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From Essay Compendium (Page 225)


    Like the great drama of the Greeks, English drama owed its origin to religious ritual.  It began in a simple attempt to render clearly the central doctrine of the Church.  These plays were usually performed in the church by clergymen during Easter time.  Gradually these included stories from the Old and New Testaments and the lives of saints; as they became more elaborate and dramatic, the plays moved from the interior of the church to the porch, to the churchyard, and later to meadows, streets and other public places.  Plays, by then, had of course become secular, and the clergy began to view them with suspicion.  But the revival of the Corpus Christ festival in 1311 provided a public holiday dedicated to dramatic representations of Biblical history.  The growing importance of fairs, and the increase in wealth of the trading classes made miracle plays a regular feature of the 15th century, retaining their religious basis but developing dramatically at the same time.

    The miracle play proper, dealing with the lives of the saints, has been traced back to early 12th century, when a play of St. Katherine was performed at Dunstable.  A Norman clerk called Hilarius composed several miracles of which St. Nicholas and Raising of Lazarus are extant.  The oldest English fragment, Harrowing of Hell, dates back to the 13th century.

    The mystery plays dealing with the Scripture history were developed from the Easter and Christmas plays and were especially associated with the Corpus Christi festival.  They were performed in a cycle of pageants, each representing a single episode.  These plays were enacted by several guilds at especially the towns of York, Wakefield, Chester, Norwich and Coventry.  The stage was a crude contrivance of two stories – the lower representing hell and the upper signifying heaven.

    The mystery plays had little literary merit.  Though the dialogue was sometimes lively and witty, the verse was crude and limping.  These plays had no freedom of plot and the least suspicion of heresy could be fatal.

    Several complete cycles of mysteries have been preserved.  The York cycle consists of 48 plays.  The Towneley Mysteries, consisting of 30 plays, were performed at Wakefield.  They treat their themes in a freer, less religious spirit, and hence, are more dramatic.  They are less didactic and the human interest is heightened.  The Chester group of 24 plays is more uneven and those of Coventry, 42 in number, have a serious, moralizing allegorical tone.  Nothing is known of the authors of any of these plays.

    In the group of 4 plays known as the Digby Mysteries (c. 1500), an unmistakable advance in the direction or regular drama is made, especially in Mary Magdalene.  But this realistic line of growth was interrupted by the morality play.  The morality play retained the crude versification of the mystery, making use of alliteration as well as rhyme.  It was, like the mystery, serious in intention and dealt with the basic problem of good and evil.  They were written in the then fashionable allegorical manner – the characters were abstractions of virtues and vices.  For the first time they employed a definite plot which was a great advance in dramatic development.  The earliest mention of a morality is that of the Play of the Paternoster (not extant) and the oldest extant play is The Castle of Perseverance.  Even more abstract are such plays like Mind, Wit and Understanding, The Four Elements, and Wit and Science.  The best of the older moralities is the impressive Everyman, in which the powerful allegory is reinforced by considerable knowledge of human nature and well-handled dialogue.

    Under Henry VIII, a patron of the drama, the morality grew into the interlude, a short dramatic piece filling the intervals of long spectacular ones.  The interlude lost its didactic purpose and employed humour freely, as in the interludes of John Heywood like the Four PP (Four Ps).  The interludes were the harbingers of regular drama.

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