THE Greeks, from the rudest beginnings, and by the aid of their incomparable instinct for form, brought to perfection a lofty type of tragedy and an original kind of comedy. The Latins, who had at least the germ of a comic drama of their own, were proud to borrow the comedy of the Greeks, although in their hands it could not but be sadly sterile. In the stalwart days of the Roman commonwealth the drama seems to have had scant encouragement in the capital, either from the men of culture or from the coarser populace. When at last the empire solidified itself upon the ruins of the republic, and the eagles of Rome were borne almost to the confines of the world, the cosmopolitan inhabitants of this immense realm were never educated to appreciate the calm pleasures of theater. They were encouraged to prefer the fierce joy of the chariot-race, the brutal delight of the arena, and the poignant ecstasy of gladiatorial combat. The sole vestiges of the true drama were the vulgar farces of the rustics that lingered in odd corners of Italy, and the obscene and cruel pantomimes which were devised to gratify the relish of the mob for lewdness and to glut its liking for gore. Neither the rough comic plays of the peasants nor the abominable pantomimes of the court had any relation to literature.
After the conversion of Constantine, the lustful and bloody spectacles were accurst by the church. It was to be expected that the Fathers should condemn the theater absolutely, since it was--in the sole aspect in which they had occasion to behold it--unspeakably vile. With the triumph of Christianity theatrical performances were abolished; and it must have seemed as though the drama was destroyed forever. It is true that in some obscure nooks rural farces might linger, forgotten links in the chain that was to stretch from the Atellan fables to the late Italian comedy-of-masks. But this doubtful survival seems to have little significance, and apparently the break in the tradition of the theater was final and irreparable. When Constantinople supplanted Rome as the capital of civilization, dramatic literature, which had been a chief glory of Athens, ceased from off the earth. For a thousand years and more the history of the drama is all darkness and vacancy; and we have not a single name recorded of any author writing plays to be performed by actors, in a theater, before an audience.
The desire for the drama, which seems to be instinctive in human nature the wide world over, from the Aleutian Islanders to the Bushmen of Australia, the impulse to personate and to take pleasure in beholding a story set forth in action,--this may have been dormant during the long centuries, or it may have found some means of gratifying itself unrecorded in the correspondence of the time or by the chroniclers. Acrobats there were, and wandering minstrels; and now and again we catch glimpses of singers of comic songs and of roving amusers who entertained with feats of sleight-of-hand, or who exhibited trained animals. These performers, always popular with the public at large, were also called in upon occasion to enliven the solid feasts of the rulers. Gibbon records that at the supper-table of Theodoric, in the middle of the fifth century, buffoons and performers of pantomimes were "sometimes introduced to divert, not do offend, the company by their ridiculous wit." And Froissart records that when he was a guest at the court of Gaston Phébus, toward the end of the fourteenth century, strolling jesters sometimes presented a little play during the repast, or acrobats went through their daring performances. The entertainments described by Gibbons and by Froissart, however long the interval between them, bear an obvious likeness to our latter-day "vaudeville suppers."
But none the less dramatic literature, which had flourished so gloriously in Greece, and which had tried to establish itself in Italy, was dead at last; and even the memory of it seems to have departed, for, in so far as the works of the Attic tragedians and of the Roman comedians were known at all, they were thought of rather as poetry to be read than as plays that had been acted. The art of acting was a lost art, and the theaters themselves fell into ruin. So it was that when the prejudice against the drama wore itself out in time, and when the inherent demand for the pleasure which only the theater can give became at last insistent, there was to be seen the spontaneous evolution of a new form, fitted specially to satisfy the needs of the people under the new circumstances. This new drama of the middle ages sprang into being wholly uninfluenced by the drama of the Greeks; it was, indeed, as free a growth as the Attic drama itself had been.
In its origin again, the medieval drama was not unlike the drama of the Greeks,--in that the germ or it was religious, and that it was slowly elaborated from what was at first only a casual accompaniment of public worship. The new form had its birth actually at the base of the altar and at the foot of the pulpit; and it was fostered by the Christian church, the very organization that had cursed the old form when that was decadent and corrupted. Coming into being as an illustrative incident of the service on certain special days of the ecclesiastical year, the drama grew sturdily within the walls of the church until it was strong enough to support itself; and when at last it ventured outside, it remained for a long while religious in intent. The history of its development is very much the same throughout Europe; and the religious drama of England is very like that of France (from which, indeed, it is in some measure derived), just as the religious drama of Italy is like that of Spain, although neither of these had any appreciable influence on the other.
The reason for this uniformity is obvious enough. It was due to the double unity of the medieval world,--that which resulted from possession of the same religion and that which was caused by the consciousness of a former union under the rule of Rome. All the peoples of western Europe had inherited the same customs and the same traditions, because they had all been included in the Roman Empire, which had stretched itself from the Black Sea to the Atlantic. When, at last, the vigor of the Roman government was relaxed, the barbarians of the north had broken in and had swept through southern Europe into Africa and into Asia. The Franks had taken Gaul for their own, the Goths had repopulated Italy, and the Vandals had traversed Spain; and as they had all of them accepted Christianity, sooner or later, the most distant lands had once more come under the sway of Rome.
This is why it is that we find in the middle ages a unity of western and southern Europe closer than ever before or ever since. Just before the Renaissance, the peoples of these varied stocks, however much they might differ individually, were bound together by the common use of the Latin language and by the common dominion of the Roman law; they held the same beliefs and they yielded to the same superstitions; they revered the same ideals, they acted on the same theories, and they had very much the same habits. As yet the idea of nationality had not been born; and the solidarity of those speaking each of the modern languages had not been suggested. Europe was a unit because, although it was segregated into towns and even into small provinces, these had not yet been compacted into distinct nations. Towns and provinces and kingdoms were all in accord in accepting the supremacy of the pontiff of Rome and in yielding a doubtful allegiance to the head of the shadowy monarchy which was still called the Holy Roman Empire.