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ESSAY ONE: English Histories of Medieval Theater


"Tradition takes what has come own to us and delivers it over to self-evidence: it blocks our access to those primordial 'sources' from which the categories and concepts handed down to us have been in part quite genuinely drawn. Indeed, it makes us forget that they have had such an origin, and makes us suppose that the necessity of going back to these soures is something which we need not even understand."

- Martin Heidegger (1)


Introduction: E.K. Chambers

The father of Medieval Theater Studies, the giant who straddles 19th century and modern Medieval Theater Studies, is E.K. Chambers. His two volume , published in 1903, crystallized the English tradition up to his day. It is still the point of departure for most contemporary histories, such as this one.

Chambers has been so influential because he was among the first to devote his time without excuses, and for the sheer joy of it, to Medieval theater. His books removed a long-standing and lingering stigma on the field, which originated in the eighteenth century and developed in the nineteenth. The Medieval Stage legitimized Medieval Drama as a field of scholarly study.

He was not an innovative thinker, however. His developmental scheme originated in the centuries before him, as did the elements of the history he put together. He was neither eclectic nor a maverick. He set out only "to collect, once for all, as many facts with as precise references as possible," (2) placing them into a traditional framework, to support that framework.

He used conventional definitions of theater and drama as well, and consequently - as O.B. Hardison has pointed out (3) - he nowhere felt obliged to make his definitions public. So, in order to discover what Chambers was collecting facts about, we must conflate quotes and hunt down working definitions scattered throughot the Medieval Stage, and contrive from them a definition such as:

"The first condition of drama is dialogue...But dialogue by itself is not drama. The notion of drama does not, perhaps, imply scenery on a regular stage, but it does imply impersonation and a distribution of roles between at least two performers" (I, 77, 81) (4).

To fill out this definition we consult a vast category hovering on the fringes of "drama", called by Chambers "pseudo-drama."

His chapter "Moralities, Puppet Plays and Pageants" begins with the statement that once invented the Miracle Play cold develop further 1) by developing the subject matter, or 2) "by an adaptation of its themes and methods to other forms of entertainment which, although mimetic, were not, in the full sense of the term, dramatic" (II, 149). The first one would be drama, the second would be merely "an overflow into various pseudo-drmatic, rather than strictly dramatic, forms of entertainment" (II, 157). These latter include puppet plays and even regular miracle and morality plays when performed by marionettes.

Another form of pseudo-drama was "presented by living persons in the 'ridings' or processions which formed an integral part of so many medieval festivals" (II, 161). He also excludes "mimetic processions", "dumb-show pageants," "municipal 'shows' of welcome," and "those mysteres mimes or cyclical dumb-shows, with which the good people of Paris were wont to welcome kings, and which were clearly an adaptatin of the ordinary miracle-play to the conditions of a royal entry with its scant time for long drawn-out dialogue" (II, 173).

He describes a bit of Medieval pseudo-drama at St. Paul's in London, where a hole in the roof "served a...purpose at a mimetic representation of the Annunciation. The Gospel for the day was recited by two clerks dressed as Mary and the Angel, and at the words Spiritus Sanctus Supervenit in te a white dove descended from the roof. This can hardly be called drama, for, with the exception of a short fifteenth-century text from Cividale, only the words of the Gospel itself seem to have been used: but obviously it is on the extreme verge of drama" (II, 66, my emphasis).

Caroles verge on drama too, since the "types of chanson most immediately derived from these are full of dialogue, and already on the point of bursting into drama," which in fact happens, "with the aid of the minstrels, in the Jeu de Robin et de Marion" which is "practically a pastourelle par personnages" (I, 171).

Certain religious ceremonies also "have the potentiality of dramatic development. Symbolism, mimetic action, are there. The other important factor, of dialogued speech, is latent in the practice of antiphonal singing" (II, 6). This is where Theater was born, according to Chambers - in the quem quaeritis trope in which "Dialogued chant and mimetic action have come together and the first liturgical drama is, in all its essentials, complete" (II, 15).

His definition of drama, then, seems to include these factors: the actors must be human; there must be impersonation; there must be two or more performers together; there must be speech, which must be in dialogue-form between the actors and not narration; and there must be symbollic action.

There is another variable in the equation which may be called, roughly, "Civilization.'

For Chambers, the savage, the barbarian, the peasant and the child are primitive stages in an attempt at Modern European Civilization. Sincer literacy is basic to civilization in Chambers' estimation, the illiterate farmer in contemporary England is functionally the same creature as the illiterate barbarian who overran the Roman Empire and brought on the Dark Ages. The modern farmer is a living fossil, a low rung on the developing ladder of culture. To the attentive student, he is a lesson in the dpeths from which civilization has come, his "folk-drrama" a picture of the early stages of the drama.

