This document was originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 7. ed. Alfred Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 2-3, 6-10.

The remarkable fact that the revival of the drama in modern Europe was due to the Christian Church has been abundantly proved and illustrated. At first, certain parts of the church ritual were expanded in action, and especially at the great religious festivals of Christmas and Easter attempts were made to exhibit vividly before the faithful what the service was intended to commemorate. The Wise Men from the East, who had been guided by a miraculous star, worshipped and presented their gifts before the cradle of the Divine babe; the Virgin Mother was represented by a girl with a child in her arms; the Resurrection was suggested by a priest rising from a mimic sepulchre. Later the action was extended, and dialogues were added. These were, of course, in Latin, the universal language of the Church. Gradually scenes from other Scripture stories were combined with those strictly belonging to the service. These church dramas may have been inartistic, but they were characterized by strict simplicity and earnest devotion.

After a time, these or similar miracle-plays were performed outside of the churches, in the streets of towns or in the fields, at fairs or places of public resort. The actors were priests or monks, and the performance was still religious, including the legends of the saints, as well as Scripture histories. At times, perhaps, a touch of nature was added to gratify the rabble who flocked to the show.


Eventually the place of the Latin prose play in the festivals of the Church was usurped by a Mystery in French verse. No pains seem to have been spared to heighten the attractiveness of the latter in its new home. Characterized in itself by a simple dignity befitting the treatment of such themes, it was acted with all the pomp and circumstances associated with Roman Catholic worship; and nowhere shall we find a grander or more impressive spectacle than a Mystery of the Passion, as performed in one of these grand old Gothic piles. Banners hung above the fretted arches; the odor of incense filled the air; tapers shone brightly in the dim light from storied and diversely-colored windows; elaborate processions wound their way through the aisle to the strains of solemn music; the figures of the priest-players stood out in clear relief against the splendor of the altar, as, facing thousands of rapt spectators, they gravely declaimed, with appropriate gestures, the dialogue intended to set forth the events which led up to the Crucifixion.


So potent a means of entertaining the masses could not long be kept within the pale of the sanctuary, where, to use a simile from Goethe, it was like an oak in a vase of porcelain. It disengaged itself from direct ecclesiastical influence, returned to the market-place, and became an independent institution. Mysteries and Miracles--the latter dealing with the Virgin and saints--were played by guilds and companies expressly organized for the purpose, and no popular festivity was deemed complete without one or more of these instructive entertainments. They were given on scaffolds in the streets, with the actors in more or less archaic costume, with an organ at the back to accompany a chorus of angels, and also with some attempt to indicate the place of the different actions. Occasionally farce was introduced into the most serious scenes. Especially comic was the figure of the devil, who, appearing on the stage as he was popularly supposed to be--a deformed and hairy sprite, with horns, dragon's wings, long tail and cloven feet--was subjected to the greatest cruelties and indignities. Nothing was then deemed too cruel for the presumed author of all the ills and annoyances experienced by mankind. Roars of laughter filled the air when holy men spat in his face, when liberties were taken with his tail, when a stalwart anchorite brought him to the dust with a well-directed blow, and, above all, when a courageous saint seized him by the nose with red-hot pincers.


One of the companies formed to represent these plays was destined to eclipse all others. In 1398, a number of young artisans devised and appeared in a new Mystère de la Passion. Soon afterward, at the insistence of wealthy and pious citizens, they erected a hall at a village near Paris, in order to continue their performances without fear of being interrupted by bad weather; but the authorities put their veto upon the project. Four years later, the Brethren of the Passion, as the artisans were called, appealed against this decree to Charles VI, who, having seen their Mystery performed, issued orders permitting them to do as they pleased.

North of the Seine, hard by the Porte St. Denis, an Hôpital de la Trinité had been built by two foster-brothers for the benefit of travellers arriving after the time for admission to the city proper. Here the Brethren took up their quarters; and here, in a large salon, duly fitted up, they appeared in the Mystery of the Passion and other sacred dramas on Sundays and during certain festivals of the Church.


Thus was established the first of Parisian theatres, its performances serving as the models on which similar entertainments were afterward given throughout the country. About mid-day, having paid two sous for admission, the spectator passed into a hall sixty-three feet by eighteen in size, and on the level of the street. There were no seats, the audience, which consisted in the main of sober citizens and their children, with a sprinkling of the clergy, having only the pit to stand in. The stage was divided by floors into three sections, each with a painting at the back. The highest represented Paradise, the next a spot in the Holy Land, and the third the infernal regions. In the first, which reached the roof, a man of severe and venerable aspect, enthroned in a chair, impersonated the Creator, the Virtues standing by in picturesque attitudes. Most of the action, of course, passed in the second stage, whither angels and devils respectively descended or mounted as their presence on earth was required. It was through the mouth of a dragon emitting fire from its eyes and nostrils that the devil and his myrmidons came on and vanished. Some of the scenes were chanted to music, usually from an organ. The players when not acting, sat in a semi-circle behind those who were. Judged by isolated passages, the play might be deemed grotesque, indecent, and even irreverent, yet it was undoubtedly in full accord with the religious notions of the time.

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