(§ 1). Origins and Earliest Specimens. The religious drama, as setting forth events recorded in the Bible or moral lessons to be drawn from religious teaching, is distinctively medieval in character, and in origin is closely connected with the services of the Church. At a very early period a quasi-dramatic effect was given by the division of the choir into antiphonal semi-choruses and in the responses of the congregation to the clergy, though it was not until the tenth century that there was any approximation to dramatic action. Then, however, tropes, or texts interpolated during the service, as in the introit, were added, the oldest specimens being contained in a St. Gall manuscript of about 900. In many monasteries the crucifixion and resurrection were dramatically represented from Good Friday to Easter; and the custom thus inaugurated received accretion after accretion, such as a scene between Mary Magdalene and Christ, added in the twelfth century. In like manner the antiphon and the trope sung at Christmas gave rise to a little drama, probably modeled on the Easter playlet, the earliest Easter tropes extant dating from the eleventh century; and similar provision was made for the feasts of Holy Innocents and Epiphany. As a specimen the little drama acted on the latter feast may be described. Three of the clergy, robed as kings, came from three sides of the church and met at the altar, whence they solemnly proceeded, with a star swinging before them from a cord, to the crib, where they were received by two priests vested in dalmatics. Having offered their gifts, they were warned by an angel (a white-robed boy) to escape the wrath of Herod, whereupon they made their exit from the church through the transept. A combination of Christmas, Holy Innocents, and Epiphany was also effected by having the three kings brought before Herod while on their way to Bethlehem, the introduction of that king giving the moment of opposition and thus inaugurating true dramatic life in Christian drama. Yet another drama was evolved from a homily attributed to Augustine and read as a lesson on Christmas. Assailing the Jews for their stubborn refusal to hear their own prophets concerning the Christ, the opportunity was afforded, in the eleventh century, of presenting not only the prophets, but also Vergil (on account of the fourth Eclogue), Nebuchadrezzar, and the Sibyl. The feasts of the Annunciation, Easter Monday, and the Ascension gave rise to minor dramas; while the dramatic representation of eschatological events, e.g., the wise and foolish virgins, traces its origin to the gospel for the twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, the last of the church year.
(§ 2). Gradual Extension of Action. In all this the Church endeavored not only to provide a substitute for pagan and secular plays, but also to teach the masses, who were ignorant of Latin, the lessons of Scripture and doctrine which they would not otherwise comprehend. The gradual ex- tension of the text gave increasing independence of diction, and new passages in prose and poetry were gradually added to the mosaic of passages from the Bible and the chants of the Church which make up the oldest religious plays. The richness of the popular Latin poetry of the period is a component in the Daniel of Abelard's pupil Hilarius, the first definite personality in the history of the religious drama (b., probably in England, about the middle of the twelfth century), as well as in the eleventh century Antichrist, preserved in a manuscript from the monastery of Tegernsee. Beginning with the twelfth century the Easter plays manifest a tendency to extend the time of action, one of the early thirteenth century beginning with the calling of Peter and Andrew, and, though now ending abruptly with the negotiations between Pilate and Joseph of Arimathea concerning the sepulcher of Christ, once evidently carried on to the resurrection. This is, accordingly, the oldest specimen thus far known of the Passion play, which was to become the chief theme of medieval drama; but this type was not developed from the liturgy for Good Friday in the same sense as the Easter play from the liturgy for Easter, the deep solemnity of Good Friday forbidding free play to dramatic imagination. The twelfth century also witnessed the rise of dramas dealing with the saints, although these seem to have been intended primarily for schools, since they all deal with St. Nicholas, the patron of younger pupils, with the exception of one, which is devoted to St. Catherine, the patron of the older scholars.