Underlying all drama is another variable directly related to civilization - the mimetic instinct, "which no race of mankind is wholly without" (I, 1), but which different races possess in differing degress. By itself the mimetic instinct does not result in drama, but in pseudo-drama. It is fundaental to drama, but to become drama the mimetic instinct must be civilized.

The peasant is more ruled by instinct than the civilized man is, and therefore his work and play are filled with mimetic elements. Not being civilized, the peasant doesn't rise above these mimetic elements to create a legitimate drama. His "mind is tenacious of acts and forgetful of explanations" (I, 148), he delights in spectacle (I,3), his humor is crude and sensuous (I,3), and if drama interests him he demands farce or plays which draw a strong moral (I, 2). Far from creating drama, the peasant ruins it with his raw instinct. The drama of the Greeks, for example, already abased by the rlative vulgarity of the Roman culture, was further degraded by the "side-splitting scenes of low life," of the parti-color-clad mimus who "eked out his text with an inexhaustible variety of rude dancing, buffoonery and horseplay" (I, 5), "just the kind of entertainer whom a democratic audience loves" (I,5). The popular Roman audience, in concert with the too-ascetic Church and the equally uncivilized Barbarian, destroyed the theater of Rome.

The Middle Ages were the era of the Common Man. Civilization disappeared into a dark abyss, and with it Theater. The only institution civilized enough to reproduce the Drama - the only place left where literacy survived (according to Chambers) - was the Church, which wished to banish the instincts from life. Paradoxically, but of necessity, it was in the Church that Drama was eventually reborn - as "an inevitable and ironical recoil of a barred human instinct within the hearts of the gaolers themselves" (II, 3). This is the place where Chambers' history of Medieval Theater begins. It is not just a view of theater history, but an entire social philosophy. It is a vision of what Man is, and how that operates in History.

As to his notion of History, Hardison calls Chambers a Darwinist (5), but what he was in fact was a cyclic progressionist, a believer that evolution had a goal that it attempted to achieve in age after age (6).

The basic tenets of progressionism were laid out by Louis Agassiz in 1843: "It can be shown that in the great plan of creation...the very commencement, exhibits a certain tendency towards the end, betrays the issue toward whcih it is striving; and in the series of vertebrate animals, the constantly oncreasing similarity to man of the creatures that were successively called into existence, makes the final purpose obvious toward which these successions are rising." (7) Loren Eisely comments: "Progressionism si really a system of evolution without either bodily or geological continuity; it could be called, in fact, a theory of spiritaul macro-mutations." (8) the progressionist had seen earlier stages of earth life prophetically - a great prologue whose sole purpose was to introduce man upon the scene, after which there would be no further alterations to life."(9)

Chambers believed in a version of cultural progressionism called catastrophsm, which depicted Earth's history as a succession of eras, each of which had been wiped away in a flood, and in each of which life had begun all over again, cycle after cycle, from the depths of the mud. The goal of each era was the achievement of Man. Futhermore, Chambers was among those catastrophists who believed that, through each flood, remnants of the lowest life-forms survived, but that these had absolutely no effect on the progress toward man in the new era. These living fossils were remnants of the old, not seeds of the new. Thus Chambers does not actually believe that drama was wiped out completely at the Fall of Rome, but only that the higher forms of drama were destroyed. Lower forms survived, but had no effect on the rebirth of high Drama in the Middle Ages:

"That some dramatic tradition was handed down from the mimi of the Empire to the mimi of the Middle Ages, although not susceptible of demonstration, is exceedeingly likel" (II, 2020). "The Roman mimus was essentially a player of farces; that and little else. It is of course open to anyone to suppose that the mimus went down in the seventh century playing farces, and that not a farce was played between. But is it not more probably on the whole that, while occupying himself largely with other matters, he preserved at least the rudiemtns of the arat of acting, that when the appointed time came" - note that phrase - "the despised and forgotten farce, under the stimulus of new conditions, blossomed forth one more as a vital and effective form of literature. In the absence of data we are reduced to conjecture. But the mere absence of data does not render the conjecture untenable. For if such rudimentary, or, if you please, degenerate farces as I have in mind, ever existed in the Middle Ages, the chances were gainst their literary survival. They were assuredl very brief, very crude, often improvised, and rarely, if ever, written down. They belonged to n order of minstrels far below that which made literature" (I, 83).  They had no effect on the early Medieval Drama, and were, if anything, improved by it.

