Medieval Theatre

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Medieval Theatre
Medieval Theatre
 Time frame: 5th c- mid 16th c
 Secular theatre died in Western Europe
with the fall of Rome
 Theatrical performances were banned by
the Roman Catholic Church as barbaric and
 Most Roman theatre had been spectacle
rather than literary drama
Roman Literary Drama
2nd c. bc - 4th c. ce
 Origins in Greek drama and Roman
Tragedy: Seneca
Comedy:Terence and Plautus
Roman Spectacle
Gladiatorial combats
Naval battles in a flooded Coliseum
“Real-life” theatricals
Decadent, violent and immoral
All theatrical events were banned by the
Church when Rome became Christianized
Byzantine Theatre
 The
Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium)
with its capitol at Constantinople (today’s
Istanbul) flourished until 1453.
 The Byzantines kept Greek and Roman
theatrical pieces alive and saved
manuscripts and records of Classical
Drama in the Early Middle Ages
 Small groups of traveling performers –
minstrels, jugglers, acrobats, bards, mimes,
puppeteers -- went from town to town
 They performed in taverns and at festivals for
the commoners and at court for the nobility
 Festivals usually contained both pagan and
Christian elements ( e.g. Halloween and
Christmas celebrations )
Hrotsvit of  aka Roswitha, Hrotswitha,
Gandersheim  Canoness at the convent of
Gandersheim in Germany
 One of the earliest European
 Her 6 plays, written in Latin, are
based on Roman comedies by
Terence, but focus on female
characters in situations that test
their devotion to Christian
Her intention was to revise the
negative portrayals of women
that she found in his comedies.
Liturgical Drama
 The Roman Catholic Church was responsible for
the rebirth of European theatre in the 10th –12th
 All Europe had been converted to Christianity
 The Church needed ways to teach illiterate
parishioners: cathedrals, stained glass windows,
sculpture, painting and drama
Liturgical Drama
 Religious rituals ( the mass, baptism, etc.)
embody theatrical elements.
 Priests began to incorporate such elements
into the gospel lessons of the mass.
 The first short plays were called tropes
 Written in Latin, these tropes were
performed by the clergy during the mass.
Quem Quaeritis Trope
“Whom do you seek?
Easter gospel lesson: the 3 Marys come to the tomb
of Christ seeking to annoint his body and are greeted
by an angel
Text in Latin from the Regularis Concordia of
Ethelwold, Bishop of Winchester, ca. 967-75.
Quem Quaeritis Trope
When the third lesson of the matins is chanted, let four brethren
[monks] dress themselves; of whom let one, wearing an alb, enter
as if to take part in the service; and let him without being
observed approach the place of the sepulcher, where, holding a
palm in his hand, let him sit quietly. Set and costumes
While the third responsory is being sung, let the remaining three
brethren follow, all of them wearing copes and carrying censors
filled with incense. Then slowly, in the manner of seeking
something, let them move toward the place of the sepulcher.
These things are to be performed in imitation of the Angel seated
in the tomb, and of the women coming with spices to anoint the
body of Jesus. When therefore the seated angel shall see the three
women, as if straying about and looking for something, approach
him, let him begin to sing in a dulcet voice of medium pitch:
Stage directions
Whom seek ye in the sepulcher, O followers of Christ?
When he has sung this to the end, let the three respond in unison:
Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, O celestial one.
To whom that one: He is not here; he is risen, just as he foretold.
Go, announce that he is risen from the dead.
At the word of this command, let the three turn to the choir, and say:
Alleluia! The Lord is risen today,
The strong lion, the Christ, the Son of God.
Give thanks to God, eia!¡ ¡hurrah! Dialogue
This said, let the Angel, again seating himself, as if recalling them,
sing the anthem
Venite, et Videte locum-- Music
Come, and see the place where the Lord was lad. Alleluia! Alleluia!
And saying this, let him rise, and let him lift the veil and show them the
place bare of the cross, but only the cloths lying there with which the
cross was wrapped. Seeing this, let the women set down the censers they
carried into the sepulcher, and let them pick up the cloth and spread it out
before the eyes of the clergy; and, as if making known that the Lord had
risen and was not now wrapped in this linen,
Stage directions
let them sing this anthem
Surrexit Dominus de Sepulchro-The Lord is risen from the sepulcher,
Who for us hung on the cross. Music
And let them place the cloth upon the altar. The anthem being ended, let
the Prior, rejoicing with them at the triumph of our king, in that having
conquered death, he arose, begin the hymn:
Te, Deum, laudamus-We Praise thee, O God.
