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SKETCH OF THE HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH
DRAMA, BEFORE SHAKSPEARE.
All art is in its rise connected with Religion : a proof of its divine origin as a mediate and secondary revelation. However strange the assertion may sound in the present state of dramatic art, it is not the less true, that the Church was the birth-place of the modern drama. If we overlook the pieces which, after the seventh century, were frequently represented in the nunneries, and the brief spectacles which, in the eighth and ninth centuries, were exhibited by monks and nuns at the funerals of their abbots and abbesses, and the Pantomimes and Mummings which in all ages princes and lords, as well as the common people, loved and practised on festive occasions, we must place the first beginnings of the modern drama in the so-called Mysteries or Miracle-plays The origin of these is very ancient, and is connected with the custom of the mediæval church, for a deacon to stand before the ambo during the reading of the Lessons, and to hold up a roll, which, on the side turned towards the congregation, displayed a figured representation of the particular portion of Scripture which was being read, in order that those who did not understand, or could not readily follow the words, might, by looking at the painting, be instructed in the contents of the lesson-be reminded of it, and so be
religiously and morally improved*. A like cause led, in the fourth century, to the practice of adorning the walls of churches with mosaic representations of subjects drawn from the Old and New Testament, while, in answer to the objection to such practices as heathenish, it was urged that these paintings were designed to serve as “ biblia pauperum,” and thereby to bring the Holy Scriptures home to the hearts and minds of the poor and illiterate. But the practice did not stop here; and this pictorial instruction gave way gradually to symbolical representations by living persons, and ultimately to dramatic exhibitions in the proper sense; which, however, as pieces of art, were extremely rude. These scenic representations were given, from the very first, not only in the halls and chapels of cloisters, but also in churches, and occasionally also in the streets and other public places, by the clergy themselves. The favourite subjects were, the life of Christ, His nativity, passion, resurrection, and ascension; or such of the principal events of the Old Testament as were suited for exhibition, while the Apocrypha, and the later holy legends, furnished an abundant supply of equally favourite subjects.
In England there is direct evidence of the representation at Dunstable of the Life of St. Katherine, as early as in the reign of Henry I., and before the year 1110: it is therefore beyond doubt that Miracle-plays were common in that country in the eleventh century. To judge of their nature from what we know of them, they seem to have been little more than an embodying of the sacred histories, or rudely dramatised narratives, in which the scenes followed each other in the same order as the events of the original, and were accompanied, wherever possible, by the
very words of Holy Writ. They were consequently wholly devoid of proper
dramatic action, while a decidedly epic tone and colouring predominated throughout. The representation was generally
* This is the probable cause or occasion which gave rise to these spectacles in the early church. The composition of religious dramas, at so early a date that the Xploròs nao xwv is ascribed—though wrongfully, in all probability—to Gregory Nazianzen, and the endeavour of the clergy of the middle ages by the exhibition of Miracle-plays, to withdraw the people from attending the profane spectacles of dancing, music, pantomimes, and mummings, to which Warton (History of Eng. Poetry, iii. 195), and Collier (History, ii. 126), are disposed to ascribe the origin of the Mysteries, are without doubt co-operating circumstances.
opened by a kind of prologue or proclamation, but the single pieces which followed were extremely short, and probably only so many distinct and independent scenes arranged in a series like the cantos of an epos, without any thing like transition or connection. The Towneley collection, for instance, opens with the Fall of Lucifer ; in the next piece, God the Father appears, and announcing Himself as the Alpha and Omega, begins the Ccreation ; after a hymn of praise from the cherubim, He descends from His throne and goes off the scene. Thereupon Lucifer takes possession of the throne, and calls upon the other angels to obey him ; while they are disputing, God the Father returns, and drives Satan and his adherents to Hell. Then follows the creation of Adam and Eve, which is succeeded by the history of Cain and Abel, and so on. This epical cast the Miracle-plays still retained, even at a much later date, when they had increased so greatly in outward bulk that the representation of the Creation, for instance, at Skinners' Wells, in 1409, lasted, agreeably to sacred history, a whole week; and when at Chester a cycle of Mysteries comprehended the whole history of the world from the fall of Lucifer to the last Judgment. The Miracle-plays of Chester were particularly famous, and, from A. D. 1268, were regularly exhibited at first, as Collier attempts to shew, in French (though perhaps also in Latin), but after 1338, in English. The oldest existing MS. “ The History of Christ's Descent into Hell, after the Apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus,” belongs to the times of Edward III., and a MS. of thirty pieces is extant, which dates with the reign of the pious Henry VI.*
This custom, as was from its very nature to be expected, led gradually to abuse. However correct may have been the view at first, that such plays were an excellent means of instructing the people, and even though popes and bishops may have granted an indulgence of 1000 years to such as might attend the representa
This is the Towneley collection, consisting apparently of public pieces represented at Widkirk Abbey. Two other collections, besides a few single pieces, have descended to modern times ;-one, of forty-two pieces, which were exhibited at Coventry, the MS. of which belongs to the times of Henry VII. ; the other is the Chester collection, consisting of twenty-four pieces, of which three MSS. exist of the several years 1595, 1600, 1617.-Collier, ii. 137 and 227.
tion throughout of the Chester cycle, yet their rapid declension into bad taste, coarseness, and immorality, was a natural consequence both of the thing itself and of the character of the times. This corruption began with the attempt to exhibit the scriptural story more and more in detail, while a license was gradually assumed of mixing up with them, and interpolating, allusions to existing manners, and other incongruous matters * When we find that in the representation of the Fall, Adam and Eve appeared on the stage perfectly naked, and in the next scene with aprons of fig. leaves; when we read the coarse insults of Abel which are put into the mouth of Cain, and how Noah, after carrying his wife into the ark, is, after a long wrangling, greeted with a smart box on the ears t, we cannot but approve of the decree of the Mexican Synod, confirmed by the Pope in 1589, by which the clergy were forbidden to take any part in such spectacles. Before this date, indeed, many of the parts had already fallen to the students and children of the choir, but now the entire representation was abandoned to them. Generally, however, the taste for them had been declining since the beginning of the sixteenth century; the exhibitions had become less frequent everywhere, and entirely ceased at Chester in 1577, at Coventry in 1591, at York and Newcastle in 1598; they continued longest at Lancaster, Preston, and Kendall, having survived there down to the first years of James ; about which date, also, the Religious musical dramas-the so-called Oratorios, arose out of, and completely superseded them, in Italy.
With this ecclesiastical and religious commencement of dramatic art, however, a popular element quickly associated itself. Not merely were the Mysteries themselves so far secularized, that in the larger towns they were at an early date acted also by the guilds and corporations, but as soon as a taste had been once awakened for dramatic exhibitions, they became a regular part of all public festivities, whether designed in honour of, or for the amusement of the sovereign, nobles, &c. or for any other secular object. Profane Mummings and Mimes were without doubt as old, if not older, than the Miracle-plays. Such were no doubt the first rude beginnings of dramatic composition into which order and regu
* Collier, ii. 150, &c. + See the Extracts in Collier, ii. 158, 160, 163.