The structure of the Medieval Stage is a brilliant expression of progressionist, catastrophist theory. The work is plotted both sequentially and developmentally, beginning with the flood - the Fall of Rome - and ending with the dawn of the lizabethan Age, when the point of the evolution became clear in Shakespeare.(11) The Medieval Stage charts the primal sea of the Great Flood - the low dramatic forms, and the pseudo-dramatic forms which spontaneously spawned. He studies in turn minstrels, bards and scops, folk drama and popular drama, each a degeneratae, primitive anticipation of full drama.

Through the debacle, only the Church maintained sufficient literacy and civilization to give birth to Drama, as it eventually did. So Chambers then traces this birth in the church "beyond the very borders of articulate speech" (II, 3). He takes us back to the primitive antiphonal singing of vowel sounds in the Mass. "Obviously" - he writes - "the next stage was to write texts, called generically 'tropes' to them" (II, 7). From this to Shakespeare was in inevitable evolution in which lines and characters were added, scenes extended, secular material included, vernacular language inserted, and so on. Shakespeare's stage was born slowly and organically.

This is the theory which has dominated Medieval Theater Studies for the better part of this century - despite the fact that our definition of Theater has chanaged in the past eighty years, we no longer think in terms of a "mimetic instinct", and our idea of Civilization and History have completely changed. The question arises, why does the Chambers theory retain such immense credibility?

It is because a) the Medieval Stage is a truly valuable source or documentation, but mor importantly, b) because the theory has never been challenged as a whole, c) because it springs from an old and vital academic tradition which survivies today, and d) because subsequent scholarship supports it. In short, the Medieval Stage is a worldview held up by the vast, interweaving tentacles of its for-bears and its spawn. The weaving of the web is the subject of this essay. The ultimate object of this thesis is to unweave it, or to cut through it to the Sleeping Beauty of Theater trapped within.


Before Chambers. One: Birth In Conflict

Theater became a weapon in the social baattles which culminated in the English Civil War of the 1640's. Already in Shakespeare's time there was a solid assault on the stage as a moral sump and a sinful waste.(12)  Thiskind of sentiment triumphed in the order from Parliament in 1647 to close and tear down the theaters - an attack from which English Theater has never recovered.(13) The world of English Theater completely changed - the Theater that returned with the Restoration of the King was vastly different from the Old Stage of Shakespeare and the Elizabethans. It is in the wake of this new age that our current conception of theater and theater history emerged.

To get our bearings let's return to 1698-99, when the last of those who had known the Old Theater fought their final battles over the fate of the Stage. Jeremy Collier led off with A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage, published in 1698:

The attractions of the stage "re now..." he warned, "in the Enemie's Hand, and under a very dangerous Management. Like Cannon seized they are pointed the wrong way, and by the strength of the Defense the Mischief's made Greater...Their Liberties in the Following Particulars are intolerable. viz. Their Smuttiness of Expression; their Swearing, Profaneness, and Lewd Application of Scripture; Their Abuse of the clergy, Their Making their characters Libertines, and giving them success in the Debauchery"(2).

He says that while abuse of a thing does not argue against the thing itself, even the ancient pagan authorities, speaking of Dramatics, "Charge them with the Corruption of Principles, of Manners, and lay in all imaginable Caution against them. And yet this Pagan Men had seldom anything but this World in their Scheme; and form's their Judgements only upon Natural Light and Common Experience" (237). The Athenians themselves legislated against the stage: "This People tho' none the worst Friends to the Play-House Thought a Comedy so unreputable a Performance, that they made a Law that no Judge of the Ariopagus should make one" (240). Governments have condemned it, and as for the Church, the Bishop of Arras in a recent broadcast had decreed "A Man must be very ignorant of his Religion, not to know the great disgust it has always declar'd, for Publick Sights, and for plays in particular. The Holy Fathers condemn them in their writings; they look upon them as reliques of Heathenism, and Schools of Debauchery. They have always been abominated by the Church" (247). In short, said Collier, "Plays have generally been look'd on as the Nurseries of Vice, the Corrupters of Youth and the Grievance of the Country where they are suffered" (233).

Among the defenders in the counter-attack was James Wright, in Historia Histrionica: An Historical Account of the English Stage: Shewing, the Ancient Use, Improvement and Perfection of Dramatic Representation in this Nation. In a Dialogue of Plays and Players, published in 1699. It may well be that Collier's description of the current stage was sufficiently accurate, Wright thought, but historically he left a great deal to be said (cxli): in the hot flood of ink spilled since Collier's Publication, Collier "has overshot himself in some places and his respondents perhaps more" (cl111). According to Wright, a cool-headed review of history vindicates Theater.

