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as is commonly recognized in the case of Gothic and Classic architecture; which may help us to realize how each Drama forms a distinct species, and lives free of the other, so that any argument or criticism from the ancient against the modern is wholly irrelevant.
The Gothic Drama, as it fashioned itself in different nations of modern Europe, especially in England and Spain, where it grew up independently, has certain diversities. Upon the nature and reason of these I cannot enlarge. Suffice it to say that they do not reach beyond points of detail; their effect thus being to approve the strength of the common principles that underlie and support them. These principles cover the whole ground of difference from the Classic Drama. The several varieties, therefore, of the Gothic Drama may be justly regarded as bearing concurrent testimony to a common right of freedom from the jurisdiction of ancient rules.
Of the rise and progress of the Drama in England, my limits will permit only a brief sketch, not more than enough to give a general idea on the subject.
In England, as in the other Christian nations where it had any thing of originality, the Drama was of ecclesiastical origin, and for a long time was used only as a means of diffusing a knowledge of the leading facts and doctrines of Christianity as then understood and received. Of course, therefore, it was in substance and character religious, or was meant to be so, and had the Clergy for its authors and founders. But I cannot admit the justice of Coleridge's remark on the subject. “The Drama,” says he,“ recommenced in England, as it first began in Greece, in religion. The people were unable to read; the Priesthood were unwilling that they should read; and yet their own interest compelled them not to leave the people wholly ignorant of the great events of sacred history.”
Surely, it is of consequence to bear in mind that at that time “the people” had never been able to read; printing
had not been heard of in Europe; books were multiplied with great difficulty, and could not be had but at great expense : so that it was impossible the people should be able to read; and while there was an impossibility in the way, it is not necessary to impute an unwillingness. Nor is there any good reason for supposing that the Priesthood, in their simplicity of faith, were then at all apprehensive or aware of any danger in the people being able to read. Probably they worked as honest men with the best means they could devise; endeavouring to clothe the most needful of all instruction in such forms, and mould it up with such arts of recreation and pleasure, as might render it interesting and attractive to the popular mind. In all which they seem to have merited any thing but an impeachment of their motives. However, the point best worth noting here is the large share those early dramatic representations had in shaping the culture of Old England, and in giving to the national mind its character and form. And perhaps later ages, and ourselves as the children of a later age, are more indebted to those rude labours of the Clergy in the cause of religion than we are aware, or might be willing to acknowledge.
In its course through several ages the Drama took different forms from time to time, as culture advanced. The earliest form was in what are called Plays of Miracles, or Miracle-Plays. These were mostly founded on events of Scripture, though the apocryphal gospels and legends of saints and martyrs were sometimes drawn upon for subjects or for embellishments. In these performances no regard was paid to the rules of natural probability; for, as the operation of supernatural power was assumed, this was held a sufficient ground or principle of credibility in itself. Hence, indeed, the name Marvels, Miracles, or Miracle-Plays, by which they were commonly known.
Our earliest instance of a Miracle-Play in England was
near the beginning of the twelfth century. Matthew Paris, in his Lives of the Abbots, written as early as 1240, informs us that Geoffrey, Abbot of St. Albans, while yet a secular person brought out the Miracle-Play of St. Catharine at Dunstaple; and that for the needed decorations he obtained certain articles “from the Sacristy of St. Albans.” Geoffrey, who was from the University of Paris, was then teaching a school at Dunstaple, and the play was performed by his scholars. Warton thinks this was about 1110: but we learn from Bulæus that Geoffrey became Abbot of St. Albans in 1119; and all that can with certainty be affirmed is, that the performance was before he assumed a religious habit. Bulæus also informs us that the thing was not then a novelty, but that it was customary for teachers and scholars to get up such exhibitions.
Our next information on the subject is from Fitzstephen's Life of Thomas à Becket, as quoted by Stowe. Becket died in 1170, and the Life was probably written about twelve years later. After referring to the public amusements of ancient Rome, Fitzstephen says: “In lieu of such theatrical shows and performances, London has plays of a more sacred kind, representing the miracles which saints have wrought, or the sufferings and constancy of martyrs."
