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Historical treatment of the drama

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Theatre, THE.—Considering the tone of what is preserved to us of the works of the Greek tragedians and even of the comedies of Plautus and Terence, it seems at first difficult to understand the uncompromising attitude adopted towards the theater by Christian writers of the early centuries. But the fact remains that by the Fathers of both East and West all forms of the drama were banned indiscriminately and in terms of the severest reprobation. We can only infer that the plays and mimes most popular under the Empire were as a rule grossly indecent and poisonous to virtue. The surviving plays of Aristophanes would alone suffice to show how inconceivably lax public opinion was, even at the most cultured periods of paganism, while the infamia which marked the legal status of an actor at Rome is significant of the degradation involved by such a profession. Under the Empire tragedies and even the better class of comedies were not much represented in public. They were regarded rather as literature, and at best read aloud in a select circle of friends. The most popular form of play was the mimus, and, as Diomedes, a rhetorician of the fifth century, implies, the note of indecency might be said to enter into its very definition. (Mimus est factorum et dictorum turpium cum lascivia imitatio: cf. Ovid, “Tristia”, II, 497, and Valerius Maximus, ii, 6 and 7, etc.) Further, there is a good deal of evidence that in the third and fourth centuries the parody of Christian rites formed a regular feature of the mimes. Probably the Christian (ho christianos komodoumenos) was almost as familiar an object of ridicule at these representations as is the pantaloon in a modern pantomine (Greg. Nazianz., “Orat”, II, 84; P.G., XXXV, 489). There are Acts of the martyrs, no doubt more or less legendary, in which is recorded the conversion of an actor brought to know the truth by the very rite of baptism, which he simulated on the stage. Porphyrius (November 4) and Genesius (August 25) are thus commemorated, while the story of St. Pelagia (October 8), however apocryphal it may be, presents the actor’s profession in even darker colors (see Delehaye, “Legendes hagiographiques”). But even accepting these facts, the violence of the language in which the Fathers condemn all scenic representations is remarkable. Tertullian in his treatise “De Spectaculis” strikes the key-note and, as Chambers observes, “his vivid African rhetoric is no unfair sample of a catena of outspoken comment which extends across the third century from Tatian to Lactantius” (“Medimv. Stage”, I, ii). For Chrysostom and nearly all his contemporaries the theater is the temple of the Evil One, and all who frequent the theater thereby acknowledge him as their master (P.G., LVI, 263; LVII, 71, 426; LVIII, 120, 188, etc.). Even Julian the Apostate forbade access to the theater to the new pagan priesthood he was anxious to create. Almost alone amongst the Fathers, St. Augustine (“De Civ. Dei”, ii, 8) seems to make some distinction between the gross indecency of the mimes and the classical drama of an earlier age, approving the study of the latter for educational purposes. It is not entirely clear from the “Confessions” of the same writer (iii, 2) whether the performance of serious tragedies was still maintained in his youth.

Vile and degrading as were the more popular forms of scenic representation under the Empire, the proletariat were so wedded to them that even the Christian emperors dared not altogether suppress such amusements. Still something was done. By the Theodosian Code (XV, 5), omnis theatorum atque circensium voluptas (all diversions in the theater and circus) were prohibited on Sundays, festivals, and seasons of special sanctity. Disabilities of various kinds, including restrictions as to dress, were imposed upon actresses, etc., but on the other hand the. laws of caste were set aside and it was now made possible for an actress, upon becoming a Christian and quitting this way of life, to acquire a status of respectability. At an even earlier date some of the Christian councils had dealt with the subject. At Elvira in Spain, about A.D. 302, it was decided that actors might be baptized, but only on condition of their giving up that way of life. At Aries in 314 theatrici and agitatores (actors and charioteers in the games) were declared excommunicate. Somewhat later the Synod of Laodicea directed that the clergy who were present at wedding festivities or banquets ought not to remain for the plays that might be performed afterwards. At Hippo in 393 it was forbidden that the sons of bishops or of ecclesiastics should be present at plays or give them. With regard to actors it was decided that, if they wished to become Christians, their baptism need not be postponed indefinitely. In 401 a Council of Carthage decided that plays ought not to take place on Sundays and feasts, and fulminated against actors being decoyed back to their old way of life (but cf. Cod. Theod., XV, vii, 13). Finally, the Council in Trullo in 692, for those that recognized it, condemned plays altogether, threatening degradation against all clerics and excommunication against the laity who assisted at the performances (Hefele-Leclercq, “Conciles”, I, 256, 283, 1032; II, 87, 89, 126, 471; III, 566, 569). The tone of all this legislation is milder than the language used by individual Fathers, but it is quite clear that the actor’s profession was looked upon as that of a public sinner and most of the early bishops would have agreed with St. Cyprian (Ep., ii) that it was preferable to maintain such a man out of the funds of the Church rather than allow him to continue in his calling.