The departure of the religious drama from its original limits was unpleasant to some of the more rigorous, and complaints were made as early as the twelfth century, when Gerhoh of Reichersberg and Abbess Herrad of Landsberg both attacked the drama as the work of the devil, the latter especially objecting that, while the plays were laudable and useful in their primary form, they had degenerated into irreligion and license. The costuming of monks as warriors, women, and devils, instead of symbolic renderings of the roles, was evidently offensive, and the abbess particularly objected to the horse-play, thus evidencing a further departure from classic models in the melodramatic mingling of comic and tragic elements. The production of plays in churches was finally forbidden, though the prohibition seems to have been aimed at unworthy productions rather than at religious dramas proper, the latter being expressly excepted from condemnation in the decretals of Gregory ("Decretals," book III., tit. i., chap. xii.).
(§ 3). Rise of Objections; Vernacular Plays. The first traces of the use of the vernacular in religious dramas date from the twelfth century. In Germany this was effected by a spoken German paraphrase following the chanted Latin sentence, and with the triumph of the vernacular over Latin also went the gradual supremacy of spoken over chanted lines. The earliest extant specimen of the vernacular religious drama is the twelfth century French Adam. A number of French dramas of the saints have also been preserved, the most important of which is the St. Nicholas of Jean Bodel of Arras (c. 1200), which, as in the later romantic style, combines religious, knightly, and imaginative elements with a realistically burlesque presentation of everyday life. A later cycle of dramas shows how the Virgin miraculously intervenes in time of need or danger to succor those who adore her. The grotesque element comes to the fore in certain fourteenth-century German Easter plays, especially in those scenes where Satan, having lost so many souls through the descent of Christ to hell, sends the devil to recoup, this affording an opportunity for the satirization of the most varied estates of man. To the same period belongs the play of The Wise and Foolish Virgins, an eschatological drama. No texts of religious dramas in England have been preserved from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, though it is certain that such plays were then produced; and the only Spanish play of the period is a fragment of an Epiphany drama of the twelfth century, which, like the French Adam, is a very early specimen of the vernacular religious drama. In Italy the beginnings of national religious drama came, not from the Latin liturgy, but from the songs, rich in dialogue, of the Flagellants of the thirteenth century (see FLAGELLATION, FLAGELLANTS, II., § 5); and apparently after the Flagellant brotherhoods had been permanently organized, the dramatic elements of their songs were given appropriate theatrical action.
(§ 4). Increasing Elaborateness of Production. Though numerous specimens have been preserved of the Latin drama, which may be said to have come to an end about 1200, few examples survive of the national plays of the oldest period (1200-1400), so that their process of development must remain uncertain; yet the dramatic merit of even the earliest vernacular plays is far superior to the Latin mysteries of the closing medieval period. In the cities the presentations became more im- posing and the casts larger; in the great squares were erected stages, the location permitting the action to proceed without needing change of scenery; above was the throne of God and heaven, whence angels could descend to aid the good; and at the end of the stage was the abyss of hell, from which figures of grotesque devils constantly ascended. Since such productions required fair weather, the time of presentation tended to abandon the seasons of Christmas and Easter; and with increasing frequency the time of action extended throughout the earthly life of Christ, or even from the creation to the last day, the actual time of presentation now covering several days. This growth also involved the increasing introduction of the laity, although the clergy jealously arrogated to themselves the preparation of texts and the training of actors. The presentation of a religious drama, moreover, was held to be essentially pleasing to God, and was often motived either by thanksgiving for divine protection or to deprecate threatening calamity, while occasionally indulgences were attached to such presentations. While the educational purpose, already noted, was frequently stressed, there are only rare allusions to the moral influence of the plays, although it is once remarked that sinners would be terrified by the tortures of the damned or of those in purgatory represented on the stage. The cycles dealing with the saints often advocated openly the veneration of their heroes, and the Passion plays were designed to awaken a living sympathy with the agony of Christ and to call forth the grace of tears; while the plea was also advanced that man needs amusement, and that the religious drama was better adapted for this than many other forms of enjoyment. There is scant trace in the Middle Ages of the modern scruples against the dramatic representation of sacred themes, and the attitude in general toward them finds its modern counterpart in the Oberammergau Passion Play.
