Thursday, August 31, 2017

Medieval Easter Plays

Medieval Easter Plays
By Henry Barrett Hinckley
       The modern drama had its origin in the Easter services of the mediaeval church. Readers of the New Testament are well acquainted with the supreme importance which Saint Paul attached to the Resurrection. To him it was the demonstration, not merely of the immortality of the soul, but of the truth of the entire Christian religion. Furthermore, the narrative element in the gospels, is nowhere so conspicuous and so sustained as in the account of events from the entry into Jerusalem. Even the story of the birth of Jesus, is comparatively meager, and appears moreover in but two of the canonical gospels. Nor has it so fully developed the element of contest so necessary to effective drama. In this respect the persecution of Herod and the flight into Egypt is less adequate, than the repeated efforts of the Jews to entrap Jesus, his arrest, his trial or examination first by the Jews and then by Pilate, the effort of Pilate to save him, his crucifixion, death and burial, the setting of a watch, and the victorious resurrection. To these tradition added a descent into hell. Everywhere we find Christ opposed by all the hostile forces of the world.
       At least as early as the fourth century we find, as the most important form of public worship, the mass which is essentially a commemoration of the last acts of Christ. Later it was believed that these events were actually repeated as often as the mass was celebrated. During the ninth century began a process of liturgical elaboration. The desire for more singing was strongly felt. At first there were added melodies without words, simple vowel sounds being uttered. Then texts were written. And the responsive chanting of the two halves of the quire gave the words of scripture. Already there was something in the nature of an oratorio. In a manuscript belonging to the Abbey of Saint Gall, in Switzerland, we find arranged for chanting the dialogue between the three Maries and the angel, at the tomb:

"Whom seek ye at the sepulcher, O worshippers of Christ?"
"Jesus of Nazareth the crucified, O habitants of heaven."
"He is not here, he has arisen, as he predicted.
Go, proclaim that he has risen from the sepulcher."
" I have risen."

       The dialogue was later accompanied by appropriate action. We find in the church something that served for a sepulcher, in which on Good Friday a cross was solemnly buried, and very early on Easter morning one of the priests would privately remove it. Then at the mass, one personating the angel would remove a cloth to show that the sepulcher was empty, and the other priests with spices, personating the Maries, would approach to look in and see. The dialogue and action both grew. The running of John and Peter to the sepulcher was an early addition. And the supper at Emmaus and the conviction of Thomas appear before the drama has yet ceased to be a part of the liturgy.
       Once the parts in the ritual were taken by individuals, rather than chanted by portions of the choir, we find the costuming and acting more and more developed. The angel bears an ear of grain, as a symbol of the resurrection; the Maries wear veils; the angel has wings. Account books survive in England, France and Germany, from which details may be gathered. But as a church service " the office of the sepulcher," as the ceremony was called, always remained imperfectly dramatic. As late as 1593 when Shakespeare's plays were already seen at the Globe Theater, we find a detailed description of " the office of the sepulcher " as performed at the Abbey Church of Durham (where, to be sure, the people were more conservative than in the south of England), which shows that the play is still a ritual, an act of worship. On the continent the "office of the Sepulcher " was performed in certain churches as late as the eighteenth century.
       Meanwhile similar ceremonies had developed in celebration of the birth of Christ. When these had become too large for representation in the church they were acted outside of it, in the churchyard or in the public squares. The representations then ceased to be ritualistic and became frankly spectacular. The whole Biblical history was enacted at public festivities. But even so the plays still remained an important source of religious instruction, and there survive the words of a mediaeval preacher who refers to them for corroboration of his sermon. The resurrection was now but a detail, and its dramatic possibilities were far less worked out than those of various other parts of the Bible story, for the two most striking figures in these miracle plays or mysteries were Noah's Wife, to whom
Chaucer refers, and King Herod who is mentioned even by Hamlet.

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