With the debased drama of the Roman Empire the theater of Shakespeare, Calderon, Moliere, and Schiller has no direct connection. The isolated mimi or nugatores, who may for a while have survived the downfall of the Empire and become strollers, tumblers, joculatores (jongleurs), and even minstrels, cannot be shown to have inspired any new dramatic developments. Their connection with the Norman estrifs, one of the forms of the old French debats or dialogues, is quite problematical. Moreover, the Teutonic races had their scop or gleeman, who was just as likely as these strollers to have evolved ultimately a dialogue form for some of his compositions. Again the Christian imitations of Terence by the Abbess Hroswitha of Gandersheim (d. 1002) or “the Suffering Christ” (christos paschon) of Byzantine literature inspired no imitators and apparently were not even intended for representation. Thus there is a consensus of opinion that the modern drama has sprung out of the mystery or miracle plays of the Middle Ages and is ultimately religious in its origin (see Miracle Plays and Mysteries). We can even put our finger with some confidence upon the primitive germ of the whole subsequent development. It is to be found in a trope which Frere and others have printed from a St. Gall MS. of the ninth century, attached to the Introit of the Easter Mass. In the earliest English tropes written before 1016 it appears thus, the dramatic form being clearly indicated by the headings:

Angelica de Christi Resurrections.

Quem queritis in sepulchro christiocle?

Sanctarum Mulierum Responsio.

Ihesum Nazarenum crucifixum o celicole.

Angelice vocis consolatio.

Non est hie, surrexit sicut priedixerat;

Ite nuntiate quia surrexit, dicentes;

Sanctarum mulierum ad omnem clerum modulatio.

Alleluia. Resurrexit dominus hodie,

Leo fortis, christus filius dei, deo gratias dicite; eia.

Dicat Angelus.

Venite et videte locum; etc.

This dialog was transformed at an early date into a separate interlude following the third lesson of the Easter Matins and representing the visit to the Sepulcher. The Sepulchre itself had been previously constituted on Good Friday by curtaining off a vacant altar and depositing there the crucifix and sometimes the Blessed Sacrament. The whole rite is fully described in the “Concordia regularis” of St. Aethelwold (tenth century), where the compiler remarks by way of introduction: “since on this day we celebrate the interment of the body of our Savior, if it seems good or pleasing to any to follow on similar lines the use of certain of the religious which is worthy of imitation for the strengthening of faith in the unlearned vulgar and in the neophytes, we have ordered it in this wise”. These scenes of the deposition on Good Friday and the visit to the Sepulcher on Easter morning became gradually more and more developed and less and less distinctly liturgical, until we reach a stage when we have a dramatic representation performed by lay folk, outside the Church. Great light has recently been thrown on the transition stages in England by the discovery of the Shrewsbury fragments, which show how the matter was brought to the level of the people by the insertion of vernacular verses in Latin songs. Equally “for the strengthening of faith in the unlearned vulgar and in the neophytes” there were kindred dramatic tropes adopted at Christmas time. The form of one of the tenth century Tropes of St. Martial at Limoges seems to show direct imitation of the Paschal interlude: Quem quaeritis in prcesepe pastores? (Whom seek ye, shepherds, in the manger?)

So the dialog began. There were also other influences besides the tropes which led to the same result. For example portions of a sermon, wrongly attributed to St. Augustine, used to be read among the lessons at the Christmas matins. It introduced various Prophets who bore testimony to Christ. A separate voice was assigned to each, much as in the Gospel of the Passion when read in Holy Week, and this at once supplied the elements of a promising Christmas drama (see Sepet, “Prophetes du Christ”, 10).

