Early Theatre: Greek, Roman and Medieval

Resources

Text...
         Wilson and Goldfarb. Theatre: The Lively Art, 7th edition. Chapter 11.

Plays: Greek...
         Aeschylus. Prometheus Bound
         Sophocles. Oedipus, Antigone
         Euripides. Trojan Women
         Aristophanes. Lysistrata, The Birds

Plays: Roman...
         Plautus. The Menaechmi
         Seneca. Oedipus

Plays: Medieval...
         Wakefield Cycle. "The Second Shepherd's Play"
         The Passion Play
         Everyman



Greek Theatre | Roman Theatre | Medieval Theatre

Greek Theatre

     What has survived from the Greek and Roman era?

We have 33 Greek plays, 36 Roman plays and more than 400 Greco-Roman Theatres in Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia -- anywhere the Roman Empire established a protectorate.

1. How did religious ritual evolve into Greek theatre?

There were four major celebrations, in honor of the Greek god Dionysus. Three of these celebrations-- the City Dionsyia in the spring and the Lenaia and Rural Dionysia in the winter --would involve drama. One of the elements of these celebrations was the dithyramb, a choral ode song to the gods. Aristotle tell us that Greek tragedy grew out of the dithyramb.

2. What was the relationship between Greek mythology and early Greek drama?

Greek mythology is the legends and stories behind the Greek gods. The earliest Greek dramas, especially those by Aeschylus (525-456 BCE), drew their plots and characters from these myths.

3. The first tragic dramas were performed in honor of which Greek god?

Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, fertility and revelry.

4. At which dramatic festival were these dramas first performed?

The City Dionysia.

5. Where was this festival held? When?

Athens, in the early spring (March).

6. What was a dithyramb?

The dithyramb was a lengthy "hymn" or choral ode in honor of Dionysus which was sung by a chorus of fifty men.

     How did it evolve into drama?

Aristotle, in the Poetics, tells us that one of the choral leaders, Thespis (6th Century, BCE), left the chorus, jumped on to the alter, and assumed the role of "the god".

7. Who was the first actor?

Thespis.

     The first playwright?

Also, Thespis. He won the first Greek tragedy contest in 534 BCE.

8. What type of dramas did Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides write?

Tragedies.

9. Which of these three was the first playwright whose work has survived?


Aeschylus
Aeschylus (525-456 BCE) won thirteen Tragic Contests. We have seven of the approximately 80 plays he wrote, including the only complete trilogy: Oresteia (458 BCE) -- Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, and Eumenides..

10. What was Aeschylus' major contribution to the art of playwrighting?

He added the second actor, creating the possibility of dramatic dialogue. Thespis' tragedies utilized only one actor and the chorus.

11. What is Sophocles' (496-406 BCE) most important drama?


Sophocles
Oedipus Tyrannos (430-425? BCE), also known as Oedipus Rex or Oedipus the King. Sophocles won eighteen Tragic Contests. Like Aeschylus, only seven of the more than 120 plays he wrote have survived. See the Play Synopsis on page 411 of Wilson and Goldfarb.

    How does it rank among world dramatic literature?

Oedipus is considered one of the great tragedies. It is ranked with Shakespeare's Hamlet and King Lear.

12. According to Sophocles, who was the Greek king who murdered his father and married his mother?

Oedipus.

13. What was Sophocles' contribution to the art of playwrighting?

He added the third actor.

14. Why do we have more plays by Euripides than we do of both Sophocles and Aeschylus combined?


Euripides
Because the Romans, who eventually over throw Greece's Macedonian rulers (168 BCE), considered Euripides (ca. 480-407 BCE) a greater playwright, hence taking better care of his manuscripts. He won only five Contests, but we have seventeen of his approximately 90 tragedies. About 3.5% of the tragedies written during Greece's Golden Age (from 534 to 400 BCE) have survived. All were written by these three playwrights.

