World of Comic Drama before William Shakespeare: Miracle Plays and Mysteries, Comic Interludes, First Fathers of English Comedies


 Introduction: Sakoontala, written by   Kalidasa in Sanskrit literature, in Old Testament, the Book of Job are splendid drama, mighty in theme. On the other hand, great writers like Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides in tragedy, and Aristophanes in comedy, produced masterpieces before which the world has marveled.

 As in Greece, drama in England was its beginning a religious thing. Its oldest continuous tradition was from the mediaeval Church. Read More Drama Early in the Middle Ages the clergy and their parishioners began the habit, at Christmas, Easter and other holidays, of playing some part of the story of Christ's life suitable to the festival of the day. These plays were liturgical, and originally, no doubt, overshadowed by a choral element. But gradually the inherent human capacity for mimicry and drama took the upper hand; from ceremonies they developed into performances; they passed from the stage in the church porch to the stage in the street. 

Miracle plays and Mysteries: During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Miracle plays and Mysteries afforded one of the favourite entertainments of the common people. Miracle plays, in the strict sense of the term, were dramatic representations of miracles performed by saints; Mysteries, of incidents from the New Testament and elsewhere, bearing upon the fundamental principles of Roman Catholicism. The distinction, however, was not strictly observed. Monks were the authors of these plays, and they were acted in the churches, or on stages erected in the churchyard or in the fields, or, as at Coventry, on movable stages wheeled from street to street. The actors were sometimes the brethren of a monastery, sometimes the members of a trade guild. Read More Drama Though Miracle plays were no doubt written with a moral purpose, we often find that in their desire to be amusing and instructive at the same time, the writers of them permitted the amusing element to overbalance the instructive one. The liberty often taken with Scriptural personages for the sake of comic effect, and the frequent buffoonery and ribaldry found in the plays, strange though they seem to modern readers, were no doubt eminently attractive to the rude crowd that witnessed the performances; but they can scarcely have tended to its edification or improvement.

 Comic Interludes: During the Middle Ages (5th century to 15th century), plays featuring saints and biblical stories were popular throughout Europe. These so-called mystery and miracle plays were performed by local clergy or traveling actors, and they included comic interludes. These humorous episodes inserted into serious biblical narratives or dramatic histories of saints captivated the illiterate masses.
Joseph's confusion over Mary's virgin conception of Jesus Christ, a Jewish spice seller haggling with Jesus's disciples, and Noah's frustrations with implacably skeptical spouse were among the situations most often enacted. Comedies rose from village merry-makings during the vintage, the word comedy meaning village song. Read More Drama Comedy at the time when Shakespeare began writing may be said to fall into four classes From the Miracle play it was an easy transition to the Morality, in which the characters were personified virtues and vices, such as Folly, Repentance, Avarice, etc. Read More Drama By degrees the vices and virtues came to be represented by persons who stood for a type of these, Brutus representing Patriotism, Aristides, Justice, and so on. Plays of this description and Moralities were largely taken advantage of by both Catholics and Protestants to enforce their several views. It is obvious that it is only a single step from Moralities in their latter form to the regular drama; though whether the true modern drama arose out of them or from the Latin classical drama may be doubted. 

The first English Comedies:  At any rate, the first English comedy was written by a classical scholar, who found his model in Terence, and owed nothing to the writers of Moralities. Read More Drama Nicholas Udall, sometime headmaster of Eton, and renowned for the thorough manner in which he had laid to heart Solomon's maxim about sparing the rod and spoiling the child, was its author. It is called "Ralph Roister Doister," and was first printed in 1566, but is known to have been written several years previously. Divided into acts and scenes, and furnished with a regular plot, it marks a great advance upon the plays which had hitherto gratified the thirst of the people for dramatic representation. It is written in rough verse, and is pervaded by a sort of schoolboy fun, which would seem to suggest that it was originally written for representation by the author's pupils. The first English tragedy, "Gorboduc," mainly the work of Thomas Sackville, was represented in 1562. It, too, is framed upon classical models. In literary merit it is superior to "Ralph Roister Doister;" its blank verse is grave and weighty, and of considerable poetical merit; but it is difficult to believe that it could ever have been popular as an acting play; the unmerciful length at which many of the characters speak alone must have been a severe trial to the strength of the actors and the patience of the auditors.