We may probably, with Mr. Chambers, distinguish three stages in the whole evolution: (I) the liturgical stage, i.e. the development of these dramatic dialogs, aided as they were by impersonation and gesture, within the Church ceremonial itself; (2) the transitional stage, i.e. these Latin plays were translated into the vernacular or interpolated with vernacular passages, while different incidents coalesced to form one representation and other new elements were added, until the whole cycle of the matter treated extended from the Creation to the Judgment: (3) the final stage in which the plays were completely secularized. They fell into the hands of the guilds, some plays being assigned to one guild and others to another, while there were constant changes in the dialog and rearrangement of incidents to suit new conditions; but the cyclic form was firmly adhered to. On the other hand, these stages in the evolution of the drama were not of course sharply defined and they merged into one another. For further details the reader must be referred to the articles Miracle Plays and Mysteries and Moralities. but it should be noted that an important influence in the process of secularization was supplied by the Latin plays, partly scholastic exercises and partly diversions, which the cathedral and monastic schools acquired the habit of performing, more particularly at the Christmas and Easter seasons. It is easy to see how readily such representations addressed to a young or miscellaneous audience might come to be interpolated by passages in the mother tongue, particularly those of a more humorous character. Moreover, it was natural to extend the scope of such diversions and we have evidence that in the twelfth century, in France, England, and Germany, dramatic compositions were represented dealing with such subjects as the life of St. Nicholas, the martyrdom of St. Catherine, the resurrection of Lazarus, the parable of the virgins, or a ludus prophet arum ornatissimus, which included Gideon and the Philistines, David and Herod. But the further transference of such representations to the guilds must have taken place early, for it is generally agreed that the play of “Adam“, written in Anglo-Norman French of the twelfth century, was probably first represented by a guild and upon English soil (see Grass, “Das Adamsspiel”, 1907). In Germany, however, the religious plays seem to have remained almost entirely in the hands of the students, though in Italy the main impulse came from the laudesi confraternities, the survivors of the Flagellant movement, who met together in their own chapel to sing laudi (canticles) in honor of the Blessed Virgin, which gradually assumed a dramatic form and grew into rappresentazioni sacre. A play in the Roman dialect of the fourteenth century, edited by Vattasso (Studi e Testi, no. 4), explicitly bears the title lauda (loc. cit., p. 53). But in every country of Europe, Spain and Poland not excepted, a new drama seems to have arisen which sprang into existence in dependence on the Church. Only by slow degrees did the subjects of such plays in the vernacular lose touch with any religious purpose. An entirely new source of inspiration came into play contemporaneously with the humanism of the expiring Middle Ages. In Italy especially it began as early as the fourteenth century, with the revival of the study of the tragedies of Seneca and, what was more important, with the composition of original Latin tragedies upon themes supplied by medieval history. From these it was but a step to the plays called mescidati, in which the influence both of the rappresentazioni sacre, which were the final development of the religious drama, and also of classical models may be clearly discerned. But it is impossible to pursue the subject here. We have an Italian tragedy, the “Sofonisba”, by G. Trissino, acted before Pope Leo X in 1515, while the early comedies (Boiardo’s “Timone” was presented before 1494) were introduced gradually in the wake of improvised burlesques to which the arlecchino (harlequin) contributed a thread of unity but which still savored something of the earliest moralities. In any case it is to be noted that no sooner had a popular drama established itself independently of ecclesiastical influence than the licentious excesses of such writers as Ariosto, Macchiavelli, and Aretino (Leonardo Bruni) forced the Church back into much the same attitude of uncompromising hostility to the stage which existed under the Roman Empire. The representation of sacred and moral dramas and sometimes of classical plays was indeed encouraged in colleges and similar institutions. The plays, mostly in Latin, which were written and acted in the Jesuit schools, form quite a literature by themselves (See e.g. Bahlmann, “Jesuiten-Dramen d. niederrhein. Ordensprov.”, 1896). But apart from such scholastic exercises the public theaters, on account of the laxity of morals which as a rule prevails at such representations, are nearly everywhere forbidden to the clergy by the decrees of provincial and diocesan synods (see the “Collectio Lacensis”, passim). It is maintained by some that these prohibitions have only force to bind the clergy belonging to the diocese or province in which they are issued whilst they remain within the limits of the diocese, but the point is at best doubtful. No authoritative decision has ever been given which would allow clerics who come from a diocese in which attendance at the theater is forbidden, when passing through another diocese in which it is equally forbidden, to regard themselves as free to visit the theater at will. To assist at performances which are grossly improper is of course forbidden both to clergy and laity alike, both on account of the proximate danger of sin as also of the scandal which may thereby be given to others. Finally we may note that in the Papal States no permanent public theater was allowed to be constructed until 1691 and the theater which was then opened by permission of Alexander VIII at Tor di Nona was subsequently dismantled by his successor Innocent XII. But in the course of the eighteenth century several theaters were built in Rome with papal sanction, though they were subjected to a very strict censorship and were closed at sacred seasons.


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