The remnants of classical theater, as performed in Rome,
are suppressed on moral grounds by the late roman emperors, who have been converted to
Christianity. As a result, there will be virtually no regular theatrical activity in
Europe throughout the early Middle Ages.
and Eleventh Centuries
The first glimmerings of a rebirth of the theater occur,
within the context of the church itself. Dramatic elements of the Christian liturgy, such
as the sections of the Mass narrating Christ's Last Supper, begin to be elaborated by the
use of dialogue like antiphonal chanting and dramatic gestures. These brief dramatic
scenes slowly grow into devotional playlets, though they remain part of the liturgy.
By this time, some religious drama has moved outside the
confines of the liturgy. Christmas and Passion plays, for example, are now performed
outside the church building and are no longer part of the Mass. The play Adam,
depicting the Creation and Fall of Man, is one of the best example of the early drama;
written in Anglo-Norman French, it may have been performed in England and probably
represents a forerunner of the cycle plays of later centuries.
Pope Clement V sets aside the Thursday after Trinity Sunday
as a holy day celebrating Christ's institution of the Mass
at the Last Supper. Known as Corpus Christi Day, it is to include a procession, out
of which will later grow the processional productions of the cycle plays. Corpus Christi
Day usually falls in June, when the weather is generally conductive to outdoor
Date of the earliest recorded Corpus Christi
processions in England.
By this date, the Corpus Christi cycle plays are being
performed in York and probably elsewhere in England. The plays, produced by the various
craft and merchant guilds of a town under the auspices of the church, depict events of Old
and New Testament history from the Creation through the life of Christ and down to the
Second Coming and the Last Judgment. In some towns, the plays are performed on
wagons that move in procession from place to place; members of the audience could sit in
one location and see all the plays in turn. In other towns, the pageant wagons seem
to be stationary, with the audience moving from one location to the next. Texts of fur
English pageant cycles still exist:
the York cycle, containing forty-eight pageants; the Wakefield cycle, thirty-two pageants;
the so-called N Town cycle (sometimes called the Ludus Conventriae), forty-three pageants;
and the Chester pageants from other cycles.
However, the best known of all the extant pageants are the
highly sophisticated plays from the Wakfield cycle attributed to the anonymous author,
probably a cleric, known as the Wakefield Master. He was probably a highly educated cleric
stationed in the vicinity of Wakefield, perhaps a friar of a nearby priory. The
Second Shepherds' Play is one of these.
Recorded visit of Queen Margaret to Conventry, where she
sees the cycle plays performed in procession. Within a few decades, however, local
productions by guilds appear to be on the decline in most English towns. It is possible
that professional or semiprofessional acting troupes may have begun taking the plays on
tour from town to town instead.
Queen Elizabeth I sees four pageant plays at Coventry;
however, they are apparently performed at fixed locations by this time, with the audience
moving from stage to stage for the different plays.
The cycle plays have been in decline for about a century.
They are now dealt a deathblow by the passage of laws forbidding the representation of
Christ or God on stage as idolatrous. (The reformed English church is behind this
repression.) As of this date, the Wakefield productions are halted. Throughout
England, the master copies of the pageants, mostly in the possession of parish churches,
are destroyed--hence the small number of manuscripts of the plays surviving into the
The Feast of Corpus Christi and Corpus Christi
Corpus Christi is a religious holiday--instigated in
1311--to celebrate the doctrine of Transubstantiation, that is, the symbolism in the Mass
of the Host which is taken in communion as the body of Christ--'corpus Christi'. The
Corpus Christi Feast celebrates the possibility of salvation through the sacrifice of
Christ at the Crucifixion made available to all through communion in the Christian
Time: The Feast is held on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday and can thus
fall on any date between 23 May and 24 June, the period of early summer in
England--long hours of daylight and the festive mood. This period was already strongly
associated with folk celebration and festivals culminating in the pagan Midsummer
Festivals on June 23rd and 24th. The Church was thus able to exploit the positive
holiday mood of the season and to apply it to a religious celebration, expressing the
uplifting, joyous possibility of Salvation after the darker mood of the Easter
celebrations. As dramatic representations had often been associated with the folk
festivals, expectations of some kind of drama were already associated with the
The cycle consisted of a series of plays on Christian history, beginning with
the Creation of the World, moving through episodes from the Old Testament prefiguring
Christ to the Birth, Ministry and Passion of Christ, the Resurrection, Harrowing of
Hell and Day of Judgment.
