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Drama in Secular Hands. The next step took the Miracle Plays out of the hands of the clergy. So popular had they become that even the largest churchyard could not accommodate the crowds; and the productions were now taken
over by the guilds, the trades unions of the Middle Ages. Each of these organizations had a patron saint, and was accustomed to celebrate that saint's day in some public fashion. They made use of a moving stage, or pageant car,
upon which the play was produced in different parts of a city. Under their control were developed "cycles" of plays of which four containing from twenty-five to fifty plays each are extant - those of Chester, Coventry, York, and Towneley. A "cycle" of Miracle Plays was a series depicting selected scenes from Creation to the Day of Judgment.
Non-Scriptural Incidents in Plays. When these dramatic compositions had reached their full development (fourteenth or fifteenth century), they contained many incidents not found in the scriptural narrative or in the accepted lives of the saints. In a play called Noah's Flood, for example, a comic incident is introduced when Noah's wife, refusing to believe in the coming deluge, objects to entering the ark without her "gossips," or boon companions. When efforts at persuasion fail, Noah vigorously applies the lash and drives his partner unwillingly aboard.
In a Play of the Shepherds, before the announcement of Christ's birth, one shepherd misses a sheep; the rest immediately suspect one Mak (who apparently has been in such scrapes before), and follow him to his home. After searching high and low and finding no sheep, the visitors feel rather guilty; and as they are about to depart they decide to make a peace-offering to Mak's baby in the cradle. Examination shows, however, that the supposed baby is nothing else than the missing sheep. The shepherds toss Mak in a blanket till they are exhausted; they then lie down in the field and sleep till they are aroused by the "Gloria in excelsis" of the Christmas angels.
The comic element was further brought out in the antics of Herod, who was allowed to get down from the pageant car and circulate among the crowd playing practical jokes.
When the Miracle Plays
Rise of the "Morality" Play. passed from the control of the church to that of the guilds, the secularizing process already mentioned went further. The plays, instead of containing some incidents not taken from Scripture, became chiefly non-scriptural in character. From this condition it was but a short step to the Morality Play, in which the characters are personified abstractions, representing virtues and vices, and qualities of the human mind. In the Morality of Everyman, for example, some of the characters are Death, Fellowship, Knowledge, Good-Deeds, Discretion. In Hycke-scorner (i.e., rascal, scoffer) we find Imagination, Pity, and Perseverance. Popular characters usually found are Vice and the Devil, who took the place of Herod as chief comic figures. Their part in the plays is alluded to in Shakspere's Twelfth Night, where the clown sings:
"I'll be with you again,
Like to the old Vice,
In his rage and his wrath,
The Interlude." It seems that Miracle Plays and Moralities ran side by side until nearly the end of the sixteenth century. A third form of dramatic entertainment that some think grew out of the Moralities is called the Interlude, from having originally been performed between the courses at a feast or between the acts of a serious and longer play. Whatever its origin, its contribution to the development of drama is important.
Roughly speaking, we may say that, as the Miracle Play furnished the plot-ancestry of the drama, the Morality the character-ancestry, so the Interlude furnished the dialogue
ancestry. In general, the Interlude had little plot, little characterization; the writer's aim was to write as clever dialogue as he could to write talk purely for talk's sake. An outline of one of the best-known interludes, The Four P's, by John Heywood, the most famous name that has come down to us connected with this form, will demonstrate this fact.
A Palmer, a Potycary (= apothecary), and a Pardoner,1 meeting by chance, decide to contest for the distinction of being the biggest liar; and a Pedlar who chances to come along is asked to act as judge. After Palmer and Pardoner have told elaborate stories to show their power of mendacity, the Potycary wins the prize with a narrative of about twenty lines, concluding: "Yet in all places where I have been,
Of all the women that I have seen,
Earliest Real Dramas. The first productions that are properly called dramas date from about 1550 to 1570. The first in time was King John, a sort of chronicle history. The next, Ralph Roister Doister, usually named as the first English comedy, is built on the model of the Latin comedies of Plautus. Although this play is quite un-English and artificial, with type characters and with situations almost transferred from the Latin, it was of much value as a specimen of well-constructed plot.
The first genuine tragedy, written some ten years after the history and comedy just mentioned, was Gorboduc, or
1 A Palmer was a man who had been on some religious pilgrimage, usually to the Holy Land. A Pardoner had a special license from the Pope to enter any parish without permission, to preach, and to dispose of pardons, usually for money. Most pardoners were scoundrels, not a few palmers were, and apothecaries were under suspicion much oftener in the sixteenth century than they are now.
Ferrex and Porrex, based on British legendary history and modeled on the plays of the greatest Latin tragic writer, Seneca. Following this model Shakspere's great tragedies would have been impossible; for as in the Senecan tragedies always, the action takes place off the scene and is reported by messengers. Gorboduc, however, like the Latin
comedy, helped in fixing for later writers the idea of construction.
The last of these four early dramas, Gammer Gurton's Needle (Gammer means "Grandmother ") is a comedy as well constructed as Ralph Roister Doister, and far superior to that in substance. The plot is absurd the hunt for a lost needle, discovered at last by one of the characters in