15. What is deus ex machina?


Deus ex Machina
It is a Latin expression which literally means: God out of the machine. It is a playwriting term used to describe a contrived ending. It means that the dramatic problem is not solved by playwright's characters, that a solution is forced upon them by the playwright. In Greek tragedy, when a playwright was unable to solve the problem he would often use a machina, a crane like device mounted on the roof of the skene (scene house) to lower a god into the action to solve the character's problem.

    With which Greek playwright is this term associated?

Euripides. Contrived endings have been used by other playwrights-- see, for example, Moliere' s solution to Orgon's dilema in the last act of Tartuffe.

16. What is a trilogy?

A trilogy is a set of three short plays tied together by a common plot line, character, or idea. Each tragic playwright, when he entered the competition for performance at the City Dionysia, would submit four plays, a trilogy (3 tragedies) and a satyr play. Aeschylus, the earliest of the three tragic playwrights, built his trilogies around a common plot line. Euripides, the last of the three, usually built his three plays around a common idea. Only one complete trilogy has survived: Aeschylus' Oresteia ("Agamemnon," "Libation Bearers," and "Eumenides") The satyr play is generally believed to have been a comic treatment of the serious material covered in the tragedies. Only one satyr play, The Cyclops by Euripides, has survived.

17. Which structural pattern was used by the three Greek tragic playwrights: Climactic or Episodic?

Climactic.

18. What was the major difference between Old and New Greek Comedy?

Old Comedy was written before 400 BCE, New Comedy was written after 400 BCE. Old Comedy was mostly political satire. New Comedy dealt with domestic affairs: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy get's girl back again. New Greek Comedy is the beginning of the "SitCom." The reason for the change is that the new political rulers -- the Macedonians who united the independent City States under the leadership of King Philip II (382-336 BCE) and his son: Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) -- would no longer accept criticism, hence playwright's stopped writing political satire.


Aristophanes
19. Who is the only Old Greek Comedy playwright whose work has survived?
Aristophanes (ca. 448 - ca. 380 BCE)

20. What type of comedies did he write?

Political satire, high comedy

21. What is the title of one of his major works?

He is best remembered for the four plays titled after the chorus: the The Clouds (423 BCE), The Wasps (422 BCE), The Birds (414 BCE), and The Frogs (405 BCE). Probably his most often revived script is Lysistrata (411 BCE), the story of the women of Athens and Sparta who bring an end to the long war between these two city states through a sex strike.

22. How many New Greek Comedy scripts have survived?


Menander
We have fragments of only one play, The Grouch, also known as The Grumbler (316 BCE), found in 1959. In contrast, we have eleven (of the approximately forty) Old Greek Comedies by Aristophanes.

    Who was its author?

Menander (ca. 342 - 292 BCE)

23. Which structural pattern was used by Greek comic playwrights: Climactic or Episodic?

Episodic.

24. At which dramatic festival were comedies performed?

Although one day of the City Dionysia was alotted for the performance of five comedies, the Dionysian festival at which comedies were the feature was the Lenaia.

25. In which city, and during which season did this festival occur?

In Athens, during the winter (January).

The Fifth Century Greek Theatre
The theatre of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes, was a temporary wooden structure built for the festival (the City Dionysia) and dismantled when the celebration was concluded. The audience probably sat on wooden benches (theatron) and the actors and chorus performed on a flat, roughly circular (85' diameter) dirt floored acting area (orchestra). The skene, a tent or small wooden hut was probably added in the middle of the fifth century. The first permanent theatre was built under Macedonian rule in the middle of the fourth century BCE.

Ground_plan_of_Greek_Theatre Ground Plan of a Greek Theatre
To the left is the ground plan of a typical Greek Theatre as published by William Smith in A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1875). The drawing reflects a 19th century understanding based on an examination of the ruins of a fourth century BCE theatre as remodeled by the Romans during the first century BCE.. Note the circular orchestra with its alter (thymele), the theatron which enfolds approximately 60% of the central playing area, and the skene -- with its three "doors" -- which just touches the edge of the orchestra. Note the differences between this plan and the drawing on page 228.
Theatre_of_Dionysus_Athens
Theatre of Dionysus, Athens
To the left is a view of the ruins of the Theatre of Dionysus, the fifth century home of the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and the comedies of Aristophanes. This permanent Greek theatre was built between 342 and 326 BCE (approximately 100 years after Oedipus was first performed); remodeled to fit the Roman ideal during the reign of Nero (61 BCE), and last used for a theatrical performance during the 4th century CE. This historical site was discovered during the 18th century and excavated during the 19th. Note the orchestra (as altered by Romans), the remains of the theatron and the footings of the skene.



