By Danièle Cybulskie
I suppose support for the idea of a “Dark Ages” might come from the theatrical community, since the well-organized and socially-prominent theatre of the Greek and Roman eras came to a very definite halt in Western Europe as the Roman Empire “fell” under wave after wave of barbarian invasions. For centuries, it seems, the lights of Broadway were dimmed. That isn’t to say that medieval people just sat around and stared at each other for entertainment; there were plenty of entertainers. Minstrels travelled around with the latest news and songs, jugglers were always popular, and there are lots of records of acrobats being hired to perform. Theatre as we know it, though, fell by the wayside.
Interestingly, it was the church who reviled these travelling entertainers (even in Shakespeare’s day actors were on par with prostitutes), but it was also the church that revived the theatre. As church music evolved, it began to incorporate call-and-answer hymns, and gradually these became acted parts of special services. In the tenth century, a tiny (four-line) play evolved which we call Quem Quaeritis? (“Whom Do You Seek?”) which was about the women’s encounter with the angel at Christ’s tomb. This definitely was acted out; instructions on how best to present this mini-play have survived.
Eventually, plays made their way out of the churches and into the streets. These early plays were also religious in theme, and so have been called “mystery plays” since they dealt with the theological mysteries of the Christian religion, or “cycle plays,” since they dealt with the entire cycle of the world’s history – again, through Catholic eyes – from the creation of mankind to the last judgement. Each cycle play dealt with one moment in theological history, and the responsibility for the presentation of these plays was distributed amongst the guilds. It always makes me smile to think of how they distributed the plays to appropriate guilds: the story of Noah’s ark would be put on by the shipbuilder’s guild, for example, or the Last Supper by the baker’s guild. Plays were acted out by amateurs; guildsmen who took oaths to attend all rehearsals or face a fine. On the European continent, women took part in plays (though they could not be members of guilds), but in jolly, old England, women were not permitted to act.
Instead of a theatre, or even a permanent outdoor stage, medieval performances took place on large pageant wagons that would be rolled into place (“pageant” is actually the old word for these wagons, and gives us the word we use today). These wagons were elaborate and expensive enough that they were stored rather than dismantled, even though cycles may only have been performed once every several years. Historians debate about whether or not they’d be rolled to stations around the town, with players performing the same plays several times in different locations. I tend to agree with the historians who suggest that all the pageant wagons would be circled around one space, with the audience in the centre. (Likely, both scenarios were true at one time or another.) Audiences would stand (or look out their windows, perhaps), and watch the history of the world unfold before them over the course of the day.
Unlike in many of today’s performances, audiences were encouraged to participate in the action, heckling the “bad guys” and cheering for the “good guys.” There were characters they’d know to expect, such as the raging King Herod of the Nativity story, and they’d know they were supposed to jeer or cheer as appropriate. The players could also weave through the audience itself to provoke a reaction.
Although cycle plays were meant to teach the common people about theology, and to celebrate it in the common tongue (rather than in the Latin of church services), it may surprise you to know that there was quite a lot of, ahem, scatological material in them. That is, the type of gross-out and crass humour that is bewailed by today’s movie critics was ever-present in these plays about religious material. The knee-jerk reaction would be to judge medieval people as being generally crass as a rule (they’d even stoop to putting toilet humour in religious plays?), but there are many good reasons to have done so. As today’s ticket sales will tell you, there is a market for that kind of entertainment. More importantly, though, the overarching message behind these plays is that salvation is available to anyone, no matter how high or how low. So, even if Noah’s wife has to be dragged onto the ark, she still gets to be saved in the end. The audience gets a good laugh, too.
As time went on, plays strayed from the cycle, and morality plays emerged. Plays like the famous “Everyman” involved allegorical characters (characters that represented abstract ideas, like vanity), and taught moral lessons to their audiences. Theatre stuck to the religious path for centuries, eventually expanding into satire and farce around the sixteenth century. The cycle plays did not entirely disappear, though, as even Shakespeare seems to have recalled them from his youth. Theatre continued to be transient, but gradually became the realm of professional actors, usually travelling in troupes. The first permanent theatre in England was not built until 1576 (Shakespeare was 12), and was called (wait for it…) “The Theatre.”
If you happen to be in York, England, you can catch that city’s own cycle plays performed every few years – click here to learn more about the Mystery Plays at York.
While we tend to think of medieval Christianity as having very strict rules, there’s nothing quite like seeing your favourite Biblical characters spouting curse words (Noah calls his stubborn wife a “ram-skit” – that is, “ram shit” – in the Wakefield Cycle). Even hundreds of years ago, theatre was topical, provocative, and, most of all, entertaining.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist