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what we are apt to regard as a shocking contradiction between the subject-matter and the treatment. The truth is, such religious farces, with all their coarse trumperies and comicalities and sensuous extravagances, were in perfect keeping with the genius of an age when, for instance, a transfer of land was not held binding without the delivery of a clod. And so, what Mr. John Stuart Mill describes as "the childlike character of the religious sentiment of a rude people, who know terror, but not awe, and are often on the most intimate terms of familiarity with the objects of their adoration,” makes it conceivable how that which seems to us the most irreverent handling of sacred things, may notwithstanding have been, to the authors and audiences in question, but the natural issue of such religious thoughts and feelings as they had or were capable of having. At all events, those exhibitions, so revolting to modern taste and decorum, were no doubt in most cases full of religion and honest delectation to the simple minds who witnessed them. Moreover, rude and ignorant as the Miracle-Plays were in form, coarse and foul as they were in language and incident, they nevertheless contained the germ of that splendid dramatic growth with which the literature and life of England were afterwards enriched and adorned.
Before leaving this branch of the subject, perhaps I ought to add something further as to the part which was taken by the Clergy in those old stage exhibitions. The register of the Guild of Corpus Christi at York, which was a religious fraternity, mentions, in 1408, books of plays, various banners and flags, beards, vizards, crowns, diadems, and scaffolds, belonging to the society; which shows that its members were at that time concerned in the representation of Miracle-Plays. It appears that a few years afterwards these performances, because of certain abuses attending them, were discontinued : but in 1426 William Melton, a friar who is called “ a professor of holy pageantry,” preached several sermons in favour of them; and the result was, that they were then made annual, suitable measures being taken
for preventing the former disorders. But the best evidence as to the share the Clergy had in the representations is furnished by the account-book of Thetford Priory from 1461 to 1540; which contains numerous entries of payments to players ; and in divers cases expressly states that members of the convent assisted in the performances. These were commonly held twice or three times a year; in 1531 there were five repetitions of them; after which time there are but three entries of plays wherein the members participated with the common actors; the old custom being broken up most likely by the progress of the Reformation.
The practice in question, however, was by no means universal. We learn from Stowe that in 1391 and 1409, plays were acted in London by the parish clerks. In cities and large towns, these performances were generally in the hands of the trade fraternities or guilds. Our information touching the Corpus Christi plays at Coventry extends from 1416 to 1590; during which period there is no sign of the Clergy having any part in them. The records of Chester also show that the whole business was there managed by laymen. And in 1487 a Miracle-Play on the descent of Christ into Hell was acted before Henry the Seventh by the charity boys of Hyde Abbey and St. Swithin’s Priory. Long before this date, acting was taken up as a distinct profession, and regular companies of actors were formed.
That churches and chapels of monasteries were at first, and for a long time after, used as theatres, is very certain. The Anglo-French poem already referred to informs us that Miracle-Plays were sometimes performed in churches and cemeteries, the Clergy getting them up and acting in them. And Burnet tells us that Bishop Bonner as late as 1542 issued an order to his clergy, forbidding “all manner of common plays, games, or interludes to be played, set forth, or declared within their churches and chapels.” Nor was the custom wholly discontinued till some time after that; for in 1572 was printed a tract which has a passage infer
ring that churches were still sometimes used for such purposes.
When plays were performed in the open air, temporary scaffolds or stages were commonly erected for the purpose; though in some cases the scaffold was set on wheels, so as to be easily moved from one part of the town to another. It appears that the structure used at Chester had two stages, one above the other; the lower being closed in, to serve as a dressing-room for the actors, while the performance was on the upper stage where it could be seen by all the spectators. Sometimes the lower stage seems to have been used for Hell, the devils rising out of it, or sinking into it, as occasion required. In some plays, however, as we have seen in that of Mary Magdalen, more than one scaffold was used; and certain stage-directions in the Towneley and Coventry plays infer that two, three, and even four scaffolds were erected round a centre, the actors going from one to another across the intervening space, as the scene changed, or their several parts required.
