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ANTECEDENTS OF THE ENGLISH DRAMA
BEFORE the student is prepared to discuss the rapid revival of the English Drama in the early Elizabethan days and its perfected expression in the works of Shakespeare, it is necessary for him to take a comprehensive survey of English dramatic history from its crudest beginnings and forms. In such a general review, however, it is not to be forgotten that, though these beginnings are comparatively unimportant, they are still beginnings of that which is important, and, as such, assume, at the outset, a high position of relative rank. Enthusiastic artists have told us that they have enjoyed the rudest sketches of Raphael's boyhood and early manhood with as keen a relish as the maturest products of his genius on exhibition in the Vatican or at Dresden. No one can appreciate the works of the world's greatest artists and not, at the same time, acknowledge a substantial indebtedness to such early models as Giotto and Cimabue. The English drama, as indeed the
European and universal drama, finds its rational origin in the nature and inherent tastes of mankind. It may be said to be the legitimate offspring of that imitative faculty with which God has seen fit to endow the race. It is in the early, continuous, and persistent endeavor to give expression to this innate propensity of the soul that such an art has its literary source; the naturalness of dramatic representation in all ages and among all peoples being strictly dependent upon this recognition of its spontaneous origin. With this fact in mind, it is interesting to note the attitude of the fathers of the early church towards the dramatic exhibitions of their time and how impossible it was for them ever to eradicate that deep-rooted institution which they, at length, wisely endeavored to reform. Theophilus, in the second century, speaks of these "tragical distractions as unwarrantable entertainments." By the first General Council of Arles (314 A.D.) players were actually excommunicated until they abandoned their acting. Both Cyril and Tertullian taught that for the baptized children of the church to witness such scenes was a sure evidence of their apostasy. They pronounced the plays idolatrous and superstitious. History informs us, however, that these severe
strictures were well deserved in that the plays of
those pagan times were connected with the lowest forms of national life. The voice of earnest rebuke was for a time heeded, so that Augustine tells us that the Greek and the Roman playhouses were for a time improved or abandoned. Hence, it is clear that the dramatic art itself had not become extinct, but had become so corrupted in its connection with the rites of Venus and Bacchus, as for a time to endanger its very existence. In the fourth century of the Christian era, stage representations were renewed, signally improved as to their intrinsic character and under a far safer and purer control. Old Testament history took the place of ribaldry and licentious songs, while the church fathers themselves became personally active as authors of dramatic works and patrons of the stage. It is written of Gregory, Patriarch of Constantinople, that, chagrined by the inferiority of the Greek theater, he prepared material from Scripture on the basis of the classical dramatists, and aimed in a presentation of the history of our Lord to reproduce the art of the great Greek tragedians. The same order of public entertainment is found in France in the reign of Charlemagne. Abundant evidence is produced by Warton that Latin plays
were familiar to the Norman clergy before and after the Conquest, and it is just at this point that the dramatic history of England is seen to connect itself with the general dramatic history of Continental Europe. As to the exact status of the tragic and comic art in Saxon and Norman days, little that is trustworthy is known. The entire period from the beginning of the twelfth century to the middle of the sixteenth may be regarded as one in which the rude portraitures of medieval days were gradually transformed, under various agencies, into the highly organized dramas of Shakespeare and Marlowe. At this early date, in the reign of Henry I. and of Stephen of Blois, are found the first plays that are known to have been composed by an Englishman. These are the three plays of Hilarius, an English monk, written when he was a pupil of the celebrated Abelard, in France. It is the testimony of Fitzstephen, in his "Life of Becket," that London "had entertainments of a more devout kind, either of those miracles which were wrought by holy confessors or those passions and sufferings in which the martyrs so rigidly displayed their fortitude." This is confirmed by the later evidence of Matthew Paris, as he writes of the drama in the middle of the thir
teenth century. The interest of the intelligent English student in this older history will be greatly deepened when he remembers that, for three centuries or more of our earlier English life, dramatic writing was the chief form of the literary expression of the people and the main agent of their ethical training. It is a fact worthy of special note, that "Scriptural dramas composed by ecclesiastics furnished the nations of Europe with the only drama they possessed for hundreds of years." A late English author may thus safely assert that such compositions as these " are not inconsiderable objects in the philosophy of literary history."
The best classification of the dramatic representations from the earliest English times to the opening of the modern English drama may be given in the generally accepted threefold division of (1) Miracle Plays or Mysteries; (2) Moralities; (3) Interludes and Chronicle Plays. These names are, in themselves, strikingly suggestive.'
1. Miracle Plays. We have alluded to the prevalence of this first order throughout all the nations of Europe and at a very primitive period. In no other country, Spain excepted, are these particular plays to be found as characteristic as in England and as faithful a reflection of the mental and social