Medieval theatre refers to the theatre of Europe between the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning Medival Theatre of the Renaissance. The term refers to a variety of genres because the time period covers approximately a thousand years Medeival Theatre of the art Medeval Theatre form and an entire continent. Most medieval theatre is not well documented due to a lack of surviving Mediveal Theatre records and texts, a low literacy rate of the general population, and the opposition of the Medieal Theatre clergy to some types of performance.
At the beginning of the Middle Meideval Theatre Ages, the Roman Catholic Church banned theatrical performances, mostly as an attempt to curb the excesses of the Roman theatre. The Roman theatre was on a decline anyway because the economic and political conditions could not support the vast entertainment industry that had grown up in the empire and included circuses, horse races, gladiatorial combat, and the Roman comedies that are still sometimes performed today.
Very little is known about secular drama during the early medieval time. Some performances that may not be a full-fledged theatre may have been carryovers from the original pagan cultures certainly existed (as is known from records written by the clergy disapproving of such festivals). Also it is known that mimes, minstrels, bards, storytellers, and jugglers travelled in search of new audiences and financial support. Not much is known about these performers' repertoire and no written texts survive.
- 1 Genres
- 2 Decline and Change
- 3 Texts and Authors
- 4 See also
- 5 Sources
In the tenth century the liturgical drama was born in the Quem Quaeritis? This Latin kernal is based on the story from the New Testament in which Mary Magdalene and her companions discover Christ's empty tomb was performed in the church or cathedral at Easter time. Eventually liturgical drama would encompass many stories from many parts of the Bible and be performed at diverse times of the year, according to local custom.
By about 1250, however, the plays would move outdoors into the churchyard and into open fields, town squares, or the city streets. As geographically further from the church, the clergy had less control over the content. The plays were also presented in the local vernacular languages, instead of in Latin, as was the mass. This allowed the message of the Bible to be more accessible to the illiterate audience--who was also unable to speak Latin--but also accelerated the gain of control over religious drama that the laymen would exercise.
Stage drawing from The Castle of Perseverance,
a 15th century vernacular morality play.
These new plays in the vernacular based on Bible stories are called mystery plays or miracle plays. In England they would sometimes be performed in day-long festivals (often during Corpus Christi) in groups of dozens of plays that traveled through town on wagons. Mystery plays were also written about the lives and miracles of saints, especially the Virgin Mary. Mystery plays would be performed into the Renaissance through the Protestant Reformation in northern Europe or the seventeenth century in southern and rural Europe.
By the late medieval period several genres had developed in theatre. Morality plays, such as Everyman, personified Christian virtues and vices as they battled with one another for control of a mortal's soul. These plays were explicitly designed to teach a moral and improve the behavior of their audience.
Secular plays in this period existed, although documentation is not as extensive. Farces were popular, and the earliest known vernacular farce was the French Le garcon et l'aveugle ("The Boy and the Blind Man"), dating from the thirteenth century. The play was probably performed by a professional travelling actor and his young apprentice. In England Robin Hood plays were popular, and all over Europe interludes with simple plotlines were performed at various social functions. Secular dramas were usually performed in winter indoors, and were often associated with schools, universities, and nobility, who would have the resources, time, and space to perform organized plays.
However, it is not wise to make a distinction between religious and secular theatre during the medieval era. The Roman Catholic church dominated life for almost every citizen of Europe, and the boundary between secular and sacred was blurred daily. In mystery plays, for example, nonreligious plotlines and noncanonical characters were frequently interwoven with the religious story being told. An especially notable example of this is the The Second Shepherds' Play, in which the majority of the story focuses on a comic character trying to hide a sheep he has stolen from the other shepherds on the night of the birth of Christ.
Decline and Change
Like any long-lasting art form, the medieval theatre could not continue forever. Its death (or evolution, depending on the viewpoint) was due mostly to changing political and economic factors. First, the Protestant Reformation targeted the theatre and gays, especially in England, in an effort to stamp out allegiance to Rome. In Wakefield, for example, the local mystery cycle text shows signs of Protestant editing, with references to the pope crossed out and two plays completely eliminated because they were too Catholic. However, it was not just the Protestants who attacked the theatre of the time. The Council of Trent banned religious plays in an attempt to reign in the extrabiblical material that the Protestants frequently lampooned.
A revival of interest in ancient Roman and Greek culture changed the tastes of the learned classes in the performing arts. Greek and Roman plays were performed and new plays were written that were heavily influenced by the classical style. This led to the creation of Commedia dell'arte and other forms of Renaissance theatre.
A change of patronage also caused drastic changes to the theatre. In England the monarch and nobility started to support professional theatre troupes (including Shakespeare's Lord Chamberlain's Men and King's Men), which catered to their upper class patron's tastes. These patrons desired to be entertained--not preached to--and as time passed the plays became more secular and refined. In time these same tastes would filter down to the lower classes.
Finally, the construction of permanent theaters, such as the Blackfriars Theatre signalled a major turning point from reliance on church facilities, touring groups, and inns as stages. Instead permanent theaters allowed for more sophisticated staging and storytelling. Moreover, professional troupes that owned their own theatre had more resources with which to prepare their productions, which changed the theatre from a mostly amateur or travelling art form, to a professional one with different practices and standards.
Texts and Authors
Many texts survive from era. Some of the most important ones are:
- Quem Quaeritis? - the piece of the liturgical Easter mass that eventually grew into a huge body of religious drama
- "The Second Shepherds' Play" from the Wakefield (also called Towneley) Cycle
- The York cycle - the longest mystery cycle in existence
- Everyman - this Flemish play is the most famous morality play
- The Castle of Perseverance - from 1440, it's the earliest known full-length vernacular play in existence. It's especially important because a stage drawing is included, which may suggest theatre in the round.
Most authors of medieval plays are anonymous. Important ones are:
- Hrosvitha - the first female playwright, a nun from Gandersheim
- The Wakefield Master - contributor to some of the plays of the Wakefield Cycle, including "The Second Shepherds' Play." His real name is not known.
- History of theatre
- Oberammergau Passion Play
Cohen, Robert. (2000). Theatre: Brife Edition. Mayfield Publishing Company, p. 201-203. Walsh, Martin. (2002). "Drama." Medieval Folklore: A Guide to Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Custons. Oxford University Press, p. 103-107.
Categories: Theatre | Medieval literature | Drama | Theatrical genres | History of theatre