Origin Growth and Development of The English Drama

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      The origins of the drama, it has been said, "have always been deeply rooted in the religious instinct of mankind". This is true of the drama of all countries and English drama was no exception. The "cradle of the drama rested here too on the altar". It was distinctly a creation of the church and was born of the service in the church. The clergy felt it necessary to educate the ignorant common masses on the truths of religion and on the salient facts of the life of Jesus Christ and of the facts and the personalities in the Bible. The services of the church were in Latin and few people could understand them. The Bible was accessible to the few. Hence in very early times, as early as the tenth century, we hear of the Gospel stories being illustrated by a series of living pictures in which the performers acted the story in dumb shows at first and the next age spoke as well as acted the parts. Special plays were written by the clergy for special festivals, for instance, Christmas or Easter. The actors were mostly the clergy and the performance was given in the interior of the church. This was the first stage in the history of drama.

The last of the predecessors of the regular drama in England was the Interlude, which flourished about the middle of the sixteenth century. As the name implies it was a short play, designed to entertain a company of guests during or after a banquet. This was the first purely secular drama.

      As time progressed, the crowds became more interested and thronged in increasing numbers in those shows. As a result, the locality of the performance was changed from the interior of the church to the open spaces round it or the market place. In place of French, vernacular English was used as the language. "This change of locality added to the introduction of the vernacular marked the clear breakaway of the primitive drama (the Liturgical drama) from that of which it originally formed a part the service of the Mass". A clear advance to the Modern English Drama was thus made.

      At the beginning of the Twentieth Century Poetic Drama the trade guilds were entrusted with the performances of these plays and each guild represents plays according to its craft; for instance the Fishermen present the Flood (Deluge) or the Bakers the Last Supper and so on. The work was taken seriously by the guilds and unpunctuality was punished with heavy fines. The plays were performed on a stage or platform divided into two stories - the upper, standing for the stage proper and lower, serving as the scene of hell or as the tiring room for the actors. Some platforms were fixed in a particular place and the audience went from one place to another to see the series of the plays. Sometimes the platform was mounted on wheels and was moveable and the spectators stayed in one spot or station, while the moving stages passed before them in succession, gave the performance and passed on to another to repeat the performance. There were generally eight to twelve such stations, so that the whole performance of a cycle of plays took several days. Performance began at 4.30 A.M. and went on until the daylight failed. The passion for the theatre was widespread.

      These early plays based on Biblical stories are known as Mysteries or Miracles. It has been the fashion to call the Biblical plays Mysteries and those dealing with the Saints lives Miracles but there is no evidence to justify this distinction in England, though seems to have been used in France (Albert). All out-of-door liturgical dramas in England were known as Miracles. Four cycles or sets of these plays have been preserved those of Chester, Conventry, York and Towneley. The purpose of these plays was to make the common people familiar with the sacred stories. As such there was little scope for freedom of invention. But medieval religion was not solemn and though it would not tamper with the Biblical story, it tolerated jokes or comic elements in the Biblical scenes, which were the inventions of the play wrights.

      Thus in the play Noah Dame Noah, Noah's scolding wife was at first unwilling to enter the ark, leaving her gossip and had to be beaten soundly by Noah to lift to the ark, where she cracked Noah over the head. In the Second Shepherd's Play, there is a cunning scamp, named Mak who steals a sheep and conceals it in the bed of his wife and passes it off as a baby in the cradle. These comic episodes seem incongruous today, but they did not jar on the simple faith of the medieval people. This blending of the comic and tragic, the light and serious in a play is a great legacy of the Mysteries to the Elizabethan drama. Even Shakespeare himself adopted it for dramatic effect. The plays 'combined instruction with amusement' and spread throughout the land a love for drama,

      The next stage in the evolution of the drama was the Morality, which flourished in the fifteenth century. The Morality did not supersede the Mystery. The two kinds existed side by side and in fact, Miracles outlived the Moralities by many years. The Morality supplemented the Miracle. The Miracles "familiarised the people with the story of redemption but it did not instruct them in the means of redemption". This later, namely the doctrinal or moral side of Christianity was taken up by the Moralities. They may be called dramatized allegories"; they replaced the Biblical personages of the Miracle play with personified abstractions. Vices and Virtues etc., are presented as allegorical creations, often of much liveliness. There is thus an attempt, however crude, at characterization and psychological analysis of the human qualities. Vice is a favorite comic character in these plays and the comedy provided enough mirth to the audience.

