Drama: European Religious Drama (Further Considerations)

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The origin of the Latin Visit to the Sepulcher and the related ceremonies of the Good Friday Depositio (usually involving the burial of a consecrated wafer and/or image) and Easter Elevatio, which first appeared in the Regularis Concordia (c. 980 ce) from Winchester, remains controversial, but the various forms taken by these dramatic rites have been most fruitfully studied from the standpoint of the geographical distribution of texts and music, rather than of theory (especially the discredited theory of evolutionary development). While centers of this music-drama activity were monasteries and cathedrals, widespread records of parish church presentation exist at least for the Depositio and Elevatio. The Easter sepulchers required for these are recorded in great numbers throughout much of Europe, and many still exist.

The distinction between rite and mimetic drama is necessarily blurred. The semidramatic Palm Sunday procession is a case in point. In German-speaking countries and Poland, the procession included a Palmesel, a carved life-size image of Jesus riding on a donkey. This ceremony, along with certain other semidramatic rites, would be maintained for some centuries in spite of the prohibitions of the Council of Trent. Brigittine nuns, using a carved corpus of Jesus for the Burial, continued traditional Good Friday ceremonies into the twentieth century.

The first of the medieval music-dramas to become something of a modern box-office success was the twelfth-century Play of Daniel when it was staged by the New York Pro Musica in the 1950s. This play, originally composed by young men of Beauvais Cathedral for the Christmas season, has eschatological overtones and is an impressive collation of biblical history and prophecy. Another very effective play is the slightly earlier Sponsus from Saint Martial of Limoges, which stages the Wise and Foolish Virgins (with the latter seeking to buy oil from oil merchants); the reward of the Wise is to be invited in to the marriage feast by the Bridegroom, while the Foolish are cast into darkness, as specified in Matthew 25.

The most remarkable example from this period, however, is the Ordo Virtutum (c. 1151) of Hildegard of Bingen, which was virtually unnoticed by scholars until the 1980s. It dramatizes the fall of Anima (the Soul) and her return to the circle of the Virtues, over whom Humility presides as queen. The music of this ambitious play, which has twenty singing roles (the number of nuns in Hildegard's abbey), is based on chant but is unique for its time. The single male character, the Devil, is unmusical and only shouts indecorously; his appearance may be surmised from the illustrations in the manuscript of Hildegard's Scivias, which also contained an earlier draft of the play.

These music-dramas were not intended to be entertainment. As Katherine of Sutton, Abbess of Barking in Essex, indicated circa 1370 when offering a Harrowing play in which the nuns of the convent were to take part, the purpose was to bring the participants out of their spiritual lethargy. Such a motive is particularly evident in the Peregrinus, which adapted the Emmaus story to the religious community's desire for the sight of the absent God. Ritually, singers and congregation were to be brought into sacred time as if present at the original events.

Little direct connection can be claimed between the liturgical drama and the vernacular plays of the late Middle Ages. The ambiguity of the Middle English term play has created some scholarly confusion, but for the most elaborate examples of the vernacular dramafor example, the great Creation-to-Doom cycles presented at York and possibly Coventry on the feast of Corpus Christi and at Chester during Whitsun weekthe purpose of the producers seems principally to have been to involve the audience aesthetically and spiritually in the depiction of salvation history. These dramas attempt to make visible and to stage-manage the violence connected with the life of Jesus from the massacre of the innocents to the crucifixion in a way that focuses the audience's compassion toward the sufferer, the Lamb of God. Audience response is difficult to ascertain when we are dealing with productions from the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries. Occasional evidence of inappropriateness appears, as in the play of the Funeral of the Virgin at York that dramatized the attack by a Jew on her biera case of anti-Semitism in which the audience apparently participated raucously, and of which the sponsoring guild disapproved. But, in general, the producersthe guilds and the city corporation of Yorkwould never have been able to carry on the tradition of staging the plays in the cycle on pageant wagons through the streets at such enormous expense for nearly two hundred years unless a serious religious purpose had been involved. They clearly were setting out to make visible for audiences the same scenes that were depicted in religious art of the city churches and the minster, and they were doing this in a manner that brought the stories forth in a lively rather than a static way. Audiences were therefore being invited to imagine themselves as onlookers at the events of sacred history. The popular Meditations on the Life of Christ, translated by the Carthusian Nicholas Love of Mount Grace Priory in Yorkshire, indeed told people that it was necessary for their salvation to be able to imagine the passion of Christ visually in all the stages of his suffering. Both in England and on the continent people felt they received spiritual benefit from watching plays on the lives and suffering of saints.