Religious Vernacular Drama
 Vernacular: language spoken by the people
 To reach the commoners, the clergy began to translate the
liturgical plays into vernacular languages
 As the plays became more elaborate, they were moved
from the altar of the church to the church yard.
 As more roles were added, commoners were used as
amateur actors
The 3 M’s of Religious
Vernacular Drama
 Mystery plays: Biblical stories
Miracle plays: saints’ lives
Morality plays: allegories
Mystery Plays
 Mystery: from French mystere -- secret. The term could
refer to Biblical truths or to the secrets of the crafts held by
the guilds who were responsible for producing the plays.
 In England, these Biblical plays were produced in cycles: a
series of plays depicting Biblical history from the Creation
to the Last Judgement. Also known as Cycle Plays.
 The cycles were usually performed at the religious festival
of Corpus Christi -- in the spring or early summer.
Mystery Plays performed by Trade Guilds
 While the plays were written by the clergy and overseen by
the Church, the performances were produced by the guilds
of each town and mostly performed by amateur actors.
 Productions were considered a religious duty, and each
guild invested considerable resources into productions.
 Plays were often assigned to guilds associated with the
subject matter of the play and became a kind of
The Flood: Shipbuilders or Barrelmakers
 The Nativity: Shepherds
 The Magi: Goldsmiths
English Cycle Plays
 Each cathedral town had its own cycle:
 York
 Chester
 Wakefield
 N-town
 The cycles were very popular amongst commoners and
nobility: records show that both Henry VIII and
Elizabeth I attended performances.
 The Protestant Reformation brought a halt to the
presentation of cycle plays as they incorporated Roman
Catholic theology.
Chester Mystery
York Mystery
The Lichfield
B.J. Elvgren. Quilt: depicting scenes from Chester’s 14th century dramas
set against modern city landmarks – Chester Cathedral
Dramatic Techniques
 English mystery plays incorporate a combination
of high seriousness and low comedy:
 High seriousness: the Biblical stories of the Old
Testament and Jesus’ life and mission
 Low comedy: the plays incorporate almost slapstick
sketches of contemporary medieval daily life.
 The plays are set in contemporary settings with
recognizable contemporary characters: the truth of
the Biblical stories is timeless -- the divine truths
revealed in the Bible are still true “today.”
Miracle Plays
 Miracle plays were similar to mystery plays in
dramatic techniques
 Dramatized the lives of Roman Catholic saints
( in order to become a saint, a person had to
perform 3 documented miracles)
 The most popular subjects were the Virgin Mary
(plays usually written in Latin), St. George
(dragon slayer and patron saint of England) and
St. Nicholas ( associated with Christmas
Morality Plays
 Theme: how to live a Christian life and be saved.
 Allegory:
 A story told on two levels: the literal and the the
 Plot: a journey through life or to death
 Emphasis switches from Biblical and saintly
protagonists to the common man: Everyman,
 Focus on free will
 First major use of professional acting companies
Staging the Plays
 Pageant wagons would
 travel a set route and
perform at several locations:
like a parade or
 would be set up around a
town square and the
audience would travel from
one wagon to the next to see
the performances
Mansions or a series of
stages would be set up
around the town square
 Anchored at either end by
Heaven and Hell
 Elaborate special effects
such as floods, flying and
fiery pits were very popular
Dramatic Techniques
 Theatre was performed in found spaces: town
squares, taverns, churches, banquet halls -- no
specifically designated theatres
 Theatre was intimate -- audience interacted with
 Elaborate special effects
 Characterization was often dependent upon
costume and makeup
Interludes and Farces
 Combined elements of allegory, classical myth, and courtly
entertainment: music, dance, spectacle
 Interludes were short plays performed between courses at
court banquets
 Farces were longer plays ridiculing such human follies as
greed and dishonesty
 As the mysteries, miracle and moralities were censored by
Protestant authorities, secular drama became more
important to all levels of society
Folk Plays
 Often performed at such holidays as Christmas, New Year
and May Day
 Incorporated remnants of pagan rituals
 Mummers, Morris Dancers, etc.
 Robin Hood
 Feast of Fools: Fool companies consisted of . young men,
whose chief business was to play gross comedies and to
execute nonsensical and often ribald travesties on the
Mass. These boisterous "Feasts" antedate most of the
mysteries, and may have been reverent in their origin
Types of Medieval Drama
 Performances by itinerant entertainers
 Liturgical tropes: gospel dramatizations
 Mystery plays: Biblical plays
 Miracle plays: saints’ lives
 Morality plays: allegories
 Interludes and farces: secular plays
 Folk plays: pagan and folklore elements