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THE MIRACLE PLAYS.
THIRD ERA OF ENGLISH LITERATURE.
FROM THE ACCESSION OF ELIZABETH IN 1558 A.D. TO THE
SHUTTING OF THE THEATRES IN 1648 A.D.
THE PLAYS AND PLAYERS OF OLD ENGLAND.
The old stage.
The Miracle Play or Mystery, acted in churches and convents, either by the clergy themselves or under their immediate direction, was the earliest form of the English drama. The only knowledge of Bible history possessed by the rude and ignorant masses of the people, during the later centuries of the Middle Ages, was got from these plays. The subjects chosen were the most striking stories in the Book—such as the Creation, the Fall, the Deluge, Abraham's Trial, the Crucifixion; and these were dramatized with little regard to the sacred and awful nature of the themes. Profane and terrible, indeed, were these mistaken teachings. Three platforms rose, one above another, forming a triple stage. The topmost, representing the heaven of heavens, was occupied by a group of actors, who personated the Almighty and his angels. Below stood those who played the parts of the redeemed. Upon the lowest, which imitated the world, the deeds of men were represented; and not far from the side of this lowest stage there smoked a fiery gulf, which stood for hell. All this is bad enough, but worse remains behind. The comic element must not be forgotten; for the poor yokels, who gather to be taught and amused, would
yawn and sleep, if there were no broad jokes and boisterous fun to relieve the solemnities of the performance. And of all beings, whom should these priests of the Church choose to be their first comedian, but the Prince of Darkness! He it was who, equipped according to the vulgar notion with hoofs and horns and tail, created the fun by which the congregation was kept awake and in good temper. This trifling with awful subjects shows us how low the religion both of priests and people was in tone and feeling. It took a week to act some of these Mysteries; and there are instances in which the whole circle of religious doctrine and history was traversed in this barbarous fashion. All the countries of western and south-western Europe, as well as Britain, have some remains of the old Mystery literature.
Gradually these Miracle Plays changed into the Moralities, which formed the second stage in the development of the English drama. Here, instead of Scripture characters, we find abstract qualities personified and strutting in varied garments on the stage. Noah and Abraham have given place to Justice, Mercy, Gluttony, and Vice. The amount of morality, learned by the audiences who gathered round such actors, cannot have been great; but we must respect to some extent the intention of the authors who produced these plays, and meant them to do good. Students in the universities, boys at the public schools, town councillors, or brethren of the various trade guilds, acted these Moralities on certain great days and state occasions. An
scaffold knocked up in the market-place, or a platform of planks drawn upon wheels, served as a stage, on which such pieces as Hit the Nail on the Head, or, The Hog hath Lost his Pearl, were acted by these dramatic amateurs. The Devil of the Miracle Plays was still retained, to aid the Vice in doing the comic business of the Moralities. The fun, most relished by such audiences as Old England could then produce, consisted in calling bad names and hitting hard blows. Such contests of tongue and fist went on continually between the Devil and the Vice; but in many cases the former carried off his victim in triumph at the close of the performance.
EARLIEST ENGLISH COMEDY AND TRAGEDY.
Thus the two branches of our drama sprang from one and the same root. A Morality, broken in two, supplies the elements of both. Its serious portions form the groundwork of English tragedy ; its lighter scenes, of English comedy. But, between the Moralities and the appearance of our earliest Comedy, came the Interludes, which strongly resembled our modern Farce. Of these John Heywood was the most noted writer. He lived in the reign of Henry VIII., whose idle hours he often amused with his music and his wit. The controversial spirit of the Reformation age deeply penetrated the nascent drama. Moralities and Interludes abound, which are just so many rockets, charged with jest and sneer and railing, that the opposing sides launched fiercely at each other in the heat of the religious war. An idea of the Interludes may be formed from a single speci
The four Ps describes in doggerel verse a contest carried on by a Pedlar, a Palmer, a Pardoner, and a ’Poticary, in which each character tries to tell the greatest lie. On they go, heaping up the most outrageous falsehoods they can frame, until the chance hit of the Pardoner, who says that he never saw a woman out of temper, strikes the others dumb. This tremendous bouncer nobody can beat, so the Pardoner wins the prize.
The Greek and Latin drama, with the refined productions of Italy and Spain, had much to do with the moulding of our English plays into a perfect shape.
