Mystery and morality plays

The beginning of English drama

In the Middle Ages, there were no permanent theatres in England. Drama was associated with religion and began with the acting out in church of scenes from the Christian story, such as the Resurrection of Christ at Easter.

These short dramatic performances contained only a small amount of action and the elaboration of a few words from the service. In the case of the Resurrection, for instance, the performance took place on the evening before Easter Sunday and culminated in the priest finding Christ's empty grave clothes in a sepulchre near the altar. (These Easter Sepulchres – perhaps the earliest English stage sets– can still be found in a number of churches in England.)

Over time, these performances became more elaborate and acquired more characters and dialogue. Many continued to be performed in the course of church services, but, when they outgrew the available space for action, began to take place outside churches in porches or on the steps. Their purpose was largely devotional and educational: the dramatic performances helped the congregation to understand the meaning of the liturgy.

Theatre on the streets

These short dramas then developed into processions, in which the priests and civic dignitaries, in their colourful vestments and robes, added to the spectacle. Gradually, these processions included ‘pageants' — a word we usually use today to mean a kind of open-air theatrical display, but which originally meant the cart on which scenes were performed.

As the citizens stood in the streets, carts moved past carrying actors in still poses depicting biblical events such as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, or Moses receiving the Ten Commandments or the resurrection of Christ.

Eventually, the processions came to a stop in different points in the town and the people on the carts performed a short drama. By staying in one place, spectators would thus be able to witness scenes from the whole Christian story.

Drama in English

Eventually, some dialogue was introduced. Although the language of church services was still Latin, actors on the pageants spoke in English. In this way, everyone listening could understand and the educational value of the drama was enhanced.

The plays which thus developed are known as miracle or mystery plays. The latter name derives from the French myster or metier, meaning craft or profession, and was applied to the plays because the craft guilds or association gradually assumed responsibility for particular plays. Often, the plays they supported were appropriate to their craft:

Some mystery plays, originating in towns such as Chester, York and Coventry, still survive and are regularly performed. Nothing, however, is known about the author(s) of individual plays.

Morality plays

Alongside the Mystery plays, in the later Middle Ages, dramas known as morality plays developed. Instead of enacting events from the Bible, morality plays focused instead on the spiritual struggles of individual souls. The central characters, who have names such as Mankind or Everyman, act out the spiritual challenges faced by every human being. Vices and virtues, such as deceit or kindness, or the Seven Deadly Sins, or the even more abstract Good and Evil, are personified. They are presented as debating or struggling against one another, while the eternal destiny of the human protagonist hangs in the balance. The most famous of these plays is Everyman (c. 1509-19), which is still performed today.

Influence on Marlowe

Doctor Faustus clearly draws on this tradition in a number of ways:

  • The play focuses on the fate of a single individual
  • The good and bad angels contend for Faustus' soul, presenting him with the stark choice between salvation and damnation
  • There is a pageant of the seven deadly sins, summoned for Faustus by Mephastophilis, and each of the vices has a short warning speech about the consequences of sin
  • Some of the scenes are ‘mini-moralities', object lessons in sin and vice. A good example is provided by Faustus' visit to the papal court
  • The moral lesson of the story is very clearly established in the final speech of the play.
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