TO declare with certainty just where it was that the new drama first gave sign of life is quite impossible; and it is equally impossible to decide whether it sprang up of its own accord in half a dozen different places, or whether the first tempting suggestion of it was carried abroad in churches widely scattered. There was far more migration in the middle ages than is admitted by those who consider them merely as a long period of stagnation. Priests and merchants were continually passing from one city to another a thousand miles distant; and as the most of Europe was included in the Holy Roman Empire, and as it acknowledged also the sway of the Roman Pope, men could remove from the east to the west, and from the south to the north, with no feeling that they were relinquishing their nationality, especially as the priests, at least, could make themselves understood everywhere in the same tongue.
Latin was the language of the church and of its liturgy; and it is out of the Latin liturgy of the Christian church that the drama of the modern European languages has been slowly developed. It is not possible to trace all the steps by which a very brief semi-dramatic adjunct of the service of certain special days of the ecclesiastical year was slowly elaborated into a more or less complete dramatic scene; and it is difficult to declare just how it was that these several scenes were in time detached from the liturgy and combined together in a cycle which represented the chief events of the gospel-story. But it is practicable to prove that there was a steady growth, beginning with a single brief scene acted within the church, by the priests, in Latin, and almost as part of the liturgy, and developing, in the course of time, into a sequence of scenes, acted by laymen outside the church, in the vernacular, and wholly disconnected from the service.
The Christian church had so arranged its calendar that every one of the chief events in the career of Jesus was regularly commemorated in the course of the year. Its liturgy was rich in symbolism; and as the ritual was not everywhere uniform, opportunities were frequent for suggestive variations devised by the devout priests, who were diligently seeking the means by which they could best bring home the central truths of religion to a very ignorant congregation. In many churches, for example, the crucifix was removed from the altar on Good Friday and borne to a receptacle supposed to represent the sepulcher, whence it was taken on Easter morning to be restored solemnly to the altar, in testimony of the Resurrection.
The gospel-story is rarely pure narrative; as it is to be expected in the accounts of eye-witnesses, it abounds in actual dialogue. And where a dramatic passage was included in the service nothing was easier or more natural than to let the narrative be read by the officiating priest, while assigning the actual dialogue to other priests, each of whom should deliver the speeches of a single character. Thus on Easter morning, in the colloquy between Saints Peter and John and the three Marys, when the apostles ask what had been seen at the sepulcher, each of the three Marys can answer in turn. In time this interchange of dialogue would lend itself to amplification; and there is preserved a Latin manuscript in which the scene at the sepulcher was presented both in dialogue and in action. In this interpolation into the Easter service, the three Marys, Saint Peter and Saint John, and "One in the likeness of a gardener," all impersonated by priests or choirboys, speak the words set down for them in the sacred text, and do whatever is there recorded for them.
Although scenes of this sort seem to have been first invented to imbellish the Easter services, Christmas was soon discovered to offer an equal opportunity. For example, one of the very earliest of these enlargements of the ritual showed the quest of the shepherds. At the proper moment certain priests holding crooks in their hands are to be seen standing in the transept, and a chorister from a gallery above announces to them the glad tidings of the birth of Christ, the Savior of men. Then, while other choristers scattered throughout the galleries sing, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men," the Shepherds advance to the choir, and halt at length before a manger which has been arranged near the altar and by the side of an image of the Virgin Mary. There two other priests, personating Women who had aided the Virgin-mother, ask the Shepherds what it is they are seeking, and then display the infant Jesus to them. The Shepherds, after adoring the new-born babe and its mother, depart singing "For unto us a child is born,"--which is the beginning of the high mass regularly celebrated at Christmas.
More elaborate is a liturgical embellishment dealing with the Three Kings, the Three Wise Men of the East, and calling for a greater variety of characters and for a more obvious effort to indicate the different localities where the several portions of the gospel story were supposed to take place. The huge churches, which had begun to spring up all over Europe in the century following the fateful year 1000, were not encumbered with pews, as are our smaller modern edifices; and their free floor-space would contain multitudes of spectators, even though lanes were kept open through the throng to connect the altar and the various doors. Within the chancel was the manger, with an image of the Virgin-mother; and also two priests stood there, personating Women who had been assisting Mary. In a pulpit, or in a gallery, was the chorister who was to sing the message of the Angel. On a platform not far distant was a throne, on which Herod sat, surrounded by the members of his court, all of these characters being assumed by officials of the church. The Angel, the two Women by the manger, and Herod and his courtiers, were each in their several stations in the church before the play began; and they were supposed not to be able to see one another,--indeed, they were supposed not even to be present until it should be the turn of each to enter into the action.
