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THE ENGLISH STAGE BEFORE

SHAKESPEARE

CHAPTER II

THE ENGLISH STAGE BEFORE SHAKESPEARE

AMONG

all cultivated peoples who have created a drama, this has been the offspring of the outward forms of religious worship. The Romans do not fall into this category, for their drama was not of independent origin, and did not grow up from out of their own soil, being simply a copy of Greek originals. Among the Greeks, the root of dramatic poetry is found in the hymns of praise sung by the priests at the feasts of Dionysus (Bacchus). From the narration of the fate and deeds of the gods recited in these songs there expanded the desire to portray these mythical events in dialogue. To these were added in time the histories of other gods and heroes, and thus gradually from this modest germ sprang the full splendour of Greek tragedy. In 'like manner Greek comedy arose from the gradual expansion of the jokes and burlesques that were common, especially in the country districts, to the festival of the god of wine and of Bacchanalian merriment. In kindred fashion, too, the drama of the Middle Ages arose, and was developed. It was even at first carefully protected and furthered by the Church and her servants. Those very persons who, in later times, protested so vehemently against the drama as a work of Satan, may be regarded as the first theatre managers.

The Roman Church, which has the special gift to use with subtle skill everything that can arouse the imagination of the mass and foster their delight in outward show, in order

to lead them thus into the house of Worship, made use also of this lever to attract and enchain the fancy and attention of the people. At the great Church feasts consecrated to the commemoration of certain events in the life of the Saviour, such as His birth, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, the event celebrated was represented dramatically either in the church itself or in a building near by, erected for the purpose. These representations were called Mysteries, and powerfully attracted the people. Hence under this stimulus there arose at about the same epoch in Germany, France, and England a religious drama intimately connected with the services and chief feasts of the Catholic ecclesiastical ycar. Of course these early germs of the newer dramatic art were of a most modest character. As may be expected, they were devoid of artistic shape, and, in spite of their dialogue, from their long-drawn, wearisome style of exposition, were more epic than dramatic in their nature. Gradually, however, as far as externals were concerned, they became exceedingly splendid. Many hundreds of people took part in them, the costumes were gorgeous and costly, while the simple booth, originally erected for the show, developed into a grand threestoried mystery stage, of which the lower part represented Hell, the middle Earth, and the upper Heaven. The spectators' nerves must have been stronger and more enduring than those of our modern theatrical public, if they could bcar to sit out, day after day, the performance of such a mystery, which had no less than 174 acts. Though the subjects dcalt with in thcsc mysterics were so serious, trcating of thcmcs which are the most holy to a Christian, viz., the Life and Passion of the Redeemer, they were interspersed notwithstanding at an early period with comical elements. Farcical intermezzi were added. The Devil appeared constantly, especially under the mask of a jolly fellow, and even the holiest of all personages, Christ himself, was obliged to take part in comic scenes—as, for example, He was made by His Mother to recite the Lord's

Prayer. This comic element was of course quite harmless, despite its license, since these theatrical performances still remained under the control and guidance of the Church. So long as they continued a part of the mystery, they contained nothing of a satirical character, and in no wise made light of the serious subjects of the main drama. In the course of time, however, they freed themselves from the mystery and became independent. They were then performed as an after-play, and acted by a different set of actors, thus coming to stand in the same relation to the mystery as the satyr-plays of the Greek stage stood to the great tragic Trilogies. Side by side with these mysteries and their grave and merry components we find certain other dramatic representations, called Moralities, allegorical plays, in which, in lieu of real personages, abstractions appeared as actors, personified virtues and vices, spiritual conditions and passions. For instance, Peace, Fraud, Idleness, Love, Hatred, and Anger would appear on the boards. However uncouth and wanting in artistic merit may have been these various pieces, w ch one hardly ventures to call plays, they must be considered as the starting-point of the modern drama. There lies hidden in them the germ of the popular drama, which only needed intelligent and fostering care to grow rich, fruitful, and independent. But every country did not furnish this fostering care. In France, the development of a truly national and popular drama, which might have been possible on these foundations, was hindered by the admixture of a foreign element, that of thc antique classic form. These art rules, which had, moreover, been misunderstood, were supposed to have been derived from Aristotle. Further, the court had obtained a great influence over the national drama, and hence the French dramatic art was pushed to high artistic perfection, but took no root in the life of the people. It was not set free from thc fetters until after many centuries, and after long and fierce conflicts. In Spain the drama attained a completely national and popular

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