Ground Plan of a Typical Greek Theatre

26. In the classical Greek theatre, what was the theatron?

The theatron was the semi-circular seating area in the classical Greek theatre. It was generally (but not always) carved out of the side of a hill. It is the source of our word: theatre. Rough English translation: Seeing place.

    The orchestra?

Was the circular acting area at the foot of the hill, where the chorus (and actors) performed. It was located between the theatron and the skene. In the center of the orchestra was an alter (or thymele). Rough English translation: Dancing place.

    The skene?

The skene, the source of our word: scene, was the palace (or scene house) at the rear of the acting space. It was introduced in the middle of the fifth century BCE and probably did not exist for Aeschylus' early tragedies. It had at least one, and perhaps as many as three openings (doors?) which could be used as entrances. Rough English translation: Tent or booth. See the diagram on page 228.

    The Parodos?

The chorus' entrance into the orchestra.

27. What was the seating capacity of a typical Greek theatre?

During the 4th century BCE, when the temporary wooden benches were replaced with stone slabs, the 78 rows of the Theatre of Dionysus would seat between 15,000 and 16,000 people -- approximately one third the population of Athens. In contrast, a large Broadway theatre, designed primarily for musicals, seats about 1,200.

28. What was the mechane (machina)?

A crane mounted on the roof of the skene. See the diagram on the bottom of page 228.

    How was it used?

It was used to lower the gods into the action of the play. Hence the term deus ex machina-- God out of the machine.

29. How many actors were used in a Greek tragedy?


Statue of a Greek Actor
Two in the plays of Aeschylus, three in the works of both Sophocles and Euripides.

    In Greek comedy?

There was no limit. Aristophanes Lysistrata has a cast of eleven: seven men and four women plus five choruses: Young women, old women, old men, Athenian men and Spartan men.

30. Did women perform on the Greek stage?

No.

31. What was the social rank of a Greek actor?

Acting in the Greek culture was considered an acceptable profession. As we move through theatre history, we will discover the social rank of the performer will vary from accepted to rejected.

32. What was the function of the chorus in a Greek drama?


Painting of a Greek Chorus
  1. They were a character in the play, usually the townspeople. This character was sympathetic to the protagonist.
  2. They presented the writer's point of view.
  3. They were the ideal spectator, their reaction to a scene would cue the audience on how they should react.
  4. They broke the drama into dramatic scenes (or episodes), each scene was separated from the next by a choral interlude (or ode).

33. Who was the major critic of Greek drama?

Aristotle.

    When did he live?

384 to 322 BCE. He wrote about 100 years after Sophocles major tragedies were produced.

    What is his most significant work?

The Poetics, the source of the six elements of dramatic structure.

Roman Theatre

34. Who were the two Roman comic playwrights whose works have survived?


Plautus
Although both tragedies and comedies were written during the period of the Republic (500-27 BCE), the work of only two comedy playwrights has survived -- Titus Plautus (254 to 184 BCE) and Publius Terentius Afer, better known in English as Terence (185 to 159 BCE). Plautus is remembered for his farcical comedies. We have 21 of the more than 100 plays he may have written. On the other hand, Terence's six plays, because of their simple style and high moral tone, were used as the literary models by the colleges and universities of the Renaissance.

35. What was the "source" of Plautus' comic plots and characters?

Most of his plays were based on New Greek Comedy.

