liturgical drama



  • The earliest organized drama in medieval Europe, consistingof various types of play performed in church as part of the Christianliturgy. It developed in French and German Benedictine monasteriesin the 10th century, mainly from the tradition of the trope,a brief interpolation in the plainsong liturgy. More theatrical elementswere gradually introduced into services, especially during Holy Week,which often began with a procession to the church led by a performerin the role of Christ, riding a donkey. The earliest extant playletsurvives in the Regularis Concordia, a document compiled inabout 970 by Ethelwold, Bishop of Winchester.

    Although other subjects were treated, the Easter story remainedcentral, with more than 400 plays written on the visit of the threeMarys to Christ's tomb. The Passion Play depicted eventsfrom the Last Supper to the Crucifixion and the placing of Christ'sbody in the tomb. The Nativity play, telling the Christmasstory, soon merged with the Epiphany play about the visitof the Wise Men. Other popular subjects included John the Baptist,the three children in the fiery furnace, the conversion of St Paul,and the raising of Lazarus.

    The Latin plays were initially performed in church on smallstructures called 'mansions', which were arranged around a generalacting area (see multiple setting). The performersusually wore church vestments. From about 1200, however, the playsbegan to be performed outside, a transition accelerated by the creationof the new feast of Corpus Christi, which falls in May or June. Thedirections for an early outdoor drama, The Mystery of Adam,performed in about 1150, state:

    Then let God go to the church, and let Adam and Eve walkabout, innocently delighting in the Garden of Eden. Meanwhile, letdemons run back and forth through the square, making suitable gestures.

    By the end of the 13th century the dramas had lost their liturgicalfunction and were mainly written in the vernacular, although theywere still sometimes performed in churches until at least the 15thcentury. More secular elements were also gradually introduced. Inone 14th-century German play, for example, the story of the threeMarys was enlivened by the introduction of a comic spice seller. Thiscomic element became more prominent as the liturgical drama developedinto the more sophisticated mystery play. see also medievaldrama.