(§ 5). Literary Style; Corpus Christi Plays and Moralities. Not only was the medieval playwright gifted with scanty dramaturgic art, but the length of time and the number of roles at his disposal led him into prolixity and unessential details. In the psychology of the leading parts and in the evolving of motives, he was mainly dependent on the theologians, especially those of the contemplative school who had pondered long upon the Passion. From these sources are borrowed such pathetic scenes as that in which the Virgin intrusts Christ to the care of the traitor Judas, and also scenes of horror. The greatest originality is displayed in comic scenes, although the wit here was of a breadth that sometimes caused the clergy to interfere. Thus, in the scene of the crucifixion, the Jews executed a grotesque song and dance with exaggerated caricatures of contemporary Jewish characteristics; and the beggars and cripples on whom the saints worked miracles likewise came in for their share of satire. In criticizing medieval religious dramas, however, it must be borne in mind that their authors did not aim at literary style, but only at the conversion from narrative to drama of their Biblical and legendary themes. Yet even the weakest plays mirror forth the thought of their time; and the uniformity of development in various countries likewise finds its explanation in the common source, the Latin literature of the Church, as well as in the uniform religious conditions prevailing throughout Western Christendom, not in international communication.
International communication did, however, have some part, and the people here most concerned were the French, among whom the religious drama, here called "mystery," attained its richest and highest development, aided by dramas of the legends of the saints, especially those in which their intercession aids those who venerate them, these dramas of the saints being specifically termed "miracle plays." Yet another form of religious drama was evolved from the Corpus Christi processions dating from the latter part of the thirteenth century. Here it became possible to represent the entire history of the world, the division of the presentation between the various gilds and parishes heightening the magnificence of the whole, especially as the different scenes were given at designated places along the route. This form of drama reached its zenith in England, as in the "York plays," Spain not coming to the fore until much later. The older Latin liturgical dramas still lingered on, though steadily declining until they disappeared altogether, except for a few modern attempts at revival.
In addition to plots taken from the Bible and legend, the later Middle Ages developed the allegorical drama, or "morality." The idea of a conflict between the virtues and the vices was, indeed, no new one, but the first dramas built upon such plots date from the last decades of the fourteenth century, and reached perfection only in the fifteenth century, especially in France, the Netherlands, and England. To this category belongs, for example, the English Everyman, showing how each one, in his progress to the judgment of God, is deserted by kindred, wealth, and friends, only Good Deeds clinging to him. A variant of the moralities was afforded by the dance of death, apparently first devised by a preacher, probably a Franciscan, to illustrate the power of death over all classes, each of which, represented by a character appropriately costumed, holds dialogue with death before passing to the grave.
(§ 6). Early Protestant Attitude. The spread of the Reformation naturally affected the religious drama. The adherents of the ancient faith redoubled their zeal in France in the production of mysteries, but the civil authorities no longer were as favorable as in the past; many points, such as the coarse jests of the comic scenes, were now regarded as exposed to Protestant attack; the Roman Catholics themselves, under the literary influence of the school of Ronsard, came to regard the medieval drama as barbarous and devoid of style; and there was apprehension of the faulty presentation of the doctrines of the Church. The attitude of the Calvinists was at first not unfavorable to the religious drama, but about 1570 the position changed, and the synods of Nimes (1572) and Figeac (1579) condemned them. In German Switzerland the Protestants took delight in religious dramas until late in the sixteenth century, and Luther, at least once supported by Melanchthon, expressly approved them if presented reverently and without unseemly levity. The numerous German dramas now written were modeled largely on Terence and on the Latin school-plays based on the Bible; and the best specimen of this type, the Acolastus of Gnapheus, based on the parable of the prodigal son, was produced in 1529, while an English translation was published by John Palsgrave in 1540. The Protestant religious drama likewise mingled polemic elements in its plots, the priests of Baal in Old-Testament plays being favorite covers for attacks on the Roman Catholic clergy. This spirit, however, was especially manifest in the moralities from the earliest decades of the Reformation period. An entire cycle of French moralities represent sick faith seeking assistance in vain from a scholastic theologian, and find healing only from Text of Holy Writ; or permit Simony and Avarice to imprison Truth until she is freed by a layman versed in the Bible. The English Everyman was Protestantized by having the hero saved by Faith instead of by Good Deeds. The Roman Catholics long lacked, both in the drama and elsewhere, such determined protagonists as their opponents possessed, nor was the situation changed until toward the end of the sixteenth century, when the Jesuits began their dramatic propaganda with the aid of all the refinements of the Barocco style. In Spain, beginning with the middle of the sixteenth century, the Corpus Christi processions assumed the form of moralities rigidly Roman Catholic in spirit, filled with hatred of heresy, and usually exalting the mystery of transubstantiation. In the following century, through the genius of Calderon, they attained their zenith, and by their rich mysticism, allegory, and diction they impressed even the Protestant mind.
