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THE ENGLISH DRAMA
It is the fashion among critics to trace the origin of the drama back through literary history, to association with religious ceremonies and a source in religious sentiment; but in studying the development of elaborate dramatic composition and representation they are apt to forget that the true source of dramatic art is a great natural impulse toward feigning passion, character, situation and action, manifest no less in savage than in civilized life, no less in the child than in the man, and to be seen even in the animals that we know best. It is shown in the play of a cat with a captured mouse. notice it in a pet dog that coaxes his master to go through some little scene of comedy with him, affects to be fierce as part of the fun, and growls or barks in seeming fury in answer to every pretended rebuke, as if he were sustaining a dialogue on the stage. It comes out strongly in girls playing with their dolls, posing as matrons chatting over household matters and discussing the imaginary ailments of their bisque babies. It takes on more pomp and circumstance in the action of boys building a fort of snow, arranging storming parties, assuming the rôles of popular heroes, and carrying on a mimic war. In men and women this dramatic instinct weakens somewhat among the realities of life, but it shapes many of our daydreams, gives a touch of elegant affectation to some of our social gatherings, and finds its ultimate gratification in the splendid representations of the modern theatre.
It is said that the English drama rose out of the mystery, miracle and morality plays of the Church; and the statement is true so far as dramatic form is concerned; but it must be remembered that dramatic spirit was not the consequence but the cause of these plays.
When the Roman Empire failed, the tide of barbarism went over the world like a deluge. The flood subsiding revealed a desolate waste, the tree uprooted, the temple broken down and smeared with slime, the civic institutions buried in the drift of conquest, and
art and learning swept into oblivion. A few germs of the old civilization remained with the principle of life in them; there was good material in the conquerors; and the Church had come through the flood with unshaken faith ; so that a new civilization was possible. It was a slow growth, and in some respects an uncouth one; and it was religion, in the nature of the case, that breathed a soul into it, casting over the ruins of material grandeur, the play of social disorder, and the coarse and savage nature of man, a sense of the spiritual and supernatural. With “ another world to plant its engines on” it moved the world around it. The success of the Church looks like a miracle, and most of us assume it to be a proof of a divine mission and divine guidance; but there was withal a great natural opportunity. It was a time to sway, with simple means, simple and savage men, familiar with the idea of divinities behind the storms, the seasons, the woods and hills; and the religious plays were happily chosen among the lighter devices.
The mystery plays, which bore no distinct name in England, dealt with gospel themes, involving the great drama of redemption. In our day the word mystery retains something of its special meaning in one of the devotional exercises of the Catholic church, and it is used for the favourite themes of the old mystery plays, such as the Annunciation, the visit of the Virgin to Saint Elizabeth, the Nativity and the leading incidents in the earthly career of Jesus — constituting the Joyful, the Glorious and the Sorrowful mysteries that are subjects of prayer and meditation in the rosary.
The miracle plays dealt mainly with incidents in the Old Testament, or in the lives of the saints; and they might be considered as analagous to the historical plays in our day, since in them the heroes of the Church figured, and the great forces of good and evil contended on the stage.
The moralities or moral plays were dramas in which abstract qualities were personified and became characters; and virtues, vices and dispositions strode about the stage as individuals, with names significant of their nature. Commonly the devil took a part in these plays; and the vice, a character representing a different sin in different dramas, was an attendant spirit, yet ever active for the annoyance and discomfiture of his master. The clown in the earlier secular plays is considered a survival of the vice in another form.
So far as may be gathered from existing records, it seems that the
mystery and miracle plays were brought to England after the Norman conquest, took the popular favour, and did not pass away until the close of the sixteenth century. The moralities, as separate entertainments, are traced to the middle of the fifteenth century; and they too died out in the time of Queen Elizabeth.
These plays were given originally, it is supposed, under clerical management; but in time, while retaining their religious tone, they became popular entertainments; and they may have been rendered under civic patronage, or by trade guilds, or even by professional actors. The stage was commonly a scaffold set upon four wheels and divided into a lower room where the actors dressed, and a higher room open at the top where they played. And the huge van on which a mystery was represented was wheeled from street to street in a town, to be followed by the next of the series. The costumes were conventional: gilded hair and beards for the saints, hideous masks for the demons, white robes for the blessed souls, black for the damned, and wings for the angels.
In the nature of the case, the people of cities and towns must have been familiar with these performances as well as with mere pageants and masques ; and it is plain from the performance of “ The Nine Worthies" in “Love's Labour's Lost," and " Pyramus and Thisbe" in “Midsummer Night's Dream,” that even rustics and artisans were given to dramatic ambition and accustomed to attempt dramatic representation : while the introduction of the players in “Hamlet” shows that a theatrical interlude at court or at some great noble's house was a familiar thing. In all probability, therefore, the people of England, late in the sixteenth century, were more familiar with dramatic representation, better skilled in dramatic form, and fonder of dramatic art than ever since. Nothing was needed for the development of the theatre, save freedom in the choice of themes and in method; and when the general authority of the Church was challenged and overthrown, the English drama rose suddenly in the fullness of power and glory. No longer a handmaid of religion, it stepped forth as a tenth muse, humming love ditties like Erato, as light of foot and lithe of form as Terpsichore, as familiar with court and camp and battle-field as Clio, as full of wit and laughter as Thalia, and as much at home in strong passion and heroic suffering as Melpomene. Dramatic literature came with a sudden rush, gathering strength from all sources, full of life, light, love and power
no theme too noble or too base, no philosophy too subtle, no sentiment too tender, no passion too fierce, no jest too coarse for it.
The earliest regular English comedy was “Ralph Roister Doister," by Nicholas Udall, master at Eton; and it was printed in 1551. It must be described as a crude and clumsy performance. The first regular English tragedy was “Gorboduc," acted before Queen Elizabeth at Whitehall, by the gentlemen of the Inner Temple, January 18, 1562, two years before the birth of Shakespeare. It dealt with a theme in early English history ; it was the first dramatic work in blank verse, the measure afterward established in popular favour by Marlowe; and it is in many respects a masterly composition. The authors were Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhorst, and Thomas Norton. The same year a classic tragedy and a comedy from a story in Ariosto were acted in Gray's Inn Hall; and from 1568 to 1580 no fewer than fifty-two plays were presented at court under the superintendence of the master of the revels, wrought out of Italian stories, well-worn classic themes, and incidents related in the old chronicles, some of them the very material that Shakespeare touched and transmuted into literary gold. In 1576, the first regular licensed theatre was opened at Blackfriars in London ; and in a few years there were five public theatres in the metropolis, besides various private places where plays might be given ; and there were as many as two hundred professional actors in London and its neighbourhood. To appreciate these facts and understand the relative importance of the Elizabethan theatre, we must remember that the metropolis then was no larger than one of our third-class cities now, though it was the capital of a kingdom and the centre of the life of a nation. But the sudden rise of dramatists was even more of a mystery. Within the space of a lifetime came Lyly, Peele, Green, Kyd, Nash, Lodge, Marlowe, Jonson, Beaumont, Fletcher, Webster, Ford, Dekker, Middleton, Massinger, Shirley, - to say nothing of Shakespeare, whose plays constitute the richest literary heritage of humanity.
There was much to quicken dramatic genius into activity. The world was astir with interest in commerce, in conquest, and in discovery; and the stage was the great means of bringing the people into touch with the thought of the times. In this respect it was akin to the modern press. Hamlet says, in commending the players to Polonius : “Good, my lord, will you see the players well bestowed ?