The Development of Liturgical Drama

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The Development of Liturgical Drama

The Tradition of Theatricality.

The liturgy of the medieval church was essentially theatrical, as was the festive cycle of the Christian year. But at certain times during that year, this theatricality took on a special character. At Easter, and on the days leading up to its celebration of Christ's Passion ("suffering") and Resurrection, and again at the Christmas season, churches throughout Europe provided the settings for musical dramatizations of scenes from the gospels. It is hard to know when these liturgical plays were first performed, because the oldest manuscripts that record them were copied after the Carolingian Renaissance had made the preservation of texts a high priority. Often, the late dates of manuscripts have been taken to indicate that medieval drama itself was a late invention—that in order for there to be a play, there must be a script. But this is obviously not the case: all that a play requires is a story, some performers, and an audience. And medieval people had a wealth of stories at their disposal, thanks to St. Jerome's translation of the Bible, which was supplemented by a series of popular tales from the Apocrypha or "hidden" books of Hebrew scripture, among them the stories of Judith, Susannah, and Daniel. Surviving manuscripts, therefore, allow scholars to view only the skeletal remains of liturgical drama, giving some indication of how these stories were performed. Most of these plays are undetailed and would have existed long before the time of Charlemagne. For example, it is evident that elaborate processions commemorating the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday had been staged in that holy city for years, but the earliest record of them comes from the Itinerarium or travel journal of Egeria, a high-born lady or perhaps a nun from the Roman province of Galicia (Spain), written about 384. By the same token, the ceremony for the consecration of churches is surely older than its first ninth-century manuscripts, which show that it was loosely based on the story of the Harrowing of Hell presented in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, when Jesus, on the Saturday between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, descended to the underworld and led out from it the souls of Adam and Eve and other Old Testament heroes and prophets, taking them with him to glory.

Basic Components.

The many manuscripts which provide us with different versions of important Christmas and Easter plays are all of more recent date than the dramatic traditions to which they refer. These plays demonstrate that there were many ways to perform the story of Christ's Birth and Resurrection, some highly creative. But all shared certain essential components. At Easter, the most important component was a vital question: Quem quæritis? ("Whom do you seek?"). The question is that of the angel guarding the empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning, when the Three Marys (Mary, the mother of Jesus; Mary Magdalene; and the Mary

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described in the gospel of Mark as "the mother of James and Salome") approach with oils and incense to anoint the body of Jesus. But Jesus, unbeknownst to them, has risen from the dead, so the women are surprised to see the angel, and to be asked "Whom do you seek in the sepulchre, O followers of Christ?". These fateful words, sung in Latin, have been used to describe the entire dramatic genre of Easter liturgies: they are often called Quem quæritis? or Visitatio sepulchri tropes (traditional phrases inserted into the Mass) since they all make use of the same symbolic elements to dramatize "The Visit to the Sepulchre." Their essential melodic dialogue consisted of an imaginative pastiche of words and phrases from the gospel accounts of the Resurrection, sung in the antiphonal or "call-and-response" style that was a feature of the monastic office, in which the chanted verses constitute a conversation between two choirs, with solo interventions by a cantor.

The Integration of Drama and Worship.

It is worth noting that what made these musical dramatizations effective was not their separation from the theater of worship, but their participation in it. One of the earliest manuscripts of the Easter play, the Visitatio sepulchri from Winchester in England, demonstrates this beautifully. Four members of the religious community are instructed to disguise themselves by dressing up in costumes taken from the monastery's storehouse of liturgical vestments: an alb (white robe) for the angel, and copes (long hooded capes) for the three women—all of whom would be portrayed by men when this play was produced in a male monastic house. The props they carry are also items in use for daily worship: thuribles (censers, containers for holding aromatic spices and incense) representing the vessels of oil and myrrh carried by the Marys. The location of the tomb is not specified in the script, but here again the church space and its furnishings would be put to use. Perhaps the tomb was represented by the altar, or perhaps it was a real tomb in one of the church's side chapels, or a "prop," a special tomb erected expressly for the performance of this play. In any case, the symbolic significance of staging this sacred story using actors, props, and sets provided entirely by the resources of the community underscores the intimacy and immediacy of the play's message: it is as if Jesus has been resurrected in their own church, as if members of the monastic community are themselves going mournfully to anoint his body, only to be greeted by the angel's question, "Whom do you seek in the sepulchre?" and the joyful news of Christ's Resurrection. Whereas people today imagine the events of the Bible as taking place in the distant past, medieval people reminded themselves constantly of their proximity to those events. Their theater underscored the messages implicit in this proximity, year after year.


