Origins of the theatre: The Origins of Drama
The origins of English drama are connected with religious rituals as in the earlier stages of all civilizations. It begins with the elaboration of the ecclesiastical liturgy and ceremonies designed to commemorate special Christian events. The first examples of simple but dramatic elaborations of parts of the liturgy were known as tropes and they represented the beginnings of medieval drama. The simple trope eventually grew into liturgical drama, which was drama arising from or developed in connection with church rites or services. At first these dramatic renderings were presented in Latin but as they increased in popularity, they were presented in the vernacular.
At the same time the “plots” developed and the staging of the plays became more elaborate. As a consequence these dramatic representations moved out of the church, first, they were produced in the churchyard itself and then later they moved to the marketplace of the town or even a convenient meadow. The focus of the story dealt with the whole range of sacred history Drama began to present the entire range of religious history, from the Creation to the Last Judgment.
Dramas were generally given on wagons or pageant carts, which were in effect moving stages. Each pageant cart presented a different scene of the cycle and the wagons followed each other, repeating their scenes at successive stations. Carts usually had a changing room, a stage proper, and two areas which represented hell (a dragon’s head) and heaven (a balcony). Stage machinery and sound effects became integral parts of the plotting. Trade or craft guilds began sponsoring the plays, and each pageant became the province of a particular guild. Such early plays are known as miracle or mystery plays.
Miracle plays had as their subject a story from the Scriptures or the life and martyrdom of a saint.
Mystery plays usually base their stories on the New Testament.
The transition from simple liturgical drama to miracle and mystery play can’t be accurately dated or documented; probably they developed rapidly in the 13th century;
While the miracle plays were still going strong, another medieval dramatic form emerged in the 14th century and flourished in the 15th-16th centuries, a form which has more direct links with Elizabethan drama. This is the morality play, which deals with personified abstractions of virtues and vices who struggle for man’s soul. They were dramatized allegories of the life of man, his temptation and sinning, his quest for salvation, and his confrontation by death. Their hero usually represented Mankind or Everyman; angels and demons fight for his soul. The psychomachia, the battle for the soul, was a common medieval allegorical theme that appeared even in some Renaissance drama, as Dr. Faustus indicates.
The earliest complete morality play is The Castle of Perseverance, (c.a 1425).about the fight between Mankind’s Good Angel and his supporters and his Bad Angel, who is supported by the Seven Deadly Sins. The action takes Man from his birth to the Day of Judgment.
Everyman (ca. 1500) is perhaps the best known morality play. It depicts Everyman’s journey in the face of Death. The hero is capably assisted to his end by Good Deeds.
Toward the end of the 15th century, there developed a type of morality play about general moral problems with comic elements. This kind of play is known as the interlude.
It marked the transition from medieval religious drama to Tudor secular drama, and the thematic interest shifted from salvation to education and from religion to politics. treated in the spirit of controversy produced by the Reformation and the great debate about the true form of Christianity.
The move from religious themes to etho-political ones can be seen in John Skelton’s Magnificence (1515), aimed at Cardinal Wolsey, which shows the rise, fall & final repentance of a worldly prince seduced and eventually redeemed by allegorical figures, such as Virtues and Vices.
At the same time, classical influences were being felt, providing for a developing national drama new themes and new structures, first in comedy and then later in tragedy.
Taking its theme from the Milos Gloriosus of Roman playwright Plautus, about 1553 Nicholas Udall wrote the comic Ralph Roister Doister. Udall’s characters function both as traditional vices/virtues and as traditional characters in Latin comedy (for example, the Parasite, who also shows up in the plays of Ben Jonson).
It was not until George Gascoigne produced his comic play Supposes at Gray’s Inn in 1566 that prose made its first appearance in English drama. Gascoigne’s play is another comedy adapted from a foreign source, from the Italian of Ariosto.
In the same period, the Humanist interest in Latin and Greek classics helped produce a new kind of English tragedy. The favourite classical writer of tragedies among English Humanists was Seneca, the Stoic Roman. Seneca’s works were translated into English by Jasper Heywood and others in the mid-16th century, and they greatly influenced the direction of drama on the English stage.
Seneca’s tragedies are bloody and combine stoic moralizing and elements of pure horror. In them, there are numerous emotional crises, and characters, mixtures of sophistication and crudeness., are ruled by their passions.
Gorboduc–also known as Ferrex and Porrex—was written by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton and produced around 1561-2. Iis considered the first successful English tragedy in the Senecan style and the first to be written in blank verse.
As drama became more abundant and more varied, professionalism developed both among authors and actors. Some actors formed independent companies who travelled around; others were under the protection of wealthy noblemen
In 1576, James Burbage, leader of the Earl of Leicester’s men, build the first permanent theatre, called “The Theatre,” in a field near Shoreditch, out of the city and thus out of the control of the Lord Mayor, who was the official “censor” of plays.
Other permanent, public theatres soon followed: the Curtain, 1577; the Rose, 1588; the Swan, 1595.
Shakespeare’s theatre, the Globe, was built in 1598.
In addition to the public theatres, there were private ones, chief among them the Blackfriars (1576). They were different from public theatres because they were roofed and had more elaborate interior arrangements.
The growing popularity and diversity of the drama and the growth of a class of writers led, in the 16th century, to a new literary phenomenon, the secular professional playwright. The first to exploit this situation was a group of writers known as the University Wits, young men who had graduated at Oxford or Cambridge with no patrons and no desire to enter the Church. They wrote for the theatre to make a living, so they made Elizabethan drama more literary and more dramatic. The University wits were
– John Lyly (1554-1606), known far court comedies, generally for private theatres, who wrote mythological and pastoral plays such as Endimion & Euphues.
– George Peele (1558-96) who began writing courtly mythological pastoral plays like Lyly’s, but also wrote histories and biblical plays. The Arraignment of Paris.
– Robert Greene (1558-92), who founded romantic comedy. He wrote plays which combined realistic backgrounds with an atmosphere of romance.. The Honourable History of Friar Bacon & Friar Bungay.
– Thomas Lodge (1557-1625) whose Rosalynde provided Shakespeare with the basis for As You Like It.. His most important work is his picaresque tale The Unfortunate Traveller, an early novel.
– Thomas Kyd (155~94), who founded romantic tragedy. He wrote plays mingling the themes of love, conspiracy, murder and revenge and adapted elements of Senecan drama to melodrama. His The Spanish Tragedy (1580s) is the first of the series of revenge plays which captured the Elizabethan and Jacobean imaginations. For example, in The Spanish Tragedy, one of the characters bites off his tongue and spits it on the stage.!