The Saint’s Play in Medieval England
By Mary del Villar
PhD Dissertation, University of Arizona, 1970
Abstract: Plays about saints and their miracles were acted the length and breadth of England for more than four hundred years. The first recorded performance of a saint’s play in England was in the late eleventh century; by the thirteenth century such plays were a regular feature of London life. The saint’s play is thus an older dramatic genre than the scriptural cycle and must have supplied conventions for the writers of the cycles.
Because few English saint’s plays have survived the Reformation and the ravages of time, the genre has not been given its rightful place as a part of the vigorous native dramatic tradition that helped to prepare the way for the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. The extant texts, which are mostly from the fifteenth century, have been given little space in treatments of the English medieval drama. Those who have written about them for the most part have had little familiarity with the genre, its traditions, or its purposes.
To evaluate the English plays, it is necessary to investigate the saint’s plays that were written and performed in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. In this study continental plays are used to provide a background for discussions of the extant English texts: The Conversion of Saint Paul, Mary Magdalene, The Play of the Sacrament, and the Cornish Life of Saint Meriasek. In addition, two fragmentary plays, Dux Moraud and The Pride of Life, are discussed as types of dramatized miracles of the Virgin. The scriptural cycles are treated only in so far as they contain elements associated with the saint’s drama, such as plays on the Assumption of the Virgin, which may originally have been independent plays. Treatment of the plays includes consideration of sources, continental parallels, structure, conventions, and staging.
The medieval English saint’s play was destroyed by the Reformation, but some saints continued to appear in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century plays both in English and Latin. Among them are Nicholas Grimald’s Archipropheta, George Buchanan’s Baptistes. The Virgin Martyr by Dekker and Massinger, and Dryden’s Tyrannic Love. While the saint’s play can be said to have lived through the Reformation, the genre survived more significantly in the motifs and conventions which it bequeathed to the Elizabethan and Jacobean drama.