« ZurückWeiter »
World, the Flesh, and the Devil figure in the play, but not prominently. A Priest winds up the performance, requesting the spectators not to charge its faults on the poet.
Here, again, we have allegorical personages, as Lechery, Luxury, and Curiosity, introduced along with concrete particular characters of Scripture. This is carried still further in another play of a later date, called the Life and Repentance of Mary Magdalen, where we have divers personifications of abstract ideas, such as Law, Faith, Pride, Cupidity, and Infidelity; the latter being much the same as the Vice or Iniquity who figured so largely in Moral-Plays. Infidelity acts as the heroine's paramour, and assumes many disguises, to seduce her into all sorts of vice, wherein he is aided by Pride, Cupidity, and Carnal-concupiscence. When she has reached the climax of sin, he advises her " not to make two hells instead of one," but to live merrily in this world, since she is sure of perdition in the next; and his advice succeeds for a while. On the other hand, Law, Faith, Repentance, Justification, and Love strive to recover her, and the latter half of the play is taken up with this work of benevolence. At last, Christ expels the seven devils, who "roar terribly"; whereupon Infidelity and his companions give her up. The piece closes with a dialogue between Mary, Justification, and Love, the latter two rejoicing over the salvation of a sinner.
This play was printed in 1567, and is described in the title-page, as "not only godly, learned, and fruitful, but also well furnished with pleasant mirth and pastime, very delectable for those which shall hear or read the same: Made by the learned clerk, Lewis Wager." It bears clear internal evidence of having been written after the Reformation; and the prologue shows that it was acted by itinerant players, and had been performed "at the university."
Four Miracle-Plays have come down to us, which were written by Bishop Bale, and printed on the Continent in 1538. The most notable point concerning them is their being the first known attempt to use the stage in furtherance of the Reformation. One of them is entitled Christ's Temptation. It opens with Christ in the wilderness, faint through hunger; and His first speech is meant to refute the Romish doctrine of the efficacy of fasting. Satan joins Him in the disguise of a hermit, and the whole temptation proceeds according to Scripture. In one of his arguments, Satan vents his spite against "false priests and bishops," but plumes himself that " the Vicar of Rome " will worship and serve him. Bale wrote several plays in a different line, of one of which I have given some account in another place.*
The Miracle-Play of King Darius is scarce worth notice, save that Iniquity with his wooden dagger has a leading part in the action. He, together with Importunity and Partiality, has several contests with Equity, Charity, and Constancy: for a while he has the better of them; but at last they catch him alone, each in turn threatens him with sore visitings, and then follows the direction, " Here somebody must cast fire to Iniquity"; who probably had some fireworks about his person, to explode for the amusement of the audience, as he went out.
Hitherto we have met with nothing that can be regarded as portraiture of individual character, unless somewhat of the sort be alleged in the case of Mak the sheep-stealing rogue. The truth is, character and action, in the proper sense of the terms, were hardly thought of in the making of Miracle-Plays; the work aiming at nothing higher than a literal or mechanical reflection of facts and events; sometimes relieved indeed with certain generalities of popular humour and satire, but without any contexture of individual traits. The piece next to be noticed deserves remark, as indicating how, under the pressure of general dramatic improvement, Miracle-Plays tried to rise above their proper sphere, and still retain their proper form.
The History of Jacob and Esau, probably written as early as 1557, and printed in 1568, is of very regular con
* See the chapter on King John, vol ii., pages 10 and 11.
struction, having five Acts, which are duly subdivided into scenes. Besides the Scripture characters, are Ragau, Esau's servant; Mido, a boy who leads blind Isaac; Hanan and Zethar, two of his neighbours; Abra, a girl who assists Rebecca; and Debora, an old nurse. Esau and his servant Ragau set forth together on a hunt. While they are gone, Rebecca urges Jacob to secure his brother's birthright. Esau returns with a raging appetite, and Jacob demands his birthright as the condition of relieving him with a mess of rice pottage; he consents, and Ragau laughs at his stupidity, while Jacob, Rebecca, and Abra sing a psalm of thanksgiving. These things occupy the first two Acts; in the third, Esau and his man take another hunt. The blessing of Jacob takes place in the fourth Act; Rebecca tasking her cookery to the utmost in dressing a kid, and succeeding in her scheme. In the last Act, Esau comes back, and learns from his father what has occurred in his absence. The plot and incidents are managed with considerable propriety; the characters are discriminated with some art; the comic portions show some neatness of wit and humour.
