Many of you have, no doubt, been to the theater. You have seen pantomimes and Peter Pan, perhaps; perhaps, too, a play of Shakespeare,—a comedy, it may be, which made you laugh, or even a tragedy which made you want to cry, or at least left you sad. Some of you, too, have been to "Pageants," and some may even have been to an oratorio, which last may have been sung in a church.
But did you ever wonder how plays and theaters came to be? Did you ever think that there was a time when in all the length and breadth of the land there was no theater, when there were no plays either merry or sad? Yet it was so. But at a very early time the people of England began to act. And, strange as it may seem to us now, the earliest plays were acted by monks and took place in church. And it is from these very early monkish plays that the theater with its different kinds of plays, that pageants and even oratorios have sprung.
In this chapter I am going to talk about these beginnings of the English theater and of its literature. All plays taken together are called the drama, and the writers of them are called dramatists, from a Greek word dran, to act or do. For dramas are written not to be read merely, but also to be acted.
To trace the English drama from its beginnings we must go a long way back from the reigns of Henry VII and of Henry VIII, down to which the life of Dunbar has brought us. We must go back to the days when the priests were the only learned people in the land, when the monasteries were the only schools.
If we would picture to ourselves what these first English plays were like, we must not think of a brilliantly lighted theater pranked out and fine with red and gold and white such as we know. We must think rather of some dim old church. Stately pillars rise around us, and the outline of the arches is lost in the high twilight of the roof. Behind the quaintly dressed players gleams the great crucifix with its strange, sad figure and outstretched arms which, under the flickering light of the high altar candles, seems to stir to life. And beyond the circle of light, in the soft darkness of the nave, the silent people kneel or stand to watch.
It was in such solemn surroundings that our first plays were played. And the stories that were acted were Bible stories. There was no thought of irreverence in such acting. On the contrary, these plays were performed "to exort the mindes of common people to good devotion and holesome doctrine."
You remember when Caedmon sang, he made his songs of the stories of Genesis and Exodus. And in this way, in those bookless days, the people were taught the Bible stories. But you know that what we learn by our ears is much harder to remember than what we learn by our eyes. If we are only told a thing we may easily forget it. But if we have seen it, or seen a picture of it, we remember it much more easily. In those far-off days, however, there were as few pictures as there were books in England. And so the priests and monks fell upon the plan of acting the Bible stories and the stories of the saints, so that the people might see and better understand.
These plays which the monks made were called Mystery or Miracle plays. I cannot tell you the exact date of our first Miracle plays, but the earliest that we know of certainly was acted at the end of the eleventh or beginning of the twelfth century. It is not unreasonable to suppose, however, that there had been still earlier plays of which we know nothing. For the Miracle plays did not spring all at once to life, they began gradually, and the beginnings can be traced as far back as the ninth century. In an old book of rules for Winchester Cathedral, written about 959, there are directions given for showing the death and resurrection of Christ in dumb show chiefly, with just a few Latin sentences to explain it. By degrees these plays grew longer and fuller, until in them the whole story of man from the Creation to the Day of Judgment was acted in what was called a cycle or circle of short acts or plays.
But although these plays were looked upon as an act of religion, they were not all solemn. At times, above the grave tones of the monks or the solemn chanting of the choir, laughter rang out. For some of the characters were meant to be funny, and the watching crowd knew and greeted them as such even before they spoke, just as we know and greet the jester or the clown.
The demons were generally funny, and Noah's wife, who argued about going into the ark. The shepherds, also, watching their flocks by night, were almost sure to make the people laugh.
But there were solemn moments, too, when the people reverently listened to the grave words of God the Father, or to those, tender and loving, of Mary, the Virgin Mother. And when the shepherds neared the manger where lay the wondrous Babe, all jesting ceased. Here there was nothing but tender, if simple and unlearned, adoration.
In those early days Latin was the tongue of the Church, and the Miracle plays were at first said in Latin. But as the common folk could not understand what was said, the plays were chiefly shown in dumb show. Soon, however, Latin was given up, and the plays were acted in English. Then by degrees the churches grew too small to hold the great crowds of people who wished to see the plays, and so they were acted outside the church door in the churchyard, on a stage built level with the steps. The church, then, could be made to represent heaven, where God and the angels dwelt. The stage itself was the world, and below it was hell, from out of which came smoke and sometimes flames, and whence might be heard groans and cries and the clanking of chains.