Just as the vernacular plays of the late Middle Ages did not directly evolve out of liturgical drama, so too the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries cannot be viewed as having emerged through an evolutionary process that brought about the secularization of earlier biblical, morality, or saint plays. Secularization was largely forced on the public stage in England by the iconoclastic bias of the Reformation and the fear of the authorities that the medieval saint and biblical plays promoted Catholicism. Nevertheless, at their best, Renaissance dramas retain a religious dimension that extended to both stage picture and the invocation of religious iconography in their texts, and they have rightly been seen (in Heideggerian terms) to facilitate the "deconcealment of Being."

With the rise of modernity, the plays of Henrik Ibsen and of August Strindberg examine religious themes in an unorthodox but powerful way. Strindberg in his late plays presents a rich visual symbolism that reflects a world in which God is simultaneously absent and present. T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral (1935), as well as, to a lesser extent, Charles Williams's Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury (1936) retain their interest. After World War II, perhaps some of the most striking treatments of religion appeared in the films of Ingmar Bergman. The Seventh Seal (1957) explores human doubt and fragility against the background of death in the plague years of 1348 to 1350a symbolic treatment of the possibility of nuclear annihilation during the Cold Warwhile some of his films from the early 1960s treat the tremendous power of religious experience over against the terror of the void in a world without God.

Some current challenges for scholarship will involve more thorough exploration of the following: the connections between traditional religion and early drama; the significance of positional symbolism (to use Mary Douglas's term) or its displacement, and the applicability of other anthropological insights in dramas, both medieval and more recent; the spread of early religious drama to the East (e.g., the adaptation of European forms such as the Magi play to Indian dance drama in South India) and to the New World; comparisons of European vernacular plays with dramas such as the Shī˓ī passion plays of the death of usayn in Iran and Iraq; and the sponsorship and reception of religious drama since the Middle Ages, as well as, more specifically, the engagement of audiences with religious content.


Battenhouse, Roy, ed. Shakespeare's Christian Dimension: An Anthology of Commentary. Bloomington, Ind., 1994.

Davidson, Audrey Ekdahl, ed. Holy Week and Easter Ceremonies from Medieval Sweden. Kalamazoo, Mich., 1990. Includes Brigittine examples, with musical transcriptions.

Davidson, Audrey Ekdahl, ed. The Ordo Virtutum of Hildegard of Bingen: Critical Studies (and reduced facsimile of the manuscript). Kalamazoo, Mich., 1992. Supplemented by Gunilla Iversen, "O Virginitas, in regali thalmo stas; New Light on the Ordo Virtutum: Hildegard, Richardis, and the Order of the Virtues." Early Drama, Art, and Music Review 20, no. 1 (1992): 1922.

Davidson, Clifford, ed. The Saint Play in Medieval Europe. Kalamazoo, Mich., 1986.

Fassler, Margot. "The Feast of Fools and Danielis Ludus: Popular Tradition in a Medieval Cathedral Play." In Plainsong in the Age of Polyphony, edited by Thomas Forrest Kelly, pp. 6599. Cambridge, U.K., 1992.

Gardiner, F. C. The Pilgrimage of Desire: A Study of Theme and Genre in Medieval Literature. Leiden, 1971.

Gibson, Gail McMurray. The Theater of Devotion: East Anglian Drama and Society in the Late Middle Ages. Chicago, 1989.

Muir, Lynette R. Biblical Drama of Medieval Europe. Cambridge, U.K., 1995.

Ogden, Dunbar, ed. The Play of Daniel: Critical Essays, with a transcription of the music by A. Marcel J. Zijlstra (and facsimile of the manuscript). Kalamazoo, Mich., 1997.

Puthussery, Joly. "Chavitunātakam: A Music-Drama of Kerala Christians." Early Drama, Art, and Music Review 19, no. 2 (1997): 93104; and 20, no. 1 (1997): 2733.

Sheingorn, Pamela. The Easter Sepulchre in England. Kalamazoo, Mich., 1987.

Simon, Eckehard. The Theatre of Medieval Europe: New Research in Early Drama. Cambridge, Mass., 1991.

Stockenström, Göran. "Strindberg's Cosmos in A Dream Play : Medieval or Modern." Comparative Drama 30 (1996): 72105.

Much new research on early religious drama, both English and continental, appears in the journals Comparative Drama, Early Drama (superseding The REED Newsletter ); The Early Drama, Art, and Music Review (formerly EDAM Newsletter );Medieval English Theatre; and Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama; while for documentation concerning original performance and sponsorship, see the volumes of Records of Early English Drama.

Clifford Davidson (2005)