36. What is Plautus' most often produced play?

The Menaechmi, also known as the Twin Menaechmi, or simply The Twins. It is the story of twin brothers who are separated at birth. One travels with his father to Syracuse, the other with his mother to Epidemus. After his twenty first birthday, the Syracuse boy sets out in search of his long lost brother. They finally meet after two hours of misunderstandings and mistaken identity.

37. How did he influence later comedy writers such as Shakespeare and Moliere?

Shakespeare and Moliere "borrowed" plots and characters from Plautus' comedies. Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors is based on The Menaechmi and Moliere adapted Plautus' Pot of Gold into The Miser.

38. List seven stock characters Plautus used in his comedies .


Old Man meets Braggart Soldier
  1. An old man, probably a miser.
  2. A young man, possibly the miser's son, who rebels against authority.
  3. Usually a pair of slaves. One smart, the other less smart. The two slaves are the source of most of the humor.
  4. The parasite. The eternal brother in law, he comes for a visit, and stays forever.
  5. The courtesan. The live in maid who knows how to "put out."
  6. The slave dealer. Often trades in women. Today we would call him a pimp.
  7. Miles Gloriosus, the braggart soldier. He talks a mighty battle, but runs at the first sign of conflict.

39. What is the setting of a typical Roman comedy?


Model of a Roman Stage
On a street in front of three houses.

Seneca

40. Who was the major tragic playwright of the Roman theatre?

Lucius Seneca (ca. 5 BCE - 65 CE), a tutor and advisor to Nero (37-68 CE), was the major playwright of the Empire (27 BCE - 476 CE). Nine of his tragedies have survived.

41. On which Greek author were his plays based?

Primarily Euripides, but he also "borrowed" from Aeschylus and Sophocles.

42. Were his plays ever produced?

No. At least we don't think so. His works may have been declaimed, that is-- recited to an audience, but were probably not staged with realistic effects.

43. Why is he important to the study of dramatic literature?

Because Renaissance (1550 to 1700) playwrights used his tragedies as their primary model.

44. List six major characteristics of his dramas.

  1. He divided his plays into five acts with choral interludes. The interludes were not part of the play's action.
  2. He used elaborate rhetorical speeches. His characters debated, they didn't converse.
  3. He was a moral philosopher. He believed that drama should preach a moral lesson.
  4. His tragedies involved much violent action. They were filled with murder, torture, dismemberment...
  5. His tragedies respected the unity of time (plays action unfolds within 24 hours) and place (the plays actions unfolds at one location).
  6. Each of his characters was dominated by one passion (love, revenge, ambition, etc.) which brought about their downfall.

45. What is the difference between a soliloquy and an aside?

In a soliloquy, a character, on an empty stage, speaks directly to the audience. In an aside, a character also speaks to the audience, but the other characters on stage, because of the "magic of theatre," do not hear him. Probably the most famous soliloquy from dramatic literature is the "To be or not to be..." speech from Shakespeare's Hamlet.

46. What is the function of the confidant?

To listen to and advise another, usually more important, character.

47. Who was the "Roman Aristotle?"


Horace
Horace (65 to 8 BCE). In his Ars poetica (The Art of Poetry) (19 BCE) he argued that comedy and tragedy should be distinct forms; that tragedy should draw its characters from the noble class while comedies should deal with the middle class; and that the function of drama was not only to entertain but to teach a moral lesson. These ideas will be incorporated into the NeoClassical Rules during the Renaissance.


Roman Theatre, Merida, Spain
Ground_plan_of_Roman_theatre
Ground Plan of a Roman Theatre
To the left is the ground plan of a typical Roman Theatre as published by William Smith in A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1875). Note the semi-circular orchestra and cavea, the narrow stage (pulpitum), the scena frons with 18 columns and five openings, and the arcade which surrounded the cavea. Smith suggests that two of the five openings contained periaktoi, the three sided rotating prism that the Greeks may have used to indicate a change in location. Also note that there are no entrances into either the orchestra or the cavea. Compare this plan with the photograph of Teatro Romano di Volterra below.
Roman_Theatre_Volterra
Teatro Romano di Volterra
Roman Theatre of Volterra.
To the left are the ruins of one of the better preserved Italian Roman theatres. Note the three sections of the semi-circular cavea and orchestra, the footings for the narrow stage (pulpitum), and the remains (including seven white columns) of the two story scena frons. This structure, unlike Teatro Marcello (See Question 53 below), was carved out of the very rocky hillside. For obvious safety reasons, only a small portion of this excavation (or scavi) is open to the public.