(§ 7). The Oberammergau Passion Play. While dramas based on the Bible and on legends of the saints maintained their existence in Roman Catholic lands, and even spread to such countries as Poland and Croatia, they gradually retreated from the cities to the rural districts, where they may still be witnessed. By far the most famous of this type is the passion play of Ober-Ammergau (q.v.), which in its original form, represented by a manuscript of 1662, was a combination of a fifteenth-century Augsburg passion play with a sixteenth-century passion play of the Augsburg meistersinger Sebastian Wild, who drew from the Cristus redivivus of the Englishman Nicholas Grimald (1519-62). In 1750 the play was entirely revised, at the request of the villagers of Ober-Ammergau, by a Benedictine friar, Ferdinand Rosner, who introduced scenic effects borrowed from the Jesuit stage as well as arias and choruses modeled on Italian opera. The most striking innovation, however, was the representation of prefiguration of New-Testament events in the Old Testament. This motive, apparently found in the Middle Ages only in the Heidelberg passion play (manuscript of 1513), which, for instance, prefigures Jesus and the woman of Samaria by Eliezer and Rebecca at the well, was a favorite device in the Jesuit drama, whence Rosner incorporated it in the Ober-Ammergau play. In the second half of the eighteenth century the mocking spirit of the Enlightenment caused the governments of Bavaria and Austria to assume an unfavorable position toward the religious drama, and the production of passion plays was forbidden. In 1780, however, after "amendment" by the clergy of Ettal, the Ober-Ammergau play was excepted from the prohibition, and though again forbidden in 1801, it was officially sanctioned after 1811. By 1850 the text had again been revised and the verse of the dialogue had been turned into prose, while it now contained clear traces of the influence of the sentimentalism of the eighteenth century and of the religious poetry of Klopstock. The play as now presented is exceedingly impressive and reverent; each actor is chosen in conformity with his character and is schooled both by tradition and practise; but the stage is no longer that of medieval times. The success of the Ober-Ammergau Passion Play has led to the revival of the religious drama in other parts of southern Germany, as at Brixlegg in the Tyrol and at Höritz in Bohemia.
(§ 8). The Christmas Plays. The Christmas plays, still produced even among Protestants, are less ambitious. As already noted, the late Middle Ages witnessed a tendency to transfer the drama of the birth and childhood of Christ from Christmas to the summer, but the Christmas play proper still survived, though in simpler form. Among the German Christmas plays special interest attaches to one of the fifteenth century in the Hessian dialect, presenting many traits which became traditional in the cycle, such as the humorous character of the aged Joseph and the comic shepherd scenes with their allusions to contemporary peasant life. The scenes of the three kings and Herod are often reminiscent of the Entpfengnuss und Geburdt Johannis und Christi of Hans Sachs, and they were often amalgamated with the Christmas play, which was also sometimes combined with the Advent play, in which the Christ-child goes about to see whether the children have been good and industrious. See also POEMS, ANONYMOUS, OF THE ANCIENT CHURCH, 18; ROSWITHA.