"Old plays will always be read by the curious, if it were only to discover the manners and behaviour of several ages and how they altered. For plays are exactly like portraits, drawn in the garb and fashion of the times when painted. You see one habit in the time of Charles I, another quite different from that both fo rmen and women, in Queen Elizabeth's time; another under Hentry the Eighth different from both, and so backward all various. And in the several fashions of behaviour and conversation there is as much mutability as in that of clothes. Religion and religious matters was once as much the mode in public entertainments, as the contrary has been in some times since" (cxlii).

Wright speaks through Trueman, who lived through the Civil War years, and Lovewit, a younger member of the Cavalier class:

"What he [Collier] urges out of primitive councils and fathers of the Church," Tueman explains, "seems to me to be directed against heathen plays, which were a sort of religous worship with tem, to the honour of Ceres, Flora, or some of their false deities. They had always a little altar on their stages, as apperas plain enough from soe places in Plautus. And Mr. Collier himself, p. 235, tells us out of Livy, that plays were brought in upon the score of religion, to pacify the gods. No wonder, then, they forbid Christians to be present at them, for it was almost the same as to be present at their sacrifices. We must also observe, that this was in the infancy of Christianity, when the Church was under severe, and almost continual persecutions, and when all its true members were of most strict and exemplary lives, not knowing when they should be called to the stake, or thrown to wild beasts. They communicated daily, and expected death hourly; as their thoughts were intent upon the next world, they abstained almost wholly from all diversions and pleasures (though lawful and innocent) in this. Afterwards, when persecution ceased, and the Church flourish'd, Christians being then freed from their former terrors, allow'd themselves, at proper times, the lawful recreations and conversatoin, and among others, no dount, this of shews and representations. After this time, the censures of the Church indeed might be continued, or revied upon occasion, against plays and players; tho' in my opinion, it cannot be understood generally, but only against such players who were of vicious and licentious lives, and represented profane subjects, inconsistent with the morals and probity of manners requisite to Christians; and frequented chiefly by such loose and debauch'd people as were more apt to corrupt than divert those who associated with them. I say, I cannot think the canons of the fathers can be applied to all players qua tenus players; for if so, how could plays be continued among Christians as they were, of divine subjects and scriptural stories?" (cliii). As they were by actors who were priests or "yet men relating to the church" (clv).

For example, in England, William Fitz-stevens said in the reign of Henry II that "London, instead of common interldes belonging to the theater, hath plays of a more holy subject: representation of those miracels which the hol confessors wrought, or of the sufferings wherein the glorious constancy of martyrs did appear" (clvii).(14)  The Ludus Coventriae was one of these. It "begins with a general prologue, giving the arguments of 40 pageaunts or gesticlations (which were so many several acts or scenes) representing all the histories of both testaments" (clviii). "These and such like were the plays, which in former times were presented publicl; Whether they had any settled and constant houses for that purpose, does not appear; I suppose not. But it is notorious tht in former times there were speeches by one or more persons, in the nature of scenes; and be sure one of the speakers must be some saint of the same name with the party to whom the honour is attained" (clix). Trueman gives examples from numerous pageants and Lovewit exclaims: "This would be censur'd now-a-days as profane to the highest degree." "No doubt on't. Yet you see there was a time when peolpe were not so nicel censorious in these matters, but were willing to take things in the best sense; and then this was thought a noble entertainment for the greatest King in Europe (such I esteem King Henry VII at that time) and proper for that day of mighty joy and triumph. And I must furthr observe out of Lord Bacon's history of Henry VII. that the chief man who had the care of that day's proceddings was bishop Fox, a grave counsellor for war or peace, and also a good surveyor of works, and a good master of ceremonies, and it seems he approv'd it" (clxiii). And on this same score, Wright noted in his own voice the actor Masculus, a canonized saint in the Roman Martyrology, "who under the persecution of the Vandals in Africa, by Geisericus the Arian King, having endured many and grievous tormenst and reproaches for the confession of the truth, finished the corse of this glorious combat....There have been players of worthy principles as to religion, loyalty and other virtues, and if the major part of them fall under a different character, it is the general unhappiness of mankind, that the most are the worst" (cxlii).

But it is since Henry VII that the Theater has truly imrpoved, beginning with Henry VIII, when "both the subject and form of these plays began to alter and have since varied more and more" (clxiv), first separating from the Church, then inventing once again the forms of Tragedy and Comdedy, and becoming publix. The theater improved so significantly that Lovewit believed George Buck justified in comparing the theater of Elizabeth's London with that of Rome: "Dramatic poesy is so lively expressed," wrote Buck, "and represented upon the public stages and theatres of this city, as Rome in the auge (the highest pitch) of her pomp and glory, never saw it better performed. I mean (says he) in respect of the action and art, and not of the cost or sumptuousness" (clxvi). If the stage in 1699 was less respectable, it ws the fault of Fashion, not Theater.

