The emergence of drama as a literary art – Mindy Ploeckelmann
Translator: Andrea McDonough
Reviewer: Jessica Ruby In the 11th and 12th centuries, most English commoners were illiterate. Since they had no way to learn the Bible, the clergy came up with an inventive solution: they’d create plays out of certain Bible stories so even people who couldn’t read could learn them. These were called mystery plays because they revealed the mystery of God’s word. At about the same time, the clergy also developed plays about the saints of the church, called miracle plays. In the beginning, the clergy members acted out Bible stories on the steps outside the cathedral. The audience reacted so well that soon they needed to move out to the street around the town square. By building moving carts to put on each play and by lining up one after the other, they could put on cycles of stories, which would take the viewer from Genesis to Revelation. These movable carts, called pageants, looked like huge boxes on wheels. Each was two stories tall. The bottom story was curtained off and was used for costumes, props, and dressing. The top platform was the stage for the performance. Spectators assembled in various corners of the town, and the pageant would move around in the cycle until the villagers had seen the entire series. Soon, the plays required more actors than the clergy could supply. So, by the 13th century, different guilds were asked to be responsible for acting out different parts of the cycle. The assignments were meant to reflect the guilds’ professions. For example, the carpenter’s guild might put on the story of Noah’s Ark, and the baker’s guild might put on The Last Supper. Can you imagine what might happen to the story if the butcher’s guild put on The Crucifixion of Christ? Yes, without the clergy, the plays soon started changing from their true Bible stories. By the end of the 14th century, a new form of drama, called the morality play, had evolved. Faith, truth, charity, and good deeds all became characters on the stage. And, at the same time, the opposite virtues of falsehood, covetousness, worldly flesh, and the devil became the antagonists. The morality plays were allegorical stories in which these characters battled for the control of the soul. Audiences loved the immoral characters, and spectators were encouraged to interact with the actors. Throwing rotten food and even getting into scuffles with other spectators became very common. The character of the devil often would roam through the crowds and pull unsuspecting watchers into a hell that was depicted as a dragon’s mouth. The virtuous Biblical stories had morphed into crude and sometimes comic stories. The clergy intended to teach against immorality. How ironic, then, that the morality plays actually encouraged vices as more popular than virtues. By the mid-15th century, the church started to outlaw these performances. Town charters required that any theater must be built outside the city wall. One of the first theaters was built like a larger version of a pageant, with tiers of gallery seating encircling a grassy area in front of the stage. Sound familiar? A young William Shakespeare developed his craft here at the theater that was eventually renamed The Globe. The medieval morality play had led to Renaissance playwrights who were inspired by the inner struggles and the conscience of man. And that, in essence, is how drama emerged as a literary art form.