European Drama in the Middle Ages
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IV. European Theatre and Drama in the Middle Ages

After the fall of the Roman Empire, small nomadic bands traveled around performing wherever there was an audience. They consisted of storytellers, jesters, jugglers and many other performers. Later, festivals cropped up where entertainers would show their talents. However, the powerful Catholic Church made headway during the Middle Ages to stamp out such performances and convert the entertainers.

Despite its insistence that acting and traveling performances were sinful, the Church was actually instrumental in reviving theatre in the Middle Ages. In one type of church service, called The Hours, Bible stories were dramatized. Music often would be incorporated into the dramatizations. The very first written-down liturgical drama or play is known as the Regularis Concordia by Ethelwold, Bishop of Winchester. The majority of performances were held in monasteries at the beginning of the age. Religious drama was performed exclusively in churches until around 1200 when they were performed outside on occasion.

One of the most popular of the Bible stories that were dramatized was the story of Mary visiting Christ's tomb to discover Christ's resurrection. Jesus' crucifixion, however, was rarely dramatized. Other stories that were often dramatized were Daniel in the lion's den, Lazarus raised from the dead, and the conversion of St. Paul.

In the staging of liturgical drama there were many conventions used in the church. Small scenic structures called mansions were used to illustrate the surroundings of a play. Small plays had only one mansion, longer plays had two or more. Costumes for liturgical drama were church clothing to which real or symbolic accessories were added. Most of the lines of the drama were chanted in Latin rather than spoken.

It was late in Middle Ages when religious plays were given outside the churches. This seemingly small step opened the door for many other more significant changes in midevil drama. With the formation of guilds, the growth of towns, and a decline in feudalism, theatre had great opportunities to flower. Between the years 1200 to 1350 vernacular plays took over the number one spot previously taken by liturgical plays.

Many plays were performed outdoors during the spring and summer months. Cycle plays also became popular. The cycle plays were composed of many short plays or episodes and could or could not be religious. Cycle plays could take a few hours or 25 or more days to perform. The cycle plays varied but usually all dealt with religious figures, biblical writings of the church and sermons of the church. The plays had little sense of chronology, and most of their authors were anonymous.

Around the end of the 14th century the church was controlling less and less of the production of plays, but it always kept an eye on the contents of plays and their presentation. Sometimes towns would put on shows, but often individuals would arrange a production. The church always reserved the right to approve or disapprove a script before it became a production.

Directors emerged to handle the sometimes large numbers of actors, special effects, and money that would be put into productions. Sometimes a committee of overseers was put together to stage productions. These overseers would have duties such as directing the erection of the stage, constructing seating for the audience, casting and rehearsing the actors, working with actors on refining roles, assigning people to take up money at the door, and addressing the audience at the beginning and end of the play.

Actors and the number needed changed for each play. For instance, the cycle plays needed as many as 300 actors. Most actors were found in the local area where directors would hold auditions. Most of the time the actors were boys or men, but in France women were occasionally allowed to act. Often an actor would have multiple roles in a show.

The morality play was a special play much like the cycle plays which centered around men's continuous struggle between good and evil. One of the most influential morality plays was Romance of the Rose. This play had characters such as Slander, Danger, and Fair Welcome. Another interesting morality play which was written in 1425 was the Castle of Perserverance which depicted mankind's progress from birth to death and showed the final judgment.

Links to Chapter 4

Liturgical Drama

Miracle Plays

Bible stories that were dramatized

W.ild W.onderful W.orld of Theatre History

The purpose of this project is to show the highlights of different periods of theatre history, including plays, acting styles, staging convention, costuming, and playwrights. Web links have been provided so that students can find additional information on items of interest.

 

Origins of Theatre ] Theatre and Drama in Ancient Greece ] Roman and Byzantine Theatre and Drama ] European Drama in the Middle Ages ] Italian Theatre and Drama ] English Theatre Middle Ages to 1642 ] Spanish Theatre to 1700 ] Theatre in France--1500-1700 ] Theatre of the Orient ] English Theatre, 1642-1800 ] Italy and France - 18th Century ] Northern and Eastern Europe - 18th Century ] Europe & the U.S. - 19th Century ] Europe and the U.S. - Late 19th Century ] Modern Theatre, 1875-1915 ] Europe/ U.S. Between the Wars ] Europe and the U.S., 1940-68 ] Drama After 1968 ]

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