Finally, Wright pointed out that "Plays in England had a beginning much like that of Greece. The Monologues and pageants drawn form place to place on wheels, answer exactly to the cart of Thespis, and the improvements have been by such little steps and degrees as the ancients (clxvi). We see this idea expressed again and again.

It would be helpful to know Wright's theory of history and development. Collier saw history as achieved in Christ and awaiting its present end. Did Wright see it as cyclical or as an upward spiral? Or did he see it as a straight line?

In the contest of wills, neither Collier's nor Wright's viewpoint ultimately won. Both were selectively incorporated into future views. Wright's relative concept of history is the more modern, and some elements of this thinking reoccut - e.g. history of Theater as defense of Theater, finding the foundation of the modern theater in the Church, paralleling the ancient Greek with the Medieval period of theater, Theater as a mirror of Fashio, theater as a tool for understanding or ancestors. But Collier wrote the format for middle class melodrama: "The business of Plays is to recommend Virtue, and discountenance Vice; To shew the Uncertainty of Humane Greatness, the suddain Turns of Fate, and the Unhappy Conclusions of Violence and Injustice: 'Tis to expose the Singularities of Pride and Fancy, to make Folly and Falsehood contemptible, and to bring everything that is ill under Infamy, and Neglect' 91). Nor did the attack on the stage wane. President Witherspoon of Princeton wrote in 1762 that drama "is not merely an unprofitable consumption of time, it is furthr improper because it agitates the passions too violentl, and interests too deeply,, so as, in some cases, to bring peolpe into a real, while they behold an imaginary distress." (15) (There are other examples in footnote 16).

Before taking leave of these gentlement, it should be noted that in occassionally speaking for Wright I have taken a liberty with his vocabulary. In no instance does he use the word "theater" to indicate anything other than the actual place in which plays are performed (in the apparent exception, in the quote from Fitz-stevens which speaks of "common interludes belonging to the theater" I have re-placed Wright's original quote in Latin with a later translation of Robdert Dodsely). Wright speaks of "a theatre;" of names theaters - e.g. 'Theaatre Royal'; and once speaks of the generic place - "shun the Theatre as they would a houase of scandal" (cxlviii) - in which the reference is clearly architectural. even when referring to the place, however, "theatre" is used rarely. The preferred words are "playhouse" and "stage". Likewise, "Drama" as in "Dramatic Poesy" and "Dramatic Representation" is used, but more common are "Plays", "players" and "stage". I ending, something of the elasticity of Wright's conception of "theater" can be gathered from this interchange concerning the early English pageants: "These things are far from that which we understand by the name of a play," says Lovewit. "It may be so," replies Trueman, "but these were the plays of those times" (clxiv). This is the last such flexibillity for some time.


Two: The Eighteenth Century.

In an oft-repeated metaphor, Robert Dodsley (Old Plays, 1744) described the development of European drama as the gradual awakening of the Dramatic Muses from a "dead sleep" in the Mstery Plys, 'till "as it were, all at once...the true drama received birth and perfection from the creative genius of Shakespeare, Fletcher and Jonson" (liii). In his history, he treats the Mysteris and Miracels briefly, just sufficiently "to shew the rader what the nature of them was. I should have been glad to be more particular," he explains, "but where materials are not to be had, the building must be deficient. And, to say the truth, a more particular knowledg of these things, any farther than as it serves to shew the turn and genius of our ancestors, and the progressive refinement of our language, was so little worth preserving, that the loss of it is scarce to be regretted" (xlvii; my emphasis).

"The mysteries only repreented, in a senseless manner, some miraculous History from the Old or New Testament" (xliv). The Miracles were a little superior to the Mysteries because "these jumbled ideas had some shadow of a meaning...someting of a design appeared, a fable, and a moral; something also of poetry, the virtues, vices and other affections of the mind being frequently personified" (xliv). Even at this level, however, the Muses were not awake, "but in a kind of morning dream" (xliv). The Dramatic Muse  became "just awake, when she began to trifle in the old interludes, and aimed at something liek wit and humour" (xlvii), at which point, "the dramatic writers, properly so called, began to appear, and turn their talents to the stage" (xlviii). nevertheless, "though tragedy and comedy began now to lift up their heads, yet they could do no more for some time than bluster and quible" (lii).

