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Medieval Theatre


Medieval Theatre Medieval Theatre Time frame: 5th c- mid 16th c Secular theatre died in Western Europe with the fall of Rome Theatrical performances were banned by ... – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: Medieval Theatre

Medieval Theatre
Medieval Theatre
  • Time frame 5th c- mid 16th c
  • Secular theatre died in Western Europe with the
    fall of Rome
  • Theatrical performances were banned by the Roman
    Catholic Church as barbaric and pagan
  • Most Roman theatre had been spectacle rather
    than literary drama

Roman Literary Drama
  • 2nd c. bc - 4th c. ce
  • Origins in Greek drama and Roman festivals
  • Tragedy Seneca
  • ComedyTerence and Plautus

Roman Spectacle
  • Gladiatorial combats
  • Naval battles in a flooded Coliseum
  • Real-life theatricals
  • Decadent, violent and immoral
  • All theatrical events were banned by the Church
    when Rome became Christianized

Byzantine Theatre
  • The Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) with its
    capitol at Constantinople (todays Istanbul)
    flourished until 1453.
  • The Byzantines kept Greek and Roman theatrical
    pieces alive and saved manuscripts and records of
    Classical playwrights.

Drama in the Early Middle Ages 500-1000
  • Small groups of traveling performers
    minstrels, jugglers, acrobats, bards, mimes,
    puppeteers -- went from town to town
  • They performed in taverns and at festivals for
    the commoners and at court for the nobility
  • Festivals usually contained both pagan and
    Christian elements ( e.g. Halloween and Christmas
    celebrations )

Hrotsvit of Gandersheim 935-1000
  • aka Roswitha, Hrotswitha, Hrotsvita
  • Canoness at the convent of Gandersheim in
  • One of the earliest European playwrights
  • Her 6 plays, written in Latin, are based on
    Roman comedies by Terence, but focus on female
    characters in situations that test their devotion
    to Christian virtues.
  • Her intention was to revise the negative
    portrayals of women that she found in his

Liturgical Drama
  • The Roman Catholic Church was responsible for
    the rebirth of European theatre in the 10th 12th
  • All Europe had been converted to Christianity
  • The Church needed ways to teach illiterate
    parishioners cathedrals, stained glass windows,
    sculpture, painting and drama

Liturgical Drama
  • Religious rituals ( the mass, baptism, etc.)
    embody theatrical elements.
  • Priests began to incorporate such elements into
    the gospel lessons of the mass.
  • The first short plays were called tropes
  • Written in Latin, these tropes were performed by
    the clergy during the mass.

Quem Quaeritis Trope Whom do you seek?
  • Easter gospel lesson the 3 Marys come to the
    tomb of Christ seeking to annoint his body and
    are greeted by an angel
  • Text in Latin from the Regularis Concordia of
    Ethelwold, Bishop of Winchester, ca. 967-75.

Quem Quaeritis Trope
  • When the third lesson of the matins is chanted,
    let four brethren monks dress themselves of
    whom let one, wearing an alb, enter as if to take
    part in the service and let him without being
    observed approach the place of the sepulcher,
    where, holding a palm in his hand, let him sit
    quietly. Set and costumes
  • While the third responsory is being sung, let the
    remaining three brethren follow, all of them
    wearing copes and carrying censors filled with
    incense. Then slowly, in the manner of seeking
    something, let them move toward the place of the
    sepulcher. These things are to be performed in
    imitation of the Angel seated in the tomb, and of
    the women coming with spices to anoint the body
    of Jesus. When therefore the seated angel shall
    see the three women, as if straying about and
    looking for something, approach him, let him
    begin to sing in a dulcet voice of medium pitch
    Stage directions

  • Whom seek ye in the sepulcher, O followers of
    Christ? When he has sung this to the end, let
    the three respond in unison
  • Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, O celestial
  • To whom that one He is not here he is risen,
    just as he foretold. Go, announce that he is
    risen from the dead.
  • At the word of this command, let the three turn
    to the choir, and say
  • Alleluia! The Lord is risen today, The strong
    lion, the Christ, the Son of God. Give thanks to
    God, eia! hurrah! Dialogue
  • This said, let the Angel, again seating himself,
    as if recalling them, sing the anthem
  • Venite, et Videte locum-- Music Come, and see
    the place where the Lord was lad. Alleluia!