The pageant wagons were wooden flat-topped carts, usually with four wheels, that
were most probably pushed and pulled from station to station by men rather than horses.
Guild records often refer to payments for beer for the wagon bearers. The playing area consisted
of the floor of the wagon, the ground in front of it and often an upper story constructed
on the wagon itself which was used to represent Heaven and to provide a playing space for
God and Angels. (backdrop and inner space) The wagon is used to represent the ark in the
Towneley-Wakefield Noah Play.
Scenery on the wagons was probably minimal and the playing space was purely
representational. Characters refer to the space as a stable or a throne room to identify
it rather than relying on the scenery and props to produce a realistic image of such
places (except when the scenery/props were essential to the stated action of the play: the
Cross, sword, the cradle
Costumes: elaborate; guild records reveal that money was spent to replace or
repair them. (gloves, hose.....). Costumes were contemporary and distinctions of rank,
class or profession were emonstrated.
The actors were mostly members of the guild which produced the particular play.
A statute of 1476 declares that no actors is allowed to perform in more than two plays on
Corpus Christi Day and a very heavy fine awaited anyone who was found to have done so. Women
did not perform in the plays although they were admitted to the guilds. Their
contributions remained the typically domestic ones of washing the costumes and providing
food, women's parts in the plays being taken by men or youths.
The audience for the Corpus Christi plays was involved in the plays in ways
which have perhaps
never been matched in dramatic performances since. The purpose of the plays was directed
entirely towards the audience and the theme of the drama was intended to affect their
lives and behavior. Though the plays functioned very well as books for the
unlettered they were also watched enthusiastically by the rich, powerful and
The Mystery Cycles had three basic threads of
motivation and function:
1. They were didactic drama intended to express a moral message that would
ultimately save the souls of audience and actors.
2. They were occasions for popular entertainment to provide a pleasant means of
passing a day free from work.
3. They were occasions for the expressionof civic display, craft honor and local
Typology was a means of comprehending the unity and purpose of Christian history
and of showing that all events formed part of God's plan for the universe. Though many of
the events of the Old Testament could be seen to have a cause and logic in their own
historical circumstances, nonetheless they also contained a relevance to the life of
Christ and the establishment of the Christian religion which only becomes apparent long
after the events themselves.
On the typological level, Cain and Abel gains its place in the cycle as it had already
gained its place in exegesis, sermon and the visual arts because Abel can be seen as a
type of Christ. Like Christ, Abel is an innocent victim who is killed by the fallen world,
here represented by Cain, as at the Crucifixion the unbelieving Jews represent the fallen
world. Abel is also killed by his brother and Christ, who had chosen to appear in the
world in the form of a man, born of a woman, is also brother to those who kill Him. The
typological analogy can be taken further in that Abel is the son of Eve, the woman
responsible for the Fall, and Christ was the son of Mary, the woman responsible for the
Salvation of the world. The Eve-Mary parallel was a favorite contrast in medieval theology
which saw Scriptural approval for the balance in the words of the salutation of Mary at
the Annunciation when Gabriel addressed her 'Ave Maria, gratia plena' (Hail Mary, full of
grace). 'Ave' is 'Eva' backwards and thus Mary was considered to be, even on linguistic
grounds, the inversion of Eve, she who would save the world rather than she who had lost
the world. [Abel-Noah-Isaac as a type of Christ] During the medieval period
typological interpretation of the Bible was a conventional organizing principle and was
apparent in many spheres of religious life, not merely at an abstract level of
intellectual sophistry. Sermons frequently presented such interpretations and stained
glass and sculpture in churches grouped such figures or events together.
Narration of performance, or deictic comment, is a frequent
technique of medieval drama and in addition recalls the folk drama. The champions and
challengers of the Hero Combat play of the Mummers' Play tradition almost always describe
their actions in the fight. Action and words are fused to give a more profound and
incontrovertible meaning to the events. Medieval plays do not pretend to offer a slice of
life or to allow the audience a privileged and unacknowledged witnessing of supposedly