Looking to that time earlier than the "dead sleep" era of the Mystery plays Dodsley wrote that all the European theaters began "with Singing, Dancing and extempore Dialogues or Farces" (xxxix). Only in Italy was the stage "never entirely silent from the imperial times. But though there might be some insipid buffooneries performed by idle peolpe strolling about from town to town, and acting in open and public places to the mob gathered around them...they had no poetry...or anything like theatre" (xxx).

Outside of Italy the fall of Roman civilization elimiated the stage completely. Theater had to be completely re-created.

In England, "It was ordained by Act of Parliament under Edward III, 1327-1377 that a compan of men called Vagrants, who had made masquerades through the whole city, should be whipt out of London, because the represented scandalous things in the little alehouses, and other places where the populace assembled. What the nture of these scandalous things were, we are not told; whether lewd or obscene, or impious and profane; but I should rather thnk the former, for the word Masquerades has an ill sound, and, I believe, they were no better in their infancy than at present...In all probability, therefore, the actors last mentioned were of that species called Mummers: these were wont to stroll abot the country dressed in antic manner, dancing, mimicking and shewing postures," a custom once so general "and drew the common peolpe so much from their business, that it was deemed a very pernicious custom, and as these Mummers always went masked and disguised, they but too frequently encouraged themselves to commit violent outrages, and were guilty of lewd disorders." Nevertheless, "as bad as they were, they seem to be the true original comedians in England" (xli-xlii).

The rise from this dismal state was accomplished differently in each European nation. Spain, for example, invented Autos Sacramentales, "mysteries, but more artificial than those of the rest of Europe, which were simple representations, while thse were always allegorial" (xxxii). In France, the Troubadours performed "kinds of extempore farces, or dialogues" (xxxv). The Germans "deduce the first rise of their Theatre from the ancient bards, who used to sing eulogies of their heroes..." (xxxvii).

Dodsley gave the prize for the first decent stage in Europe to the English, on the basis of William Fitz-stevens' quote (above) that "London...hath plays of a more holy subject..." (xxxix).

A rival, Lewis (or Luigi) Riccoboni of Italy, naturally awarded thi shonor to the Italian stage.

Riccoboni's General History of the Stage, translated into English in 1754, is more rigorous than Dodsely in its insistence that written literature is the basis of decent theater. In discussing the Germans, for example, he says "tho' their Theatre were perfect, this Method of extempore is enough to debauch and ruin it" (206). His description of mimes is nothing short of vilification.

There is no dount in Riccoboni's mind that the archetype of European theater development was Italy. In Italy, alone of all the Empire, Theater did not end with the fall of Rome - "But when it forgat its original grandeur, it grew so low as to stroll from Town to Town, where it was performanced in thier open Places; and tho' the insipid, indecent Buffooneries, represented in this manner, arae far from deserving the Name of Comedies, yet we can in them at least tracte the Seeds of that barbarous Weed which throve so well, till abolished by Religion..." (37). He writes that "ever since the decay of the Romans the Theatre has been open in Italy without Interruption. It must indeed beowned that Imposters and Mountebanks contributed not a little to its Continuation: for they were the chief Supports of Low Comedy, if one may bestow that Name upon their Buffooneries, which were Productions of a very monstrous Kind, in which the Laws of Dialogue were overlook's, and the Propriety of Language disregarded. Tho' these Mountebanks afterwards added a Lusture and Dignity to their Entertainments, by exhibiting them either in the Courts or in the Galleries of Noblemen's Houses, yet this is no Reason why we should believe that Comedy was reduced to any Form, either in Italy or any other Part of Europe, before the Eleventh or Twelfth Century. These Entertainments did at best resemble the extempore Farces which the Italian Comedians act at this very Day; and it is even to be thought that their Form and Model were not near soperfect and unexceptionaly as that of the present extempore Farce." (85)

He attacked a "certain Frenchman's" claim that French theater developed from the troubadours. It "is probable that the first Farce-players, in the Time of Charlemaagne, were the Remainder of the Roman Mimi who acted in the Streets and Public Places s they do now in Italy..." (121). "I don't know on what he founds his Opinion: All he says upon that Head only shews us the different Changes which Comedies suffered before it was formed in a Theatrical Representation" (109). "But how can he give the name of Comedy ["a Piece designed for a Theatre" (113)] to those Poems which by his own Confession resembled rather Dialogues than Comedies. To which he afterwards adds, that by the Motion of the Body and Change of the Voice, Nostradamus intends to describe that Art which Nouez had of reciting his Dialogues alone, Speaking either with a Man's or Woman's Voice, or shifting the Place, Gesture or Ark of his Contenance, almost like Sosia in the Coliloquy of the Play Amphyitrion: Indeed these Qualities may well be taken for those of a Comic, i.e., a Droll, but not that of a Comedian" (111). In short, "from the Establishment of the Troubadour until the year 1384, our Author brings no Proof that the French had either Theatres or Plays" (113).