And saying this, let him rise, and let him lift
the veil and show them the place bare of the
cross, but only the cloths lying there with which
the cross was wrapped. Seeing this, let the women
set down the censers they carried into the
sepulcher, and let them pick up the cloth and
spread it out before the eyes of the clergy and,
as if making known that the Lord had risen and
was not now wrapped in this linen, Stage
directions let them sing this anthem Surrexit
Dominus de Sepulchro-- The Lord is risen from the
sepulcher, Who for us hung on the cross.
Music And let them place the cloth upon the
altar. The anthem being ended, let the Prior,
rejoicing with them at the triumph of our king,
in that having conquered death, he arose, begin
the hymn Te, Deum, laudamus-- We Praise thee, O
Religious Vernacular Drama
  • Vernacular language spoken by the people
  • To reach the commoners, the clergy began to
    translate the liturgical plays into vernacular
  • As the plays became more elaborate, they were
    moved from the altar of the church to the church
  • As more roles were added, commoners were used as
    amateur actors

The 3 Ms of Religious Vernacular Drama
  • Mystery plays Biblical stories
  • Miracle plays saints lives
  • Morality plays allegories

Mystery Plays
  • Mystery from French mystere -- secret. The
    term could refer to Biblical truths or to the
    secrets of the crafts held by the guilds who were
    responsible for producing the plays.
  • In England, these Biblical plays were produced
    in cycles a series of plays depicting Biblical
    history from the Creation to the Last Judgement.
    Also known as Cycle Plays.
  • The cycles were usually performed at the
    religious festival of Corpus Christi -- in the
    spring or early summer.

Mystery Plays performed by Trade Guilds
  • While the plays were written by the clergy and
    overseen by the Church, the performances were
    produced by the guilds of each town and mostly
    performed by amateur actors.
  • Productions were considered a religious duty,
    and each guild invested considerable resources
    into productions.
  • Plays were often assigned to guilds associated
    with the subject matter of the play and became a
    kind of advertisement
  • The Flood Shipbuilders or Barrelmakers
  • The Nativity Shepherds
  • The Magi Goldsmiths

English Cycle Plays
  • Each cathedral town had its own cycle
  • York
  • Chester
  • Wakefield
  • N-town
  • The cycles were very popular amongst commoners
    and nobility records show that both Henry VIII
    and Elizabeth I attended performances.
  • The Protestant Reformation brought a halt to the
    presentation of cycle plays as they incorporated
    Roman Catholic theology.

Modern Productions
Chester Mystery Plays York Mystery Plays The
Lichfield Mysteries
B.J. Elvgren. Quilt depicting scenes from
Chesters 14th century dramas set against modern
city landmarks Chester Cathedral
Dramatic Techniques
  • English mystery plays incorporate a combination
    of high seriousness and low comedy
  • High seriousness the Biblical stories of the
    Old Testament and Jesus life and mission
  • Low comedy the plays incorporate almost
    slapstick sketches of contemporary medieval daily
  • The plays are set in contemporary settings with
    recognizable contemporary characters the truth
    of the Biblical stories is timeless -- the divine
    truths revealed in the Bible are still true

Miracle Plays
  • Miracle plays were similar to mystery plays in
    dramatic techniques
  • Dramatized the lives of Roman Catholic saints (
    in order to become a saint, a person had to
    perform 3 documented miracles)
  • The most popular subjects were the Virgin Mary
    (plays usually written in Latin), St. George
    (dragon slayer and patron saint of England) and
    St. Nicholas ( associated with Christmas

Morality Plays
  • Theme how to live a Christian life and be
  • Allegory
  • A story told on two levels the literal and the
    the symbolic
  • Plot a journey through life or to death
  • Emphasis switches from Biblical and saintly
    protagonists to the common man Everyman, Mankind
  • Focus on free will
  • First major use of professional acting companies

(No Transcript)
Staging the Plays
  • Pageant wagons would
  • travel a set route and perform at several
    locations like a parade or
  • would be set up around a town square and the
    audience would travel from one wagon to the next
    to see the performances
  • Mansions or a series of stages would be set up
    around the town square
  • Anchored at either end by Heaven and Hell
  • Elaborate special effects such as floods, flying
    and fiery pits were very popular

Dramatic Techniques
  • Theatre was performed in found spaces town
    squares, taverns, churches, banquet halls -- no
    specifically designated theatres
  • Theatre was intimate -- audience interacted with
  • Elaborate special effects
  • Characterization was often dependent upon
    costume and makeup

Interludes and Farces
  • Combined elements of allegory, classical myth,
    and courtly entertainment music, dance,
  • Interludes were short plays performed between
    courses at court banquets
  • Farces were longer plays ridiculing such human
    follies as greed and dishonesty
  • As the mysteries, miracle and moralities were
    censored by Protestant authorities, secular drama
    became more important to all levels of society

Folk Plays
  • Often performed at such holidays as Christmas,
    New Year and May Day
  • Incorporated remnants of pagan rituals
  • Mummers, Morris Dancers, etc.
  • Robin Hood
  • Feast of Fools Fool companies consisted of .
    young men, whose chief business was to play gross
    comedies and to execute nonsensical and often
    ribald travesties on the Mass. These boisterous
    "Feasts" antedate most of the mysteries, and may
    have been reverent in their origin

Types of Medieval Drama
  • Performances by itinerant entertainers
  • Liturgical tropes gospel dramatizations
  • Mystery plays Biblical plays
  • Miracle plays saints lives
  • Morality plays allegories
  • Interludes and farces secular plays
  • Folk plays pagan and folklore elements