First the Shepherds come into the church by one of the doors; and, passing through the ranks of the congregation, they advance toward the choir, where the Angel hails them with the glad tidings, whereupon they go to the manger and adore the holy babe; and at last, after singing, they stand apart. Then through another door on the eastern side of the church enter the Three Kings; and when they have come to the middle of the edifice a star begins to guide them to the manger,--this star being a light pulled along a wire. Herod, silent on his throne all this time, has been supposed not to see the Shepherds; but the Kings he does see, and so he sends a Messenger to ask who they are. The Messenger questions them at length, and finally bears back to Herod the dread news that the King of Kings has been born, and that the Three Wise Men of the East are being guided to his cradle by the star above their heads. Herod then consults the Scribes, who proceed to search the Scriptures and to inform him that the promised Redeemer should be born in Bethlehem. Herod rages violently at these ill-tidings, and knocks the books from the hands of the Scribes; but, pacified by his son, he bids the Three Wise Men follow the star and find the newborn King, commanding them on their return to let him know where the royal infant lay. Herod and all his courtiers then become silent again, and cease to take part in the play until they shall be once more needed. The Three Kings, bearing their gifts and led by the star, advance toward the altar and meet the Shepherds, who now come into the action again. The Shepherds sing a hymn of praise; and the Three Kings ask them what they have seen. The Shepherds, after declaring that they have beheld the holy child lying in a manger, withdraw; and the Three Kings follow the star to the alter, where the two Women ask them who they are and what they are seeking. The Three Wise Men reveal the object of their journeying; and the babe is then displayed to them. They adore it, presenting their gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. The Angel in the pulpit or gallery above them breaks in, declaring that the prophecies are fulfilled, and bidding the Three Kings go home by another way. Thereupon the Wise Men, chanting a hymn of praise, pass through the assembled multitude and leave the church by a western door. Herod is supposed not to have seen them take their leave, but just as soon as they are gone, the Messenger informs the monarch that they have departed in disobedience; thereupon Herod draws his sword and gives it to a Soldier, bidding him go forth and slay all the children.
Here the play seems to end, although, as we have also the manuscript of a representation of the Flight into Egypt and of the Slaughter of the Innocents, it is probable that, in some churches, on some occasions, all the various incidents connected with the Nativity were set forth in action, one after the other. What it is most important for us to seize and to fix in our memories is that these episodes of the gospel-story--the Scene of the Shepherds, the Adoration of the Wise Men, the Wrath of Herod, the Slaughter of the Innocents--came into existence each by itself, having been put into dramatic form as a more vivid and impressive illustration of the liturgy; and that possibly a long while elapsed before any one thought to combine these scattered scenes into a sequence. But after the Christmas cycle of the Nativity had knit itself together, following or preceding a similar Easter cycle of the separate scenes of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, it was probably not very long before an attempt was made to link the two cycles together, filling out the gaps by dramatizing the more interesting of the intervening episodes of the gospel-story,--the Raising of Lazarus, for instance, and the Driving of the Money-changers from the Temple. Thus the whole story of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus could be presented in dialogue in the church by the priests themselves, in Latin, and as part of the service, for the enlightenment of the ignorant population in those dark ages.
Although the priests who put it together had not given a thought to this aspect of it, the story of Jesus is truly dramatic, not only in its humanity, in its color, in its variety, in its infinite pathos, but also and chiefly in its full possession of the prime essential of a true drama--in its having at the heart of it a struggle, an exhibition of determination, a clash of contending desires. Indeed, it is the most dramatic of all struggles, for it is the perpetual conflict of good and evil. To us moderns the issue is sharply joined; but in the medieval church it was even more obvious, since in the middle ages no one ever doubted that a personal Devil was forever striving to thwart the will of a personal God. In the passion-play, which showed in action all the leading events of the life of Christ, both of the contestants were set boldly before the spectators--God himself high in Heaven, and the Devil escaping from Hell-mouth to work his evil will among mankind.
After all these little scenes, each of them devised originally for the special day of the church calendar when the event was commemorated, had been combined into a New Testament cycle, and after there had been prefixed to it certain episodes dramatized from the Old Testament also, and selected because they seemed to prefigure the gospel-story,--after the passion-play had become a mystery, and after it was thus grown to its full length and swollen huge, it was found to be too unwieldy for presentation in the church itself, and too burdensome for the clergy to perform. Thrust out of the church, it may have lingered for a while in the churchyard or in the cloisters or in the great square before the sacred edifice. As the successive episodes of the gospel-story no longer had an intimate connection with the actual liturgy, the tendency was increased to substitute for the Latin of the priests the language of the people; and this pressure became irresistible when the ecclesiastics gave up to laymen the acting of the several characters.
The performance of a full-grown mystery, with due regard to the dignity of the theme, was an undertaking of not a little magnitude, requiring both capital and executive ability. The preparation of the text, the adjusting of the music, the making ready of the costumes, the training of the actors,--these things were possible only to an organization of a certain stability. At first the church was the only body having at once the desire and the resources to execute so onerous a task. But when the guilds arose in time, and when burghers banded together and craftsmen combined, it became possible for the church to relinquish the control of the mysteries to lay organizations.