48. How did the Romans change the basic structure of the Greek theatre?

They cut the orchestra in half, from a circle (in Greek times) to a semi-circle. They also cut the seating down to a semi-circle, and added a narrow stage which was attached to the flat part of the orchestra. See the photograph of the Roman Theatre at Orange on page 235 and the diagram (ground plan) on page 237 of Wilson and Goldfarb.

49. How did they use the orchestra?

The orchestra was primarily used as a seating area.

50. Was there a stage, as we know it today, in the Roman theatre?

Yes, the stage was probably between 60 and 100 feet long and about 20 feet deep.

51. How many entrances were in the Roman scaena?

Five. There were three entrances along the back (upstage) wall, and one on each side wall. The three rear entrances usually represented three houses, the two side entrances were to different parts of the town.

52. What was placed behind each of these entrances?

We don't know. When Renaissance architect's began to re-create small Roman theatres in the late 1500's, they built perspective vistas of Roman streets behind each of the entrances. The entrances became ornate arches framing the street scenes behind.

53. What was the seating capacity of an average Roman theatre?


Teatro Marcello
The seating capacity of Rome's Teatro Marcello, the largest theatre in the Roman Empire, was approximately 12,000. The cavea (the semi-circular bank of seats) would hold another 2,000 standees, bringing the total to about 14,000. The theatre was begun in 46 BCE under the reign of Julius Caesar and dedicated to Claudius Marcello by Augustus Caesar between 13 and 11 BCE. The outside diameter of the cavea was about 425 feet. The theatre, which still exists, became a fortress during the middle ages, the Pallazo Savelli [designed by architect Baldassare Peruzzi (1481-1537)] during the Renaissance, and is presently an upscale apartment complex. Obviously the remains of this theatre are not open to the public.
   
A Rear and Satellite View of Teatro Marcello, Rome

54. Was the theatre structure enclosed, or unified?


Roman Theatre
Enclosed. Although the theatre was an open air structure, it was architectually enclosed or unified.

55. Were the Roman theatres carved out of a hillside, or built on level ground?

In rugged country Roman architects, like their Greek predecessors, carved their theatres out of the hillside. On flat land the cavea was typically supported by two or more tiers of Roman arches.

56. What is the difference between a Roman theatre and a Roman amphitheatre?

Colosseum_Rome
Anfiteatro di Flavio
A Roman theatre has a stage (pulpitum) on one side of the orchestra and the audience (cavea) on the other. An amphitheatre has the audience completely surrounding the "stage space." They were huge arenas used primarily for sporting events -- gladitorial combat, mock sea battles (naumachia) and wild animal hunts. The largest (Seating capacity: 87,000 - Outside dimensions: 620' by 513') and most famous amphitheatre in the Empire was Rome's Anfiteatro di Flavio (Amphitheatre of Flavius) which was completed in 80 CE and is more commonly known as the Colosseo (Colosseum). See the photograph of the Roman Colosseum on page 232 of Wilson and Goldfarb.
   
A Satellite view of the Roman Colosseum -- The hypogeum (underground) below the arena floor

The third largest amphitheatre in Italy, capable of holding 30,000 spectators when it was built in 30 CE is the Arena di Verona. Unlike the Roman Colloseum which is primarily a tourist attraction, the arena in Verona is still used as a performing space. During the summer it is the home of the Verona Opera Festival. The photo below (right) shows a production of Verdi's Aida being presented in the Verona di Arena.

