Saturday, May 31, 2008

Medieval Drama

The distinguishing features of medieval drama are its Christian content and didactic purpose. Vernacular plays typically dramatized the live of saints, Bible stories, or moral allegories. The biblical cycle plays, sometimes called mystery plays, were originally performed under church auspices but by the late 14th century were produced under the supervision of craft guilds (misteres) and performed in public places on the feast of Corpus or during Whitsuntide.

Although they contained Old Testament and nativity sequences, the cycles were primarily devoted to portraying the life and passion of Christ, his harrowing of hell, his resurrection and appearances to his disciples and to the two Marys, but these were suppressed in Protestant countries during the Reformation. Typically the plays adhered as closely as possible, given their "translation" into verse, to the biblical narratives, but some are based on episodes left undeveloped in the Bible, such as the visit of the Shepherds or Balaam and his ass, or are derived from legendary sources, such as plays about the Antichrist. The cycle plays reached their greatest expansion in the 15th and early 16th centuries but in England were suppressed as "popish" in the 1570s.

Protestant antagonism also account for the disappearance of most of miracle, or saints, plays. Only two are extant; the Conversion of Saint Paul, narrative history similar to the biblical cycles, and Mary Magdalene, which combined biblical-cycle elements with the framework of the morality.

The morality play was an allegory that depicted the fall of the representative Everyman, his life in sin and folly and his eventual redemption. In most elaborate of these, the Castle of Perseverance (c.1425), the soul of Humanum Genus resides in a castles encircled by the forces of good (God, His Angles, and other agents) and evil (the World, the Flesh, the Devil, Covetise and the other Seven Deadly Sins). The play follows his life, its climax being a battle in which the forces of good beat off the evil ones with a barrage of roses, symbolic plays were solemn, however; Mankind (c. 1470) depicted the fall and life in sin of its protagonist in an often farcical manner.

The most famous morality play, Everman (c. 1500), an English work probably derived from a Dutch original, is less typical of the genre in that it omits the fall and life in sin and instead dramatized Everyman's summons by Death to account for his sins. These moralities were performed by professional and traveling troupes. The influence of the form can be seen in Christopher Marlow's Doctor Faustus and in the Faistaff scenes of Shakespeare's Henry IV, as well as in other Renaissance plays.

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