      There was a great scope for invention of situations there was also an attempt at plot construction and securing a unity of story. Thus though the religious spirit of the Miracle is still there, a gain in intellectuality is a clear mark of these plays. The Moralities thus mark a clear and considerable advance in the progress towards modern drama, are a step ahead of the Miracles in Merit. The best example of a Morality play, indeed, the masterpiece in its kind is Everyman. Like a Greek drama, it starts upon a crisis; God sends Death to summon Everyman (who represents the Soul). He prays for a respite which Death refuses. Everyman appeals to Friends, Kinsmen, Strength, Beauty, etc. who desert him in his supreme moment. It is only Good Deeds who accompany him in his last journey. The dialogue of the play has a life and go, Its pathos is impressive. It has been recently revived in Great Britain and the United States, a fact which bespeaks its beauty and vitality. In England in the age of religious controversy, the Morality plays were made the instruments of propaganda and many plays were written for that purpose

      The last of the predecessors of the regular drama in England was the Interlude, which flourished about the middle of the sixteenth century. As the name implies it was a short play, designed to entertain a company of guests during or after a banquet. This was the first purely secular drama.

      "It had several distinguishing points: it was a short play that introduced real characters, usually of humble rank, such as citizens and friars; there was complete absence of allegorical figures; there was much broad farcical humor, often coarse and there were set scenes, a new feature in the English drama. It may be observed that the Interlude was a great advance upon the Morality play in many respects John Heywood, who lived in the latter half of the sixteenth century, was the most gifted writer of the Interlude." (Albert). His The Four P's i.e. Palmer, Pardoner, Pothycary and the Pedlar, is the best known of all Interludes. It is written in doggerel verse. It describes a lying-match among these four to find out which of them can tell the greatest lie. The Palmer wins the palm in the race for lying. The underlying satire is thus expressed with a great pleasantry.

      The Beginning of the English Drama-Miracle Plays. The history of the English drama takes us back to the century succeeding the coming of the Normans the earliest mention of any dramatic representation in this country referring to a performance of a Latin play in honor of St. Katherine, at Dunstable about 1110. By the time of the Norman Conquest a form of religious drama, which in the first instance had evolved out of the rich symbolic liturgy of the Church, had already established itself in France, and as a matter of course it soon found its way into England. Its purpose was directly didactic; that is, it was the work of ecclesiastical authors, who used it as a means for instructing the unlettered masses in the truths of their religion. To begin with, the Church had this drama under complete control; performances were given in the sacred buildings themselves; the priests were the actors; and the language employed was the Latin of the service. But as the mystery or miracle play, as it was called, increased in popularity, and on great occasions, larger and larger crowds thronged about the church,
it became necessary to remove the stage from the interior of the building to the porch. Later, it was taken from the porch into the churchyard, and finally from the precincts of the church altogether to the village green or the city street. Laymen at the same time began to take part in the performances, and presently they superseded the clerical actors entirely, while the vernacular tongue—first French, then English— was substituted for the original Latin. But the religious drama in England did not reach its height till the fourteenth century, from which time onward at the festival of Corpus Christi, in early summer, miracle plays were represented in nearly all our large towns in great connected sequences or cycles. Arranged to exhibit the whole history of the fall of man and his redemption, these Corpus Christi plays, or ‘collective mysteries’, as they are sometimes called, were apportioned among the Trading Guilds of the different towns, each one of which took charge of its own particular play, and their performance occupied several days. Four of these cycles have come down to us complete: the Chester cycle of 25 plays; the Coventry, of 42; the Wakefield, of 31; and the York, of 48. Each of these begins with the creation of the world and the fall of man, and, after dealing with such prophetic themes as the Flood, the Sacrifice of Isaac, and the Exodus from Egypt, goes on to elaborate the last scenes in the life of Christ, the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension, and closes with the Last Judgment. In literary quality, they are of course crude, but here and there they touch the note of pathos, as in the story of Abraham and Isaac, and the note of tragedy, as in the scene of the Crucifixion; while the occasional introduction of a comic element, as notably in the Shepherd plays of the Wakefield series, which are, in fact, rough country farces, only slightly connected with their context, shows even more clearly the growth of the dramatic sense. These religious performances lasted well on into the sixteenth century, and there is good reason to think that Shakespeare must have witnessed once at least those which, during his boyhood, were still being given annually at Coventry. Hamlet’s advice to the players not to ‘out-herod Herod’ recalls the ranting braggart Herod of the old miracle plays.

