The classic drama had died before the Middle Ages began, for it had degenerated into mime and farce, and had been replaced by hippodrome spectacles. The plays of Seneca and Hroswitha were literary exercises, which apparently never reached the stage. Two lines of active continuity remained: the mimetic rituals of agricultural festivals, and the farces played by wandering minstrels and clowns in castle hall or village square.12
But in the Middle Ages, as in ancient Greece, the main fountainhead of drama was in religious liturgy. The Mass itself was a dramatic spectacle; the sanctuary was a sacred stage; the celebrants wore symbolic costumes; priest and acolytes engaged in dialogue; and the antiphonal responses of priest and choir, and of choir to choir, suggested precisely that same evolution of drama from dialogue that had generated the sacred Dionysian play. In the ceremonies of certain holydays the dramatic element was explicitly developed. At Christmas, in some religious rites of the eleventh century, men dressed as shepherds entered the church, were greeted with “glad tidings” by a choirboy “angel,” and worshiped a wax or plaster babe in a manger; from an eastern door three “kings” entered, and were guided to the manger by a star pulled along a wire.13 On the 28th of December certain churches represented the “slaughter of the innocents”: boy choristers marched up nave and aisles, fell as if murdered by Herod, rose, and walked up into the sanctuary as a symbol of mounting into heaven.14 On Good Friday many churches removed the crucifix from the altar, and carried it to a receptacle representing the Holy Sepulcher, from which on Easter morning it was solemnly restored to the altar in token of resurrection.15 As far back as 380 the story of Christ’s Passion had been written as a Euripidean drama by Gregory Nazianzen, Patriarch of Constantinople;16 and from that time to this the Passion Play has kept its hold upon Christian peoples. The first such play recorded as having been performed was presented at Siena about 1200; probably there had been many such representations long before.
As the Church used architecture, sculpture, painting, and music to impress upon the faithful the central scenes and ideas of the Christian epic, so she appealed to the imagination, and intensified the piety, of the people by developing in increasing splendor and detail the dramatic implications of the greater feasts. The “tropes,” or amplifying texts added for musical elaboration to the liturgy, were sometimes turned into little plays. So an “Easter trope” in a tenth-century manuscript at St. Gall assigns this dialogue to parts of a choir divided to represent angels and the three Marys:
Angels: Whom seek ye in the tomb, O servants of Christ?
Marys: We seek Christ that was crucified, O heavenly host.
Angels: He is not here; He is risen, as He foretold. Go, and announce that He is risen.
United chorus: Alleluia, the Lord has risen.17
Gradually, from the twelfth century onward, the religious spectacles grew too complex for representation within doors. A platform was set up outside the church, and the ludus or play was performed by actors chosen from the people and trained to memorize an extended script. The oldest extant example of this form is a twelfth-century Representation of Adam, written in French with Latin “rubrics” in red ink as directions to the players.
Adam and Eve, dressed in white tunics, are shown playing in an Eden represented by shrubs and flowers in front of the church. Devils appear, in those red tights that have clung to them ever since in the theater; they run through the audience, twisting their bodies and making horrible grimaces. They offer the forbidden fruit to Adam, who refuses it, then to Eve, who takes it; and Eve persuades Adam. So convicted of a desire for knowledge, Adam and Eve are fettered with irons and are dragged off by the devils to hell—a hole in the ground, from which comes an infernal noise of rejoicing. In a second act Cain prepares to murder Abel. “Abel,” he announces, “you are a dead man.” Abel: “Why am I a dead man?” Cain: “Do you wish to hear why I want to kill you? … I will tell you. Because you ingratiate yourself too much with God.” Cain flings himself upon Abel, and beats him to death. But the author is merciful: “Abel,” reads the rubric, “shall have a saucepan beneath his clothes.”18
Such Biblical ludi were later called “mysteries,” from the Latin ministerium in the sense of an action; this was also the meaning of drama. When the story was post-Biblical it was called a miraculum or miracle play, and usually turned on some marvelous deed of the Virgin or the saints. Hilarius, a pupil of Abélard, composed several such short plays (c. 1125), in a mixture of Latin and French. By the middle of the thirteenth century the vernacular languages were the regular medium of such “miracles”; humor, increasingly broad, played a rising role in them; and their subjects became more and more secular.
Meanwhile the farce had made its own development toward drama. The evolution is exemplified in two short plays that have come down to us from the pen of an Arras hunchback, Adam de la Halle (c. 1260). One of them, Li jus Adam—the Play of Adam—is about the author himself. He had planned to be a priest, but fell in love with sweet Marie. “It was a beautiful and clear summer day, mild and green, with delightful song of birds. In the high woods near the brook … I caught sight of her who is now my wife, and who now seems pale and yellow to me…. My hunger for her is satisfied.” He tells her so with peasant directness, and plans to go to Paris and the university. Into this marital scene, with more rhyme than reason, the author introduces a physician, a madman, a monk begging alms and promising miracles, and a troop of fairies singing songs, like a ballet projected by main force into a modern opera. Adam offends one of the fairies, who lays upon him the curse of never leaving his wife. From such nonsense there is a line of continuous development to Bernard Shaw.
As secularization proceeded, the performances moved from the church grounds to the market place or some other square in the town. There were no theaters. For the few performances to be given—usually on some summer festival—a temporary stage was erected, with benches for the people and gaily decorated booths for nobilities. Surrounding houses might be used as background and “properties.” In religious plays the actors were young clerics; in secular plays they were town “mummers” or wandering jongleurs; women rarely took part. As the plays strayed farther from the church in scene and theme, they tended toward buffoonery and obscenity, and the Church, which had given birth to the serious drama, found herself forced to condemn the village ludi as immoral. So Bishop Grosseteste of Lincoln classed the plays, even the “miracles,” along with drinking bouts and the Feast of Fools, as performances that no Christian should attend; and by such edicts as his (1236–44) the actors who took part were automatically excommunicated. St. Thomas was more lenient, and ruled that the profession of histrio had been ordained for the solace of humanity, and that an actor who practiced it becomingly might, by God’s mercy, escape hell.19