It appears that about the middle of the next century itinerant actors were well known; for one of the regulations found in the Burton Annals has the following, under date 1258: “Actors may be entertained, not because they are actors, but because of their poverty; and let not their plays be seen nor heard, nor the performance of them allowed in the presence of the Abbot or the monks." The Clergy differed in opinion as to the lawfulness of such exhibitions; and in an Anglo-French poem written about this time they are sharply censured, and the using of them is restricted to certain places and persons. An English paraphrase of this poem was made by Robert Brunne in 1303; who specifies what pastimes are allowed to “ a clerk of order," declaring it lawful for him to perform Miracle-Plays
of the birth and resurrection of Christ in churches, but a sin to witness them “on the highways or greens.” He also reproves the practice, then not uncommon, of aiding in such performances by lending horses or harness from the monasteries, and especially declares it sacrilege if a priest or clerk lend the hallowed vestments for that purpose.
The dogma of transubstantiation was particularly fruitful of such exhibitions. The festival of Corpus Christi, designed for the furthering of this dogma, was instituted by Pope Urban IV. in 1264. Within a few years from that date, Miracle-Plays were annually performed at Chester during Whitsuntide: they were also introduced at Coventry, York, Durham, Lancaster, Bristol, Cambridge, and other towns; so that the thing became a sort of established usage throughout the kingdom. A considerable variety of subjects, especially such as relate to the Incarnation, the Passion, and the Resurrection, was embraced in the plan of these exhibitions; the purpose being to extend an orthodox belief in those fundamentals of the faith.
A very curious specimen of the plays that grew out of the Corpus-Christi festival was lately discovered in the library of Trinity College, Dublin, the manuscript being, it is said, as old as the reign cf Edward IV., who died in 1483. It is called The Play of the Blessed Sacrament, and is founded on a miracle alleged to have been wrought in the forest of Arragon, in 1461. In form it closely resembles the Miracle-Plays founded on Scripture, the Saviour being one of the characters, the others being five Jews, a bishop, a priest, a merchant, and a physician and his servant. The merchant, having the key of the church, steals the Host, and sells it to the Jews, who promise to turn Christians in case they find its miraculous powers verified. They put the Host to various tests. Being stabbed with their daggers, it bleeds, and one of the Jews goes mad at the sight. They next attempt nailing it to a post, when one of them has his hand torn off; whereupon the physician and his man come in to dress the wound, but after a long comic scene are
driven out as quacks. The Jews then proceed to boil the Host, but the water forthwith turns blood-red. Finally, they cast it into a heated oven, which presently bursts asunder, and an image of the Saviour rises and addresses the Jews, who make good their promise on the spot. The merchant confesses his theft, declares his penitence, and is forgiven, under a strict charge never again to buy or sell. The whole winds up with an epilogue from the bishop, enforcing the moral of the play, which turns on the dogma of transubstantiation.
There are three sets of Miracle-Plays extant, severally known as the Towneley, Coventry, and Chester Collections; the first including thirty plays, the second forty-two, and the third twenty-four. Some of the manuscripts are thought to be as old as the time of Henry VI., who died in 1471. The three sets have all been recently printed by the Shakespeare Society. The Towneley set most likely belonged to Widkirk Abbey: at what time they grew into use there and at Coventry is not certainly known. At Chester the plays were probably first acted in 1268; after which time they were repeated yearly, with some interruptions, till 1577. And we have conclusive evidence that such exhibitions formed a regular part of English life in the reign of Edward III., which began in 1327. For Chaucer alludes to “plays of miracles” as things of common occurrence; and in The Miller's Tale he makes it a prominent feature of the parish clerk, “that jolly was and gay,” that he performed in them. And in 1378, which was the first year
of Richard II., the choristers of St. Paul's, London, petitioned the King to prohibit some ignorant persons from acting plays founded on Scripture, as conflicting with the interest of the Clergy, who had incurred expense in getting up a set of plays on similar subjects. Stowe informs us, also, that in 1409 there was a great play in London, “ which lasted eight days, and was of matter from the creation of the world.”
As to the general character of the plays, this will best