Medieval Theatre

Our second unit examines the growth of a new type of theatre in Europe during the Middle Ages. The Roman empire in the west had collapsed in the fifth century AD, but the spiritual life of the civilized west continued to be governed by bishop of Rome and the Roman Catholic Church. The displacement in Europe of a bewildering variety of gods and goddesses – Greek, Roman, Celtic, Norse and Teutonic – in favor of an undivided Trinity of God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost had become an accepted political as well as religious fact of life by the tenth century AD, and contributed significantly to the development of theatre in the west for the next five centuries. Though initially the church banned theatrical activity as immoral, in response to the professional theatre in ancient Rome, eventually dramatic presentations once again emerged as a part of religious ritual. While all of Christian Europe shared a common religion, 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. At first only the priests took part in acting out the events and the short plays took place in the Church proper. As in ancient Greece, though, this new form of theatre eventually moved away from worship service and the plays became civic events, supported in large part by the growth of towns, industry and trade. As the performances grew more elaborate and space became an important item the plays were pushed out into the courtyards of the churches and laymen began to take part in the acting. As the festivals became more civic than religious events, there arose a feeling of need to present the whole history of man from his creation to the day of final judgment, not just isolated incidents or groups of related incidents at Christmas and Easter. In England, the various incidents of this long story were divided among the trade guilds of a district, the plays were 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. Four of the most important cycles were those of Chester, York, Coventry, and Wakefield. At about the same time, both in England and on the continent, a new type of allegorical drama arose, in which Virtues and Vices were portrayed by actors, to afford the audience a moral lesson. These dramas came to be known as Morality plays of which the most famous are the English Castle of Perseverance and Everyman, which we’ll read as part of our studies in this unit. The morality plays were usually presented by new traveling troupes of actors, and their appearance helped set the stage for the development of professional theatre in the Renaissance.

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