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MYSTERIES AND MIRACLE PLAYS

The following essay is reprinted from A Complete Manual of English Literature. Thomas B. Shaw. New York: Sheldon & Company, 1867.

It is possible to trace the first dim dawning of the English drama to a very remote period, to a period indeed not very far removed from the era of the Norman Conquest: for the custom of representing, in a rude dramatic form, legends of the lives of the Saints and striking episodes of Bible History seems to have been introduced from France, and to have been employed by the clergy as a means of communicating religious instruction to the rude population of the twelfth century. There exists the record of one of these religious spectacles, which received the name of Mysteries or Miracle Plays, from the sacred nature of their subject and personages, having been represented in the Convent of Dunstable in 1119. It was called The Play of St. Catherine, and in all probability consisted of a rude dramatized picture of the miracles and martyrdom of that saint, performed on the festival which commemorated her death. In an age when the great mass of the laity, from the highest to the lowest, were in a state of extreme ignorance, and when the little learning that then existed was exclusively in the hands of ecclesiastics, it was quite natural that the latter, which was then the governing class, should employ so obvious an expedient for communicating some elementary religious instruction to the people, and by gratifying the curiosity of their rude hearers, extend and strengthen the influence of the Church. It is known that this play of St. Catherine was performed in French, which is sufficient proof that the custom of these representations was imported from abroad; but the great and rapid extension of these performances soon showed how well this mode of religious amusement accorded with the tastes and requirements of the times.

Mysteries and Miracle-plays abound in the early literature of all the Catholic countries of Europe; Spain, Germany, France, Italy possess examples so abundant that a considerable library might be formed of these barbarous pieces; and the habit of seeing them represented in public has certainly left very perceptible traces in medieval literature and art. For example, the title, the subject, and the arrangement of Dante's immortal poem are closely connected with dramatic representations of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, which formed a common feature among the festivities of Florence. The Divine Comedy, the very name of which shows its relation to some theatrical performance, is nothing but a Miracle in a narrative form. These plays were composed and acted by monks, the cathedral was transformed for the nonce into a theatre, the stage was a species of graduated platform in three divisions rising one over the other, and placed near or over the altar, and the costumes were furnished by the splendid contents of the vestry of the church. It will appear natural enough, that on any of the high religious festivals, on the anniversary of any important religious personage or event, that personage or event should be represented in visible form, with such details as either Scripture, legend, or the imagination of the author could supply. The childish and straightforward art of these old monkish dramatists felt no repugnance in following with strict literal accuracy every circumstance of the original narrative which they dramatized; and the simple faith of their audience saw no impropriety in the introduction of the most supernatural beings, the persons of the Trinity, angels, devils, saints, and martyrs. The three platforms into which the stage was divided represented Heaven, Earth, and Hell; and the dramatis personæ made their appearance on that part of the stage which corresponded with their nature. It was absolutely necessary that some comic element should be introduced to enliven the graver scenes, particularly as some of these representations were of inordinate length, there being one, for example, on the subject of the Creation and the Fall of Man, which occupied six days in the performance. Besides the rude audience would have absolutely required some farcical or amusing episode. This comic element was easily found by representing the wicked personages, whether human or spiritual, of the drama as placed in ludicrous situations, or surrounded by ludicrous accompaniments: thus the Devil generally played the part of the clown or jester, and was exhibited in a light half terrific and half farcical. Nor were they contented with such drolleries as could be extracted from the grotesque gambols and often baffled machinations of Satan and his imps, or with the mixture of merriment and horror inspired by horns, and tails, and hairy howling mouths: the authors of these pieces introduced human buffoons; and the modern puppet-play of Punch, with his struggles with the Devil, is unquestionably a direct tradition handed down from these ancient miracles in which the Evil One was alternately the conqueror and the victim of the Buffoon, Jester, or Vice, as he was called.

Some idea may be formed of these ancient religious dramas from the titles of some of them which have been preserved; for the general reader is scarce likely to consult such of them as have been printed, though curious monuments of the faith and art of long-vanished ages. 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 Deluge, besides an infinite multitude of subjects taken from the lives and miracles of the saints; such were the materials of these simple dramas. They are generally written in mixed prose and verse, and though abounding in anachronisms and absurdities both of character and dialogue, they sometimes contain passages of simple and natural pathos, and sometimes scenes which must have affected the spectators with awe and reverence. In an English mystery on the subject of the Deluge, a comic scene is produced by the refusal of Noah's wife to enter the Ark, and by the beating which justly terminates her resistance and scolding. But, on the other hand, a mystery on the subject of The Sacrifice of Isaac contains dialogue of much pathos and beauty between Abraham and his son; and the whole action of The Mystery of the Holy Sacrament was capable of producing a strong impression in an age of childlike, ardent faith. These representations were got up with all the magnificence attainable, and every expedient was employed to heighten the illusion of the scene. Thus there is a tradition of a condemned criminal having been really crucified on the stage, in a representation of the Passion of Our Lord, in the character of the Impenitent Thief. Very evident traces of the universality of these religious dramas may be found in the early works of sculpture and painting throughout Catholic Europe. Thus the practice of representing the Deity in the costume of ornaments of a Pope or a Bishop, which appears to us an absurdity or an irreverence, arose from such a personage being generally represented, on the rude stage of the miracle-play, in a dress which was then associated with ideas of the highest reverence: and the innumerable anecdotes and apologues representing evil spirits as baffled and defeated by a very moderate amount of cunning and dexterity may easily have been generated by that peculiarity of Medieval Christianity which pictures the wicked spirits, not as terrible and awful beings, but as mischievous goblins whose power was annihilated at the foundation of our faith.

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