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
 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
Comedy:Terence and
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
Drama in the Early Middle Ages
 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 )
Liturgical Drama
 The Roman Catholic Church was responsible
for the rebirth of European theatre in the 10th –
12th century
 All Europe had been converted to Christianity
 The Church needed ways to teach illiterate
parishioners: cathedrals,
stained glass windows,
sculpture, painting and drama
The Last Supper from Chartres Cathedral
Liturgical Drama
 Religious rituals ( the mass,
baptism, etc.) embody theatrical
 Priests began to incorporate such
elements into the gospel lessons
of the mass.
 The first short plays were called
 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 anoint 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
[Set and costumes] 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.
[Stage directions] 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:
[Dialogue] 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 one.
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!
This said, let the Angel, again seating himself, as if recalling them,
sing the anthem
Venite, et Videte locum-Come, and see the place where the Lord was lad. Alleluia! Alleluia!
[Stage directions]
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, let them sing this anthem
Surrexit Dominus de Sepulchro-The Lord is risen from the sepulcher,
Who for us hung on the cross. 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
Te, Deum, laudamus-We Praise thee, O God.
The 3 M’s of Religious Drama
Mystery plays: Biblical stories
Miracle plays: saints’ lives
Morality plays: allegories
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 yard.
 As more roles were added,
commoners were used as amateur
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
 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
 Productions were
considered a religious
duty, and each guild
invested considerable
resources into productions.
Mystery Plays performed by Trade Guilds
 Plays were often assigned
to guilds associated with
the subject matter of the
play and became a kind of
The Flood:
Shipbuilders or
The Nativity:
The Magi: Goldsmiths
Noah and the Flood
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.
Chester Mystery
York Mystery
B.J. Elvgren. Quilt: depicting scenes from Chester’s 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 life.
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 “today.”
“The Last
York Mystery
Miracle Plays
 Miracle plays were similar to
mystery plays in dramatic
 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
 the Virgin Mary (plays
usually written in Latin)
 St. George (dragon slayer
and patron saint of England)
 St. Nicholas ( associated
with Christmas festivities)
 Theme: how to live a Christian
life and be saved.
 Allegory:
 A story told on two levels:
the literal and the the
 Plot: a journey through life
or to death
 Emphasis switches from
Biblical and saintly
protagonists to the common
man: Everyman, Mankind, etc.
 Focus on free will
 First major use of professional
acting companies
Morality Plays
The Summoning of Everyman: Production
Staging the Plays
 Pageant wagons would
o Mansions or a series of
stages would be set up
 travel a set route and
around the town square
perform at several
locations: like a parade
o Anchored at either end
by Heaven and Hell
 would be set up around
o Elaborate special
a town square and the
effects such as floods,
audience would travel
flying and fiery pits
from one wagon to the
were very popular
next to see the
Building a Pageant Wagon
Pageant wagon
Pageant wagon
Mansions and Hell Mouth
Interludes and
 Combined elements of
allegory, classical myth, and
courtly entertainment: music,
dance, spectacle
 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
 Mummers, Morris Dancers, etc.
 Robin Hood was one of
the most popular heroes
 Feast of Fools: Fool companies consisted of young men,
who played gross comedies and created nonsensical and
often bawdy travesties on the Mass. These boisterous
"Feasts" predate most of the mysteries, and may have been
reverent in their origin
Dramatic Techniques
 Theatre was performed in found spaces: town squares, taverns,
churches, banquet halls -- no specifically designated theatres
 Theatre was intimate -- audience interacted with performers
 Elaborate special effects
 Characterization was often dependent upon costume and
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
Medieval Theatre

Medieval Theatre