The purpose of the Miracle-Plays was to inculcate, in a popular way, what may be termed the theological verities; at first they took their substance and form solely with a view to this end, the securing of an orthodox faith being then looked upon as the all-important concern.
In course of time, the thirst for novelty and variety drew them beyond their original sphere of revealed religion into that of natural ethics. By degrees, allegorical personages came, as we have seen, to be more or less mixed up with Scripture characters and events; the aim being to illustrate and enforce the virtues that refer directly to the practical conduct of life. The new-comers kept encroaching more and more: invited in as auxiliaries, they remained as principals; and at last quite superseded and replaced the original tenants. Hence there grew into use a different style or order
of workmanship, a distinct class of symbolical or allegorical dramas; that is, dramas made up entirely of abstract ideas personified. These, from their structure and purpose, are properly termed MORAL-PLAYS. We shall see hereafter that much the same process of transition was repeated in the gradual rising of genuine Comedy and Tragedy out of the allegorical dramas.
In Miracle-Plays the Devil of course made a legitimate part of the representation. He was endowed in large measure with a biting, caustic humour, and with a coarse, scoffing, profane wit; therewithal he had an exaggerated grotesqueness of look and manner, such as to awaken mixed emotions of fear, mirth, and disgust. In these qualities of mind and person, together with the essential malignity of which they are the proper surface and outside, we have the germs of both Comedy and Tragedy. For the horrible and the ridiculous easily pass into each other, they being indeed different phases of the same thing. Accordingly, the Devil, under one name or another, continued to propagate himself on the stage long after his original co-actors had withdrawn.
On the other hand, a personage called Iniquity, Vice, or some such name, was among the first characters to take stand in Moral-Plays, as a personification of the evil tendencies in man. And the Vice thus originating from the moral view of things was a sort of natural counterpart to that more ancient impersonation of evil which took its origin from the theological sphere. The Devil, being the stronger principle, naturally had use for the Vice as his agent or factor. Hence we may discover in these two personages points of mutual sympathy and attraction ; and, in fact, it was in and through them that the two species of drama met and coalesced.
In Moral-Plays the Devil and the Vice, or at least one of them, almost always bore a leading part, though not always under those names. Most commonly the two were retained together; there are cases however of each figur
ing apart from the other. And no pains were spared to give the Devil as hideous an aspect as possible: he was made an out-and-out monster in appearance, all hairy and shaggy, with a “bottle nose” and an “evil face," having horns, hoofs, and a long tail ; so that the sight had been at once loathsome and ludicrous, but for the great strength and quickness of wit, and the fiendish, yet merry and waggish malignity, which usually marked his conversation. Sometimes, however, he was endowed with a most protean versatility of mind and person, so that he could walk abroad as“ plain devil,” scaring all he met, or steal into society as a prudent counsellor, a dashing gallant, or whatever else would best work out his ends.
As for the Vice, he commonly acted the part of a broad, rampant jester and buffoon, full of mad pranks and mischief-making, liberally dashed with a sort of tumultuous, swaggering fun. He was arrayed in fantastic garb, with something of drollery in its appearance, so as to aid the comic effect of his action, and armed with a dagger of lath, perhaps as symbolical that his use of weapons was but to the end of provoking his own defeat. Therewithal he was vastly given to cracking ribald and saucy jokes with and upon the Devil, and treating him in a style of coarse familiarity and mockery; and a part of his ordinary business was to bestride the Devil, and beat him till he roared, and the audience roared with him; the scene ending with his being carried off to Hell on the Devil's back. Much of the old custom in these two personages is amusingly set forth in Ben Jonson’s Staple of News, where, at the end of each Act, we have some imaginary spectators commenting on the performance. At the end of the first Act, one of them expressing a fear that the play has no Fool in it, as the Vice was often called, Gossip Tattle delivers herself thus : “My husband, Timothy Tattle, God rest his poor soul! was wont to say there was no play without a Fool and a Devil in't; he was for the Devil still, God bless him! The Devil for his money, he would say; I would fain see the Devil.” It being