But the playing of Mysteries and Miracles at the church doors had soon to be given up. For the people, in their excitement, forgot the respect due to the dead. They trampled upon the graves and destroyed the tombs in their eagerness to see. And when the play was over the graveyard was a sorry sight with trodden grass and broken headstones. So by degrees it came about that these plays lost their connection with the churches, and were no more played in or near them. They were, instead, played in some open space about the town, such as the market-place. Then, too, the players ceased to be monks and priests, and the acting was taken up by the people themselves. It was then that the playing came into the hands of the trade guilds.
Nowadays we hear a great deal about "trades unions." But in those far-off days such things were unknown. Each trade, however, had its own guild by which the members of it were bound together. Each guild had its patron saint, and after a time the members of a guild began to act a play on their saint's day in his honor. Later still the guilds all worked together, and all acted their plays on one day. This was Corpus Christi Day, a feast founded by Pope Urban IV in 1264. As this feast was in summer, it was a very good time to act the plays, for the weather was warm and the days were long. The plays often began very early in the morning as soon as it was light, and lasted all day.
The Miracles were now acted on a movable stage. This stage was called a pageant, and the play which was acted on it was also in time called a pageant. The stage was made in two stories. The upper part was open all round, and upon this the acting took place. The under part was curtained all round, and here the actors dressed. From here, too, they came out, and when they had finished their parts they went back again within the curtains.
The movable stages were, of course, not very large, so sometimes more than one was needed for a play. At other times the players overflowed, as it were, into the audience. "Here Herod rages on the pageant and in the street also" is one stage direction. The devils, too, often ran among the people, partly to amuse them and partly to frighten and show them what might happen if they remained wicked. At the Creation, animals of all kinds which had been kept chained up were let loose suddenly, and ran among the people, while pigeons set free from cages flew over their heads. Indeed, everything seems to have been done to make the people feel the plays as real as possible.
The pageants were on wheels, and as soon as a play was over at the first appointed place, the stage was dragged by men to the next place and the play again began. In an old MS. we are told, "The places where they played them was in every streete. They begane first at the abay gates, and when the first pagiante was played, it was wheeled to the highe crosse befor the mayor, and soe to every streete. And soe every streete had a pagiant playinge before them at one time, till all the pagiantes for the daye appoynted weare played. And when one pagiante was neare ended worde was broughte from streete to streete, that soe they mighte come in place thereof, exceedinge orderly. And all the streetes have theire pagiantes afore them all at one time playinge togeather."
Thus, if a man kept his place all a long summer's day, he might see pass before him pageant after pageant until he had seen the whole story of the world, from the Creation to the Day of Judgment.
In time nearly every town of any size in England had its own cycle of plays, but only four of these have come down to us. These are the York, the Chester, the Wakefield, and the Coventry cycles. Perhaps the most interesting of them all are the Wakefield plays. They are also called the Townley plays, from the name of the family who possessed the manuscript for a long time.
Year after year the same guild acted the same play. And it really seemed as if the pageant was in many cases chosen to suit the trade of the players. The water-drawers of Chester, for instance, acted the Flood. In York the shipwrights acted the building of the ark, the fishmongers the Flood, and the gold-beaters and money-workers the three Kings out of the East.
The members of each guild tried to make their pageant as fine as they could. Indeed, they were expected to do so, for in 1394 we find the Mayor of York ordering the craftsmen "to bring forth their pageants in order and course by good players, well arrayed and openly speaking, upon pain of losing of 100 shillings, to be paid to the chamber without any pardon."
So, in order to supply everything that was needful, each member of a guild paid what was called "pageant silver." Accounts of how this money was spent were carefully kept. A few of these have come down to us, and some of the items and prices paid sound very funny now.
"Paid for setting the world of fire 5d.
For making and mending of the black souls hose 6d.
For a pair of new hose and mending of the old for the white souls 18d.
Paid for mending Pilate's hat 4d."
The actors, too, were paid. Here are some of the
"To Fawson for hanging Judas 4d.
Paid to Fawson for cock crowing 4d."
Some got much more than others. Pilate, for instance, who was an important character, got 4s., while two angels only got 8d. between them. But while the rehearsing and acting were going on the players received their food, and when it was all over they wound up with a great supper.