introduction: Between the years 965 and 975, Bishop Ethelwold of Winchester promulgated a series of liturgical reforms which were crystallized in a collection called the Regularis Concordia, a "Concordance of the Rules" for worship and religious life among the monastic communities of England during the reign of King Edgar (959–975). These guidelines, similar in many respects to those circulated by Charlemagne nearly two centuries earlier, were one long-term result of an ambitious program of civil engineering and religious instruction introduced by King Alfred the Great (r. 871–900), whose leadership had united warring English tribes during the Viking invasions of the ninth century and who had strengthened that new political unity by promoting an idea of a shared Anglo-Saxon heritage. The guidelines quoted here contain numerous quotations from The Visit to the Sepulchre. When reading the texts of liturgical plays, it is important to bear in mind that all of the dialogue was sung, and would have been much more effective in performance than it appears.

While the third lesson is being read aloud, four of the brothers should dress themselves. One of them, wearing an alb, should come in as though intent on other business and go stealthily to the place of the sepulchre, and there he should sit quietly, holding a palm in his hand. Then, while the third response is being sung, the three remaining brothers, all of them wearing copes and carrying thuribles with incense in their hands, should walk slowly and haltingly, making their way to the place of the sepulchre as if they are seeking something. For these things are done in imitation of the angel seated on the tomb and of the women coming with perfumes to anoint the body of Jesus. When, therefore, the one sitting there sees the three drawing near, who are still wandering about as though seeking something, he should begin to sing sweetly in a moderate voice: "Whom do you seek [in the sepulchre, O followers of Christ]?" When this has been sung through to the end, the three should answer together in one voice: "Jesus of Nazareth [who was crucified, O heavenly one]." He to them: "He is not here. He has risen as he predicted. Go, tell the news that he has risen from the dead." Heeding the call of this command, the three should turn toward the choir saying: "Alleluia. The Lord has risen, [today the mighty lion has risen, Christ the Son of God]." When this has been said, the seated one again should say the antiphon, as if calling them back: "Come and see the place [where the Lord was laid. Alleluia]." And then, having said these things, he should stand up and raise the veil, showing them the empty place where the Cross had been laid [i.e., during the liturgy of Good Friday], where there should be nothing but the linen bands in which the Cross had been wrapped. Seeing this, they should put down the thuribles which they have carried into the sepulchre, and taking up the linen cloths they should hold them out toward the assembled clergy, as though showing them that the Lord has risen and is now no longer wrapped in them; and they should sing this antiphon: "The Lord has risen from the tomb, [He who was hung upon the Cross. Alleluia]." And they should lay the linen cloths upon the altar. When the antiphon has ended, the prior should begin the hymn Te Deum laudamus ("We praise you, O God"), rejoicing at the triumph of our King, who was delivered from the conquest of death. When the hymn has begun, let all the bells peal in unison.

source: Bishop Ethelwold of Winchester, Regularis Concordia, ca. 975. Translation by Carol Symes.

The Expansion of Christmas Theatricals.

Some of the same dramatic techniques featured so prominently in the Easter liturgies were also put to use in the performance of plays at Christmastime. Even the important question Quem quæritis? could be asked again, this time of the shepherds who come to Bethlehem, seeking the birthplace of the child Jesus: "Whom do you seek in the manger, shepherds? Tell us!" But because Christmas was a less solemn feast than Easter, greater liberties were taken with the biblical text. In some places, by the eleventh century at the latest, Christmas theatricals had expanded to include not only the story of Jesus' birth, but of the angels' address to the shepherds, the journey of the Magi, their interview with Herod, Herod's violent response to their news, and the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. Numerous extra characters were added: Mary has midwives to help her in the birthing of Jesus; Herod, as befits a great king, has men-at-arms, attendants, courtiers, ambassadors, diplomats, and ineffectual bureaucrats surrounding him; the Old Testament matriarch, Rachel, is brought on to witness Herod's massacre of the innocents, and mourns for the lost children of Israel. All of these people and events could scarcely be encompassed within a single morning's liturgy, and it became traditional to celebrate Christmas over a twelve-day period, beginning on 25 December and ending on the Feast of the Epiphany (from the Greek word for "manifestation") on 6 January, the holiday celebrating the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem. The play commemorating Herod's Slaughter of the Innocents was usually performed on 28 December, which became the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Like the tragic episode that it commemorated, it occurred a few days after the Nativity. In many monasteries and cathedral schools throughout Europe, this feast was also called "the Feast of Fools," since the boys of these communities were allowed special privileges on that day, their festive misbehavior sanctioned in compensation for the cruel deaths meted out to the children of Judea. This was a time of carnival, one of several occasions in the year when the "world turned upside down" and hierarchies of power, social status, and gender roles were reversed.