In the Interlude of Godly Queen Esther, printed in 1561, we have a Miracle-Play going still further out of itself. One of the characters is named Hardy-dardy, who, with some qualities of the Vice, foreshadows the Jester, or professional Fool, of the later Drama; wearing motley, and feigning weakness or disorder of intellect, to the end that his wit may run more at large, and strike with the better effect. Hardy-dardy offers himself as a servant to Haman; and after Haman has urged him with sundry remarks in dispraise of fools, he sagely replies, that "some wise man must be fain sometime to do on a fool's coat." Besides the Scripture characters, the play has several allegorical personages, as Pride, Ambition, and Adulation, who make their wills, bequeathing all their bad qualities to Haman, and thereby ruin him.
Of all the persons who figured in the Miracle-Plays, Herod, the slayer of the Innocents, appears to have been the greatest popular favourite. We hear of him as early as the time of Chaucer, who says of the parish clerk, Absolon,
"Sometime, to show his lightness and maistrie,
From that time onwards, and we know not how long before, he was a sort of staple character, no set of MiraclePlays being regarded as complete without him. And he was always represented as an immense swearer and braggart and swaggerer, evermore ranting and raving up and down the stage, and cudgelling the spectators' ears with the most furious bombast and profanity. Thus, in one of the Chester series:
"For I am king of all mankind;
That I am most of might.
An I bid him go down."
Thus, too, in one of the Coventry series:
"Of beauty and of boldness I bear evermore the bell;
Termagant, the supposed god of the Saracens, was another staple character in the Miracle-Plays ; who is described by John Florio as "a great boaster, quarreller, killer, tamer or ruler of the universe, the child of the earthquake and of the thunder, the brother of death." That Shakespeare himself had suffered under the monstrous din of these "strutting and bellowing " stage-thumpers is shown by Hamlet's remonstrance with the players: "O, it offends me to the soul, to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to rags, to very tatters, to split the ears of the groundlings: I would have such a fellow whipped for o'erdoing Termagant; it out-herods Herod: pray you, avoid it."
Thus much must suffice by way of indicating, in a general sort, the character of those primitive sprouts and upshoots of the Gothic Drama in England. Their rudeness of construction, their ingrained coarseness of style,their puerility, their obscenity, and indecency, according to our standard, are indescribable. Their quality in these respects could only be shown by specimens, and these I have not room to produce, nor would it be right or decent to do so, if I had.
But what strikes us, perhaps, still more offensively in those old religious plays, is the irreverent and shocking familiarity everywhere used with the sacredest persons and things of the Christian Faith. The awfullest and most moving scenes and incidents of the Gospel history, such as the Last Supper and the Crucifixion, were treated with what cannot but seem to us the most shameless and most disgusting profanity: the poor invention of the time was racked to the uttermost, to harrow the audience with dramatic violence and stress; and it seems to us impossible but that all the solemnity of the matter must have been defeated by such coarseness of handling.
But, indeed, we can hardly do justice either to the authors or the audiences of those religious comedies ; there being an almost impassable gulf fixed between their modes of thought and ours. The people were then just emerging from the thick darkness of Gothic barbarism into what may be termed the border-land of civilization. As such, their minds were so dominated by the senses, that they could scarce conceive of any beings much more than one grade above themselves. A sort of infantile unconsciousness, indeed, had possession of them; so that they were really quite innocent of the evils which we see and feel in what was so entertaining to them. Hence, as Michelet remarks, "the ancient Church did not scruple to connect whimsical dramatic rites with the most sacred doctrines and objects."
So that the state of mind from which and for which those old plays were produced goes far to explain and justify