   

Below the floor of a Roman arena was an underground network of tunnels and cages, the hypogeum, where gladiators and animals were held before the contests began. Vertical shafts provided access to the arena floor for caged animals and scenery pieces. Hinged platforms provided access for elephants and other large animals. Tunnels connected this underground maze to a number of points outside of the amphitheatre. Animals and performers (gladiators) were brought to the arena through these tunnel from nearby stables and barracks. This underground network can be clearly seen above, in the bottom right image of the Colosseum.

The arena floor of the Anfiteatro Campano in Capua, 16 miles north of Naples, the second largest amphitheatre of the Empire with a seating capacity of 60,000, has been restored and visitors to these archaeological ruins can freely explore this underground network of tunnels.


The Arena Floor of the Anfiteatro Campano, Capua
  
The underground tunnels below the Anfiteatro Campano, Capua

57. What were the three major forces which led to the downfall of the Roman theatre?

  1. The decay of the empire began when Constantine I (Emperor: 306-337 CE) established two capitals in 330 CE and moved the court from Rome (the western capital in central Italy) to Byzantium which he renamed Constantinople, (now known as Istanbul), the eastern capital in what is now Turkey. Rome (and the Western Empire) fell in 476 when the western emperor was unseated by Odoacer, a Germanic barbarian. The Eastern Empire (which included most of Greece) lasted another 977 years, finally falling to the Ottoman Empire (Turks) in 1453.
  2. The barbarians who came down from the north (France and Germany) and plundered the cities of the western empire. The people scattered, buildings were abandoned, and soon there were no large centers of culture in what had been the mighty Roman Empire. The population of the city of Rome dropped from approximately four million at the height of the Empire to under twenty six thousand in the fifth century.
  3. The hostility of the Christian church. The theatre was considered the shrine of Venus (a Roman god). By the fifth century (the 400s) actors were excommunicated. This ruling held in parts of Europe until the 18th century.

58. In what century was the last Roman performance given?

The sixth century. 533 CE, 1066 years after Thespis won the first Greek Tragedy Contest.

Medieval Theatre

59. What medieval institution is credited with the rebirth of western theatre?

The Christian church.

60. What was a tropes?

The tropes was a verbal (sung or chanted) embellishment, an insertion into the liturgical text of the Mass. The most significant of these short embellishments was Quem Quaeritis, (925) "Whom Seek Ye," which was probably originally sung, antiphonally in Latin, by two sections of the choir. The four lines of text comes directly from the New Testament, (The Gospel of St. Luke, Chapter 24).

Quem quaeritis in sepulchro, O Christicole?
Jesum Nazarenum crucifixum, O caelicolae.
Non est hic, surrexit sicut praedixerat.
Ite, nuntiate quia surrexit de sepulchro.
Whom seek ye in the sepulchre, O Christian women?
Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified, O heavenly one.
He is not here; He is risen, as he foretold.
Go, announce that He has risen from the sepulchre.

Within approximately 40 years, this short playlet is being performed not by the choir, but by four brethren (priests) -- three representing the women who have gone to the tomb to anoint Christ's body with oil and the fourth representing the Angel. Bishop Ethelwold (912-984) of Winchester, England, not only includes the text of Quem Quaeritis in Regularis Concordia (ca. 970), a book of rules and advice for the English Benedictines, but gave directions on how to stage the action.

61. During which Christian festival were these early playlets performed?

Quem Quaeritis was inserted into the Easter Mass. Within a short period of time, similar playlets were added to the Christmas and Epiphany services.

62. What was the source of the stories which were dramatized?

The Bible.

63. How were these plays staged inside the church?


Floor Plan of a Medieval Church
Quem Quaeritis was presented near the high alter (sepulchre). As the playlets were extended and additional scenes were added, they were staged on a number of small "platforms" (or mansions) distributed around the perimeter of the church. Both the performer and the audience (the congregation) would move from one "platform" (or scene) to the next. Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337) used the same basic concept when he painted the twenty-three scenes of the Life of Christ on the walls of the Cappella Scrovegni in Padua.

64. What was a mansion or station?

The mansion, or station, was the scenic facade used to locate the action of the play.