The Long Reign of King Herod.

Not surprisingly, the Magi and King Herod were the stars of many Christmas plays, since these characters have always held a special fascination for audiences. During the Middle Ages, the Magi were intriguing because they were exotic, mysterious men from the fabled Orient, astronomers and astrologers who could read the stars and look into the future. Herod was fascinating because of his blustering, ranting manner and excessive cruelty, and it is for this reason that the part has been a perennial favorite among actors who like to play the villain. When Shakespeare's Hamlet complains that over-acting "out-Herods Herod," he is referring to an ongoing tradition that dates back to medieval liturgical drama, and which inspired Shakespeare's own characterizations of Richard III and Iago. But Herod, because he was a king, also stood in for the ultimate tyrant, and in an age when monarchy was becoming a powerful political institution, the representation of bad lordship as exemplified in Herod could serve as a warning to real lords. So there was a political dimension to liturgical drama, as well as a religious one. In the two twelfth-century Christmas plays associated with the monastery of Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire, in France, Herod's central place in the Christmas story is evident from the title of the drama, which is called The Service for Representing Herod. Throughout the play, Herod's violent behavior, and that of his murderous soldiers, must have seemed to the audience to resemble that of real rulers and their henchmen. But there were elements of comedy as well. When the Magi tell Herod about the miraculous star they have seen, Herod sends for his own experts, to see whether they can corroborate the story. The monks playing the scribes are described in the rubrics (stage directions written in red ink) as bumbling idiots, carrying stacks of moldy books and wearing false beards; they have to "turn over the leaves of the books for a long time" before they finally find the correct prophecy.

The Church as Performance Space.

The geography of the medieval church was vitally important to the staging of Christmas drama. At Easter, the sole stage setting could be "the place of the sepulchre," which was usually located at or near the altar. At Christmastime, the entire church became a theater, if only because so much of the action of these plays involved traveling: Mary and Joseph journey to Bethlehem, the Magi come "from the East" to Herod's court and from there to Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt, the Magi return to their homes. Each of these trips provided an opportunity for the actors to process around the church and through the audience, who would be standing in the nave (the central hall). Since all medieval churches were oriented on an East-West axis, with the altar in the apse at the eastern end, it would be from this part of the church that the Magi would "come together, each one from his own corner as though from his own region," according to the rubrics of the play from Saint-Benoît. The star that guides them rises from behind the altar, also in the east, and then leads their procession around the church. The citizens of Jerusalem are the members of the choir, while the members of the congregation are the people of Bethlehem. When the shepherds find the baby Jesus in the manger, they worship him and then "they invite the people standing all around to worship the child." Through such simple, effective techniques, the staging of liturgical drama allowed the events of the Bible to be mapped onto the church space, collapsing the distance between actors and audience, the past and the present, the local and the universal.


William T. Flynn, "Medieval Music as Medieval Exegesis," in Studies in Liturgical Musicology 8 (Lanham, Md. and London: Scarecrow Press, 1999).

Thomas J. Heffernan and E. Ann Matter, eds., The Liturgy of the Medieval Church (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval Institute Publications, 2001).

Andrew Hughes, Medieval Manuscripts for Mass and Office: A Guide to Their Organization and Terminology (Toronto: Pontifical Institute, 1982).

see also Music: Additions to the Sacred Repertory ; Religion: Medieval Liturgy

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The Development of Liturgical Drama

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The Development of Liturgical Drama