      The Beginning’s of Regular Comedy and Tragedy. These early experiments in playwriting are of great importance historically, because they provided a kind of ‘Dame School’ for English dramatic genius, and did much to prepare the way for the regular drama. It was, however, under the direct influence of the revival of learning that English comedy and tragedy alike passed out of these preliminary phases of their development into the forms of art. Filled with enthusiasm for everything belonging to pagan antiquity, men now went back to the classics for inspiration and example in the drama as in all other fields of literary enterprise, though it as the works of the Latin, not of the Greek playwrights, that they took as their models. At first, the comedies of Plautus and Terence, and the tragedies of Seneca were themselves acted at the universities, and on special occasions elsewhere, before audiences of scholars. Then came Latin imitations, and in due course, these were followed by attempts to fashion English plays more or less precisely upon the patterns of the originals. In such attempts, English writers learned many valuable lessons in the principles of dramatic construction and technique. Our first real comedy, Roister Doister, was written about 1550 by NICHOLAS UDALL, headmaster of Eton, for performance by his schoolboys in place of the regular Latin play. It is composed in riming couplets, divided into acts and scenes in the Latin style, and deals in an entertaining way with the wooing of Dame Custance by the vainglorious hero, his various misadventures, and the pranks of Matthew Merrygreek the jester. Though greatly indebted to Plautus and Terence, it is everywhere reminiscent of the older humours of the miracle plays and the moralities. Our first real tragedy, on the other hand, is an almost pedantic effort to reproduce the forms and spirit of Senecan tragedy. It is entitled Gorboduc (or later, Ferrex and Porrex); is based upon an episode in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history; and was written by THOMAS SACKVILLE, LORD BUCKHURST (1536- 1608) and THOMAS NORTON (1532-1584) for representation before the members of the Inner Temple at their Christmas festivities of 1561. It is an interesting point that this first English tragedy was also the first of our plays to use blank verse, which, it will be remembered, had been introduced into English poetry only a few years before.

      By the middle of the sixteenth century, the Renaissance influence from Italy came to give a new and vigorous impetus to the drama in England. The renewed study of the classical dramas, especially of Seneca and Plautus gave the English scholars models on which the English drama could be built up. The drama was thus born anew under the germinating influence of the Renaissance. English genius vindicated its claim to independent life and power The classical drama gave the English drama its five acts, its set scenes, its division into comedies and tragedies and many other features, Regular comedy, tragedy and history plays thus appeared in succession and the modern English drama was almost established.

      The first extant English comedy of the classical school, Ralph Roister Doister was written in 1541 by Nicholas Udail. Another comedy, Gammer Gurton's Neetile appeared in 1575. Its authorship is uncertain. The plot is slight but the play gives interesting glimpses of contemporary life, The dialogue has go and originality. In tragedy, the alien force was more aggressive. The influence of Seneca was conspicuous and powerful. The first English tragedy, Gorboduc by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville, was acted before Queen Elizabeth in 1562. It was the first drama written in blank verse. Gascoigne's Jocasta, an adaptation of Euripides Phenissoe was acted in 1566. Many other blank verse tragedies followed and they preserved the peculiarly English feature in the exhibition of the comic vice and the blending of the comic and serious, a legacy of the Miracles and Moralities and which passed to the Shakespearean drama much to the dismay of the classical Ben Jonson.

      As Albert has observed: "this union of tragedy and comedy was alien to the classical drama and was the chief glory of the Elizabethan stage". Along with the classical plays were the native breed of historical plays. The first crude attempt in writing historical play was made by one John Bale in the play King John, which is in essence a morality play in which allegorical characters are mingled with real figures during the reign of King John. Early historical plays were The famous Victories of Henry (before 1588), Troublesome reign of King John (before 1591), and The Chronicle History of King Lier (before 1591). These plays are the predecessors of the historical plays of Shakespeare. Thus by the third quarter of the sixteenth century, the drama passed the experimental stage and made much headway towards establishing itself as the National drama. Its material was abundant and vital and what was needed was the genius of a master to give shape and impulse to these diversified materials. This genius appeared first in the person of Marlowe, and then in his great successor Shakespeare, the greatest dramatist, not only of England but of the world. The drama was the culminating glory of the Elizabethan age.

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