figured in the Moralities are Every-Man -- a general type or expression of humanity -- Lusty Juventus -- who represents the follies and weakness of youth -- Good Counsel, Repentance, Gluttony, Pride, Avarice, and the like. The action was in general exceedingly simple, and the tone grave and doctrinal, though of course the same necessity existed as before for the introduction of comic scenes. The Devil was far too popular and useful a personage to be suppressed; so his battles and scoldings with the Vice, or Clown, were still retained to furnish forth "a fit of mirth."
Our readers may form some idea of the general character of these pieces by the analysis of one, entitled The Cradle of Security, the outline of which has been preserved. It was intended as a lesson to careless and sensual sovereigns. The principal personage is a King, who, neglecting his high duties and plunged in voluptuous pleasures, is put to sleep in a cradle, to which he is bound by golden chain, held by four beautiful ladies, who sing as they rock the cradle. Suddenly the courtiers are all dispersed by a terrible knock at the door, and the king, awaking, finds himself in the custody of two stern and tremendous figures, sent from God to punish his voluptuousness and vice. In a similar way the action of the Morality Lusty Juventus contains a vivid and even humorous picture of the extravagance and debauchery of a young heir, surrounded by companions, the Virtues and the Vices, some of whom endeavor in vain to restrain his passions, while others flatter his depraved inclinations. This piece also ends with a demonstration of the inevitable misery and punishment which follow a departure from the path of virtue and religion.
It is impossible to draw any strong line of demarcation, either chronological or critical, between the Mystery and Morality. The one species imperceptibly melts into the other; though the general points of distinction are clear and obvious enough. The Morality also had a strong tendency to partake of the character of the court masque, in which the Elements, the Virtues, the Vices, or the various reigns of nature, were introduced either to convey some physical or philosophical instruction in the guise of allegory, or to compliment a king or great personage on a festival occasion. Of this class is Skelton's masque to which he gave the title of Magnificence. A very industrious writer of these Moralities was Bishop Bale (1495-1563), who may be considered one of the founders of the English drama.
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