Ralph Royster Doyster, a dramatic picture of London life, written before 1551, by Nicholas Udall, is—so far as we know-the first English comedy. And the old British story of Ferrex and Porrex, dramatized by Sackville and Norton, which was acted in 1561 by the students of the Inner Temple, is considered the earliest tragedy in the language. The introduction of human characters, instead of the walking allegories that trod the Moral stage, is the grand distinctive feature which marks the rise of the true English drama. There is something in the very wordsabstraction and allegory—to make men yawn; and few were deeply moved at the sufferings or triumphs of Justice and Peace. But when real life was put upon the stage, —when crimes were per
FIRST ENGLISH THEATRES.
petrated, marriages managed, sufferings endured, difficulties overcome by actors who bore the names and did the deeds of human flesh and blood,-a new interest was given to our plays, and the audience wept and laughed not at the performance, but with the performers.
By a sudden and enormous stride, the English drama reached the magnificent creations of Shakspere in a few years after the production of its earliest perfect specimens. Not half a century after the court of Henry VIII. had been amused with the grotesque drolleries of John Heywood, Elizabeth and her maids of honour assembled to laugh at the fortunes and misfortunes of old Jack Falstaff, and to tremble in the shadow of the finest tragedies the English stage has ever seen.
We must not suppose, however, that the Theatres kept pace the wonderful improvement of the Drama. To form a true idea of the stage on which the Elizabethan plays were acted, we must carry our recollection back to those yellow-painted wooden caravans, that travel round the country fairs, and supply the delighted rustics, in exchange for their pennies, with a tragedy full of ghosts and murder, and thrilling with single combats between valiant warriors in tin armour, who fight with broadswords made of old iron hoops. The travelling stage was often set up in the court-yard of an inn. A wooden erection—little better than what we call a shed—there sheltered the company and their audience. When in 1576 the first licensed theatre was opened at Blackfriars in London, it was merely a round wooden wall or building, enclosing a space open to the sky. The stage, indeed, was covered with a roof of thatch; but upon the greater part of the house—as in modern days we call the spectators—the sun shone and the rain fell without let or hindrance.
The rude attempts at scenery in such theatres as the Rose and the Globe, which were among the leading London houses, make us smile, who have witnessed the gorgeous scenic triumphs of Kean and his brother managers. Some faded tapestry, or poorly daubed canvas hung round the timbers of the stage, at the back of which ran a gallery-eight or ten feet high-to hold those actors who
SCENERY IN SHAKSPERE'S DAY.
might be supposed to speak from castle walls, windows, high rocks, or other lofty places. A change of scene was denoted by hanging out in view of the spectators a placard with the name of the place—Padua, Athens, or Paris-painted on it. A further stretch of imagination was required from the assembly, when the removal of a dingy throne, and the setting down of a rough table with drinking vessels, were supposed to turn a palace into a tavern; or the exchange of a pasteboard rock for a thorn branch was expected to delude all into the belief that they saw no longer a pebbly shore, but a leafy forest. An exquisitely comical illustration of this scenic poverty may be found in “Midsummer Night's Dream,” where the Athenian tradesmen rehearse a play, and act it before Duke Theseus. Funny as it seems, the picture was drawn from the realities of the author's day. The play of “Pyramus and Thisbe” requires the introduction of a wall upon the stage, that the lovers may whisper their vows through a chink in its masonry. So Snout the tinker is daubed with plaster, and coming on the stage, announces to the audience that he is to be considered the Wall; and for a chink, he forms a circle with thumb and fingers, through which the appointment to meet at Ninny's tomb is made by the ardent lovers. Then in comes one with a lantern, a thorn bush, and a dog, who calls himself the Man in the moon, and proceeds to light the midnight scene. An unbelieving critic, who sits among the onlookers, suggests that the man, the bush, and the dog should get into the lantern, since the appearance of the Man in the moon, carrying the moon in which he lived, was likely to cause some confusion of ideas. The notion of Wall and Moonshine announcing their respective characters to the audience, is, no doubt, a bit of Shakspere's native humour; but every day that our great dramatist acted in the Globe he saw as sorry makeshifts for scenery as the lime-daubed tinker who acted Wall, and the dim tallow candle, in sore need of snuffing, that sputtered in the lantern of Moonshine.
At one o'clock-on Sundays especially, but also on other days -the play-house flag was hoisted on the roof, announcing that the performance was going to begin; and there it fluttered till the