Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Medieval Drama

Another way the medieval church told the Bible stories was drama. Early on in the Christian church, drama had been banned as being corrupt and corrupting. But by the Middle Ages, it snuck back into the church, as priests started using more than one person to read the stories; besides a narrator, there would be one person for each character, who read out the lines (still in Latin). These readings gradually became more elaborate and the priests added action to the stories to help people follow the lines, then combined a series of stories into a longer narrative. Over time, the stories became too large and too long to be performed inside the church itself, and the actors (oops, priests) moved outside to the church porch, then to the churchyard.

Eventually, the plays moved out to the street or town square and laymen took over the acting. Once this happened, the language usually switched to the vernacular (French, English, etc), and costumes, sets, and music were added. As the church relinquished control of the plays, they came under the care of the guild societies and were produced as a cycle on feast or holy days. The cycle of plays, each put on by a different guild, might start with a play about the fall of Lucifer or the creation of the world, then move through the Biblical narrative with plays about Abraham and Isaac, Noah's flood, the nativity, the harrowing of hell, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and end with a play concerning the day of last judgment or doomsday.

Somewhere along the line, humor was added to keep the audience’s attention; the devil was a popular character because he was abused by all on stage, to the great delight of the audience. But there were also additions of everyday humor added to the narratives, as in the "dispute between Noah and his Wife in an English mystery--a very amusing scene, indeed, in which the spouse of the patriarch refuses to enter the ark unless she can bring her friends with her, and in which, when she is taken on board by force, she gives her venerable husband a sound box on the ear.” Gradually humor detached itself from the Bible stories and began to stand on its own, possibly as a “short” before the main narrative or as an interlude between episodes.

By the end of the Middle Ages, drama in France and England looks recognizable (aside from a preoccupation with Bible stores); it had acquired many of the features that were later used by Shakespeare and French playwrights.

No comments: