AD's English Literature : The Dawn of British drama: A Vehicle of Religious Propaganda

The Dawn of British drama: A Vehicle of Religious Propaganda

Drama is defined as an articulate story presented in action: The origins of Drama  have always been deeply rooted in the religious instincts of mankind. This is true of the Greeks, Indians, Chinese, Egyptians and also Christians. In Europe, the Church was the cradle of English drama. In fact, English Drama  originated as a vehicle of religious propaganda. In their attempts to Christianize the Celtic island, the inhabitants of which were illiterate, drama was chosen as a mode of presentation and it was hoped that this spectacular and visual performance could have better effect on the people.  Dramatized versions of biblical stories, from the creation to the Resurrection, were popular in the middle Ages. Their early history cannot be confidently outlined, though it is widely accepted that the movement towards dramatizing Christian doctrine and biblical history outgrew the comments “upon our literature the drama is incomparably the greatest force of the time it inspired our grandest poetry as well as our sweetest lyrics: it gave variety, flexibility and clarity to our prose. Philosophic reflection, poignant introspection, joyousness of heart, agony of sprit: all these things clamored for utterance in drama.” 

The medieval church approved the elaboration of the liturgy into dialogue, in order to make its central doctrine of man’s redemption plainer. In fact, the Italian enthusiasm for imitating and reviving classical drama and for formulating elaborate rules for its creation gradually spread throughout Europe, but with very different results in different countries. English schools and universities embraced the new Italian ideas avidly in the mid-16th century. By the end of that century, however, classical dramatic practice had merged with medieval theater practices and various popular traditions to create a complex new kind of drama in England. 

 The establishment in 1311 of the Feast of Corpus Christi provided a focus for a form of worship that was moving further from liturgy and further towards performances. By the middle of the 14th century, sequences of biblical plays were being performed all over England. Miracle, Mystery, and Morality Plays are generic terms given to the such English dramas of medieval times (from the 5th century to about the 15th century). These plays developed from the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church after 1210 when a papal edict forbade members of the clergy from appearing on a stage in public. Such plays had considerable influence on the work of the great English dramatists of the 1500s and 1600s.

When the simple scenes from the Bible that had become part of the liturgy could no longer be performed by the priests early in the 13th century, the miracle plays came into existence. These plays had as subject matter the miracles performed by the saints or, more frequently, scenes from the Old and New Testaments. Miracle plays, also known as Saint Plays, in crude form were presented at Easter and on other holy days. They gained a formalized structure in the late 13th or early 14th century and reached the height of their popularity in the 15th and 16th centuries. Miracle plays dealing with the legends of the saints were less realistic and more religious in tone than those concerned with biblical episodes, and were eventually superseded by the latter.

The survival of certain sequences of miracle plays is strange and challenging. The plays were generally given in cycles, or sequences of related scenes, each of which required only a short time to perform. Each scene was acted by members of one of the trade guilds of the town. The cycles presented the Christian history of God and humanity, from the creation of human beings and the world to final judgment. The important cycles, named after the towns in which they were notably performed, are the Chester (25 scenes), the Wakefield (30 scenes), the York (48 scenes), the Norwich, and the Coventry plays. The cycles were generally performed outdoors on festival days and particularly on the feast of Corpus Christi. Each guild acted its assigned scene on its own wagon or float on wheels, which could be moved from one place to another for repeated performances. The Chester Cycle is probably the earliest. Drama became part and parcel of the rituals of the church. The seasons of the year decided the subject matter of the church. Christians, Easter, lives of saints formed the subject matter of the drama. This is the first stage in the development of Drama.

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