     The plateau?

The plateau was the neutral playing area in front of the mansion on which the actors performed.

65. Who were the actors?

The priests.

66. Why, during the 13th century, were these plays moved out of the church?

As the plays became longer and more complicated, it became more and more difficult to stage them indoors. There was also the feeling that the action in some of the plays, such as the Slaughter of the Innocents from the Ordo Rachelis, an Epiphany Play, was too violent, too non-Christian, to be presented within the church. When the dramatic production moved out doors, the plays were presented (spoken, not sung) in the vernacular (the language of the people) by laymen. Although the dramas were still religious, they were no longer a part of worship.

67. Who produced these plays after they left the church?

The trade guilds. These medieval unions provided the money and personal needed to present the plays. The church continued to provide the scripts and directorial leadership.

68. What is a pageant wagon?


Pageant Wagon
A pageant wagon held the mansion, the plateau, and a dressing area on one structure. This wagon stage would then be moved from one gathering of audience to the next, much like a float in a parade. See the illustrations of a Pageant Wagon on page 242.

    In which country was it used?

England.

69. How were these plays staged on the European continent?

Spearfish_Passion_Play
Setting of the Spearfish Passion Play
The mansions were arranged in a line, creating a "street," at the rear of a long narrow platform. At one end (stage right) of the street was the Entrance to Heaven or Paradise and at the other end (stage left) was Gate to Hell, the Hellsmouth. The Spearfish Passion Play used the continental approach to staging. See the illustration of the Outdoor Stages at Valenciennes on page 244.

70. What is the difference between a mystery play, a miracle play, and a morality play?

Mystery play: The plot and characters were drawn from the books of the Bible. It was the major form of Medieval drama. The best examples are the cycle plays of England. The York Cycle (14th century) contained forty-eight short plays and took approximately 14 hours to perform. Of the forty-eight plays, eleven deal with the Old Testament (from Creation to the crossing of the Red Sea), thirteen cover the period from the Annunciation to Palm Sunday, twenty-three cover the final week of Christ's earthly life and His Assumption into Heaven, and one describes Judgement Day. The last known medieval performance of the York Cycle was in 1569.

Miracle play: Built its plot around the lives and the works of the saints. They were usually performed on the saint's feast day. Some of the scripts were biblical, others were not.

Morality play: These dramas were based on the spiritual trials of the average man. They formed a bridge between the Medieval religious plays and the secular dramas of the Renaissance. The plays were allegories about the moral temptations which beset every man. The location was every man's soul. The action of the drama was the battle between good and evil to posses man's soul.

71. Give a specific example of a mystery play? Of a miracle play? Of a morality play?

Mystery play: The Second Shepherd's Play (mid 15th century) from the Wakefield Cycle or The Passion Play which dramatizes the last week of Christ's life -- from His triumphal entry on Palm Sunday through His Ascension into Heaven. Probably the most famous Passion Play is the Oberammergau Passion Play which has been presented every ten years in the small Bavarian village of Oberammergau in south east Germany since the middle of the 17th century. The last performance was during the summer of 2010. It will again be performed in 2020.


Oberammergau Passion Play

Miracle play: The four St. Nicholas plays from the Fleury Play-Book (13th century France) -- Tres Fili (Three Daughters), Tres Clerici (Three Scholars), Iconia Sanctus Nicholaus (Image of Saint Nicholas) and Filius Getronius (Getron's Son). These plays were presented, in Latin, on St. Nicholas Day -- December 6th.

Morality play: Everyman (late 15th century). Everyman is visited by Death. He is told that he can take one friend with him on his long journey. He approaches Fellowship, Kindred, Cousin, Goods, Knowledge, Discretion, Strength, Beauty, and Five Wits. All refuse. Only Good Deeds will join him on his journey. The moral is obvious.


E-mail questions and comments to Larry Wild at wildl@wolf.northern.edu.
Last updated: October 22 2010
Copyright © 1995-2010 by Larry Wild, Northern State University, Aberdeen, SD 57401