As for the English, "I may venture that they copied from the Mimi of the Latins, while like Vagabonds they travelled up and down the Country without Reserve and without Shame" (160).

The modern theater in Italy developed directly from its Roman ancestor without a break. In England and France, on the other hand, the State intervened. England's 11th century ban on the secular mimi was so effective that "nothing that had the least Resemblance of a Play could appear in London, or the rest of the Kingdom, unless disguised beneath the veil of Religion. It was therefore by these sacred Representations that the Theatre began to form itself in London, as before it had done in Paris" (161).

Riccoboni found Germany a special case in Europe because Germany never fell under the civilizing influence of Rome. Consequently, her stage owed nothing to the mimi, but was developed by the Meistersingers, who "did not apply to this till late, giving themselves up generally to compose Verses on Subjcetgs taken from sacred and prophane History, which they recite in their public room" (202). When they finally applied themselves, it was under foreign influence: "These first Dramatic Pieces were taken mostly from sacred History, like those which they had seen at that Time in Francae..." (203), and they suffered from the sin of extempore.

By his strict insistence on the text, Riccoboni turned the thrust of early Church proscriptions away from contemporary theater: "And tho' St. Thomas Aquinas who lived in the Beginning of the twelfth Century, doubted if Comedy might be acted without committing Sin, we must not think that he meant written Comedy: for in his Time, and perhaps for Several Ages after him, Extempore Comedy prevailed in Italy" (112-113).

Not every 18th century author insisted rigidly on a text: for example, the General History of the Stage, published in 1749. This work was not that of a scholar. W.R. Chetwood was "Twenty Years Prompter to his Majesty's Company of Comedians at the Theatre-Royal in Drury Lane, London," and his attitude to theater was lighter and more open. He tells us he had visited China and seen Chinese theater as a young man, and he casts his neet even wider, encompassing American Indians, for example, who according to a Spaniard named Acosts, "invented Comedies and Tragedies, which were acted in their Festivals before the King, the Royal Family, and the Court "The Actors being the Noblemen and great Officers of the Army. The subject of their Tragedies were the Victoris and great Acvtions of their Ancestors, which seemd to be the best Means they had of preserving the Memory of what was past...In their Comedies, their Husbandry, their Household Affairs and Commerce were represented, and the ost remarkable Follies in Life expos'd" (114).

This is reminiscent of later approaches to fold-drama and to the pre-historic Greek and Roman theter. On these latter, Chetwood repeats what we've heard before: "The Drama in England, as all over Europe, began as meanly as its first Original in Greece or Rome, and our Poetry as crude" (11), to illustrate which he quotes Horace:

Thespis, the first that did surprise the Age,
With Tragedy, ne'er trod a decent Stage,
But in a Waggon drove his Plays about,
And shew'd mean antick Tricks to please the Rout:
His Songs uneven, rude, in ev'ry Part,
His Actors smutted, and the Stage a Cart (2).

and invokes Dryden:

Thespis, the first Professor of our Art,
At Country Wakes sang Ballads in a Cart (2).


This picture of the black-faced actor playing country wakes must have been drawn from contemporary folk drama. Clearly, both Dodsley and Chetwood are already using folk celebrations to visualize the early stages of the theater, apparently making analogies between the savage Indian, the English folk, the ancient Greek and the primitive European theaters. Chetwood's philosophy was that "Nature is the same in every Age" (17), with resonances of Chambers' later kind of evolutionism.



Three: Door of the Nineteenth Century

 The major themes and characters pursued in 19th century Medieval Theater Studies were crystallized in the works of Bishop Percy and Thomas Warton at the end of the 18th century. Warton dominated the field for almost a century.

Percy's major contribution to Medieval Theater Studies is "An Essay on the Ancient Minstrels in England," in his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, 1765. A companion essay, "On the Origins of the English Stage," is less significant, though it reveals a break from Riccoboni's concept of a continuous stage tradition.

For Percy, Theater absolutely died with Rome, and "It is well known that dramatic poetry in this and most other nations of Europe owes its origin, or at least its revival, to these religious shews, which in the dark ages were usually exhibited in the more solemn festivals" (I, 118). Thus, he absolutely eliminated the mimes from Medieval dramatic history.

"At those times," he continues, "they were wont to represent in the churches the lives and miracles of the saints, or some of the more important stories of scripture. And as the most mysterious Subjects were frequently chosen...these exhibitions acquired the general name of Mysteries. At first they were probably a kind of dumb shews, intermingled, it may be, with a few short speeches: at length they grew into a regular series of connected dialogues, formally divided into acts and scenes" (I, 118). These, even "in their most improved state," were "at best but poor and artless compositions" (I, 118). In short, the rebirth and evolution of the modern stage took place entirely in the Medieval Church.