First Fathers of English Comedies: We now come to those who laid the foundations of the modern stage. Of these, the ingenious author of   Euphues   was the first. He was the author of no fewer than nine pieces,   all of which show his peculiar vein of talent: his often happy verbal ingenuities, his love of punning (in which he found a frequent imitator in Shakespeare), and his occasional grace and tenderness of fancy. But Lyly was not a great writer: no one need read his plays who do not wish to make a special study of the Elizabethan drama, and it is not, therefore, requisite that we should go into detail regarding his productions. The first of Shakespeare's predecessors who possessed really great dramatic and poetical genius was Christopher Marlowe. Like too many of his contemporary playwrights, he lived a wild, reckless, dissolute life, at one time indulging in gross debauchery, at another time writing plays which, though disfigured sometimes by mere bombast, bear on them the imperishable stamp of genius. None of his plays were printed in his lifetime, and their order of production can only be conjectured. “Tamburlaine the Great " is believed to have been the first ; then came "Doctor Faustus," "Jew of Malta," "Edward II.," and " Massacre at Paris." In 1593 he lost his life in a wretched tavern brawl. Had he lived longer, it is very probable that he would have been the greatest of the Elizabethan dramatists, next to Shakespeare. Read More Drama As the hot ferments of youth subsided, his genius would have become more temperate, and his rich prodigality of fancy would have been turned into more profitable channels than the piling up of high-sounding words, too often signifying nothing. In Marlowe's plays we find all the wantonness of imagination, all the colossal rant, all the prodigality of fancy, characteristic of a hot and fevered youth unrestrained by law, and of a mind ill at ease yet conscious of an aspiring after better things.   “There is a lust of power in his writings,” writes Hazlitt, “a hunger and thirst after unrighteousness, a glow of the Elizabethan Era. His thoughts burn within him like a furnace with bickering flames, or throwing out black smoke and mists that hide the dawn of genius, or, like a poisonous mineral, corrode the heart." In many respects he resembles Byron: both lived wild and passionate lives; both possessed an energy and strength which cover a multitude of literary sins; both died young, just as they seemed on the eve of accomplishing better things. Marlowe's finest play is “Doctor Faustus," founded on the legend which also gave birth to the greatest work of the greatest modern poet, Goethe's “Faust." Nothing could well be imagined more different than the treatment by these two great dramatists of the same subject. . In Goethe's play we find the genius of a great poet united with the wisdom, the self-restraint, the knowledge of the world possessed by a clear, cold, elaborately cultivated mind ; in Marlowe's we find also the genius of a great poet, but disfigured by the want of self-restraint, the extravagance and the turbulence of a fiery and ill-regulated mind. But the general conception of his work is very powerful and striking, and passages of great beauty occur not infrequently. Read More Drama Take, for example, the following, which we make bold to say, has been matched by none of the Elizabethan dramatists save Shakespeare.

It is the address of Faustus to the apparition of Helen “Faustus. Was this the face that launched a thousand ships, And burnt the topless tow'rs of Ilium? Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss. Her lips suck forth my soul! See where it flies. Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again. Here will I dwell, for Heav'n is in these lips, And all is dross that is not Helena. I will be Paris, and for love of thee, Instead of Troy shall Wittenberg be sack'd ; And I will combat with weak Menelaus, And wear thy colours on my plumed crest ; Yea, I will wound Achilles in the heel, And then return to Helen for a kiss. Oh ! thou art fairer than the evening ah, Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars : Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter When he appear'd to hapless Semele ; More lovely than the monarch of the sky In wanton Arethusa's azure arms ; And none but thou shall be my paramour."

 If Marlowe was dissipated, Greene and Peele, the two other most famous pre-Shakespearean dramatists, were yet more so. Greene was also an actor, and indeed appears to have been ready to turn his hand to anything in order that he might acquire the wherewithal to gratify his vicious desires. Greene's best productions are the lyrics interspersed through his works, which show a fine ear for verse and a delight in beauty and innocence strange to find in a man of his character. One of his tales, “Dorastus and Fawnia," supplied the plot for Shakespeare's “Winter’s Tale." George Peele, on the other hand, united the occupations of poet, dramatist, and actor. He seems to have been a shifty, unscrupulous man, " without the faintest desire to use honest means in procuring a livelihood," always anxious to get his purse filled, and caring little or nothing by what means he did so. Read More Drama His best work is "The Arraignment of Paris," full of sprightly wit.


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