[PDF Notes] Get complete information on The Drama and the Earlier Renaissance

An articulate story presented in action may be termed as drama. Upon English literature the drama is incomparably the greatest force of the time: it inspired grandest poetry as well as sweetest lyrics; it gave variety, flexibility, and clarity to our prose.

It inspired poetry, because the exigencies of the stage demanded word pictures that should conjure up clearly and vividly the scene suggested; because the exigencies of acting demanded the eloquent exhibition of elemental emotions and swift transition of mood; because the exigencies of individualizing demanded nice distinction of diction Philosophic reflection, poignant introspection, joyousness of heart, agony of spirit; all these things clamored for utterance in the drama. Elizabethan poetry voiced them all. The drama made for intensity of expression; it made also for extensity.

The origins of the drama have always been deeply rooted in the religious instincts of mankind. This is true of the Greek, Indian, Chinese, Egyptian, and of the modern Christian drama. The ancient Greek drama never lost its kinship with the religious ceremonies of the people. Dionysus, God of Life and Death, the God of Wine, and of the Fertile Earth, was the father of Greek Comedy and tragedy. The production of a play was a sacred function that every citizen had a right to attend.

The Roman drama was an offshoot of the Greek, but in the days of the late empire it fell into a degraded and corrupt state. So, when Christianity became the state religion, the theatre was heartily frowned upon. But it was as futile to hope to suppress the drama as to suppress laughter and tears, and before long, the Church was found utilizing the very tendencies she had endeavored to crush, so that it is true to say, the “cradle of the drama” in Europe, and more particularly in England, “rested on the altar.”

The clergy were obliged to find some method of teaching and explaining to the ignorant masses the doctrinal truths of religion. The services of the Church were in Latin, and even if the Bible had been accessible to the laity, few could read it. Hence, in very early times, the Gospel stories were illustrated by a series of living pictures in which the performers acted the story in dumb show.


The term Mystery is applied to the stories taken from the Scripture narrative, while Miracles are plays dealing with incidents in the lives of Saints and Martyrs.

The history of the English drama is rooted in lay as well as in religious history. It may be well at this point to sketch the main lines of development, before dealing in greater detail with the early plays that merged gradually into Elizabethan drama.

Pausing then to consider the lines of development shown by the drama from Plantagenet times down to the era of Elizabeth, we find certain distinctive stages, whilst underlying the entire movement is a twofold appeal.

Miracle Plays:

Drama is obviously inherent in the very ritual of the Church, and the Mass itself was a factor in dramatic development. The seasons of the year suggested the subject matter of Plays: Christmas, Easter, stories derived from the Bible, called Mysteries, stories from the lives of the Saints, called Miracle Plays. Early in the middle Ages the clergy celebrated Holy Days-Christmas, Easter, etc.-by playing scenes from the life of Christ.

The first positive stage in the development of the drama is marked by the performance of these stories in the church.

On the whole, Miracle Plays proved more popular than Mysteries, probably on account of their fresher subject-matter. Each big town had its own cycle of plays- e.g. York, Chester, and Coventry. One of the earliest examples of the miracle play has been preserved in an Orleans M S, and concerns St. Nicholas. It is written in Latin, with old French refrains.

The Office of the Shepherds was performed on Christmas Eve. A cradle was placed on the alter and beside it an image of the Virgin Mary. A number of the clergy represented the shepherds and entered the church carrying crooks and having with them real sheep and dogs. Some of the shepherds pretend to go to sleep, while others watch their flocks.

Suddenly a choir-boy, dressed as an angel, moue it’s the pulpit and, preceded by blasts from the trumpeters, announces the birth of Christ. Immediately a choir of singers in the clerestory sings “Glory to God in the Highest.” The shepherds price up the church to the alter where other priests show them the child and bid them announce his birth to the people. The shepherds adore the Child and his Mother and March through the church singing a hymn of praise.

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