``Eliminating the mimi from the picture is Percy's most profound contribution to Medieval theater history. He argued his case for this not in his essay on the English stage, but in the one devoted to minstrelsy.

Prior to Percy, meistersingers, mimes and troubadours had been regularly offered as progenitors of national theaters. Their counterpart in England was, for Percy, the minstrel, the successor not of th Latin mime, but "of the ancient Bards, who united the arts of Poetry and Music, and sung verses to the harp of their own composing" (I, xv)(17). These ancient bards, or scalds, were originally illiterate and everything they did was therefore improvised or from memory. When the Church intrroduced reading and writing the bardic art was split into two parts - into writers and poets on the upper hand, and perfrormers on the lower. It was the lower half in this great schism that became minstrels. Minstrels were professional entertainers. hey were mainly musical, though with a varied stock in trade: "it should seem that both mimical gesticulation and a kind of rude exhibition of characters were sometimes attempted by the old minstrels, but musical performance was a main idea" (I, 393) (18). With this qualifying "but", Percy scuttled any place the minstrels may have claimed in the history of theater. According to Percy they were musicians, not actors. They sang songs or ballads. They did not perform plays. Percy emphasizes that it is especially important to keep this in mind when reading words alluding to medieval entertainers, such as the mixed Latin and French "jongleur, jugleur, menestral, menestrier, joculator, mimus, histrio, ministrells" (I, 425). To the unwary, the words "mimus" and "histrio" might conjure up an idea of actors and a stage. But "these terms, however modern critics may endeavour to distinguish and apply them to different classes, and although they may be sometimes mentioned as if they were distinct, I cannotfid after very strict research to have had any settled appropriate  difference but they appear to have beenused indiscriminatley by the oldest writers" (I, 425). In this use, they all reduced to singers and players, and not to actors - in short, to "minstrels". The continuity of theater art suggested by the words "mime" and "histrio" is therefore an illusion.

Percy, then, reduced theater to text and thereby confined it to t he church. All entertainers were identified as minstrels, and minstrelsy was swept from the stage. Finally, the minstrel was identified as a native remification of the ancient skald or bard, which cut the last remaining contact of Roman and Medieval stage.

Thomas Warton's History of English Poetry, 1774, was "the first history of English poetry and literature on any scale," (19) and one of the most influential. It was reprinted three times in the course of the 19th century - the last time as late as 1871. "No comparable history of the early period of English Literature was written until the laate nineteenth century." [20]

Unlike Chambers, Warton was not particularly interested in the ultimate origins of theater - or, rather, Drama. He was content to summarize general opinion: "We may observe upon the whole, that the modern drama had its foundation in. our religion, and that it ws raised and supported by the clergy, almost the only persons who could read, and their members easily furnished performers. They abounded in leisure, and their very relaxations were religious" (II, 375). To describe the developmet of the drama once it had been raised by the clergy, Warton paraphrased Dodsely: "The miracle plays, or Mysteries, were totally destitute of invention or plan: they tamely represented stories according to the letter of Scripture, or the respective legends. But the Moralities indicate dawnings of the dramatic art; They contain some rudiments of a plot, and even attempt to elineate characters and to paint manners. From hence the gradual transition to real historical personnages was natural and obvious" (I, 242).

"About the eighth century," writes Warton, quoting the theor of someone else, "trade wwas principally carried on by means of fairs, which lasted several days. Charlemagne established many great marts of this sort in France, as did William the Conqueror, and his Norman successors, in England. The merchants, who frequented these fairs in numerous caravans or companies, emplyed every art to draw the people together. They were therefore accompanied by jugglers, minstrels, and buffoons, who were no less intereseted in giving their attendance, and exerting all their skill, on these occasions. As now but few large towns existed, no public spectcles or popular amusements were established; and as the sendentary pleasures of domestic life and private society were yet unknown, the fair-time was the season for diversion. In proportion as thse shows were attended and encouraged, they began to be set off with



Four: Stepping into the Nineteenth Century



Five: Chambers' Immediate Predecessors



Six: Pause for Definitions



Seven: Beyond Chambers. Mainly More Definitions.


[This paragraph concludes the essay:]

The idiosyncratic nature of almost every definition - one for each scholar in the field - makes it impossible to generalize from the conclusions each scholar individually reaches concerning the origin and development of Medieval drama. To understand Medieval drama and reconstruct its history, one is compelled to begin at the beginning. One must rewrite completely.