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Moralities, Interludes and Farces of the Middle Ages


This article was originally published in A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1927. pp. 138-44.

THE sacred plays of the Middle Ages often contained farcical, irreverent, and even lewd situations, while the so-called secular plays frequently carried with them some degree of sermonizing. The distinction between comedy and tragedy, so marked in classical plays, was forgotten. In the day of Hans Sachs if a play had a fight in it, it was a tragedy. No fight, no tragedy.

The morality. The play nearest the mystery in manner of production, costumes, and general tone was the morality, which might almost be classed as a religious play. In the age-long attempt to portray the dual nature of Man, in whom good and evil perpetually fight for supremacy, the playwrights lighted on the allegorical method. They conceived the different desires and appetites of Man as personalities, named them Greed, Pride, Vanity, Good Will, Patience, and the like, and caused them to weave their plots so as to capture the soul of the hero, who was called Everyman, Humanum Genus, or Man. Besides the personified desires, there were also in most plays other characters such as the Doctor, the Priest, or a public officer. God and the Devil were usually present.

The first English morality of which there is record was on the subject of the Lord's Prayer, and was given at York sometime during the fourteenth century. It is now lost, but it made so profound an impression upon the spectators that a company was immediately formed for the purpose of providing frequent and regular performances. At the end of the fourteenth century the company numbered one hundred members and their wives.

The earliest extant morality in English is The Castle of Perseverance, which belongs to the fifteenth century. In it the whole life of Man, called Humanum Genus, is portrayed from birth to death. There are two other very early English moralities, one entitled Spirit, Will and Understanding, the other Humanity. By their very nature, the moralities were all obliged to use the same or similar abstractions for their allegories; but a French writer, Nicolas de la Chesnaye, was inventive enough to make a slight variation. His play is called The Condemnation of Banquets, and is nothing less than a tract on temperance in both eating and drinking. It is very long, having more than 3,600 lines and employing thirty-nine characters. By far the most interesting extant morality is Everyman, ascribed by many scholars to the Dutch Dorlandus. It appeared in English translation four times between 1493 and 1530, and opens with these lines: "Here beginneth a treatise how the High Father of Heaven sendeth Death to summon every creature to come and give an account of their lives in this world, and is in manner of a moral play."

Even from the first, the morality was nearly always sprawling in construction and long-winded. Moreover, all advance in dramatic conception has been towards the concrete rather than the abstract; so it would seem that the allegorical manner was a turn in the wrong direction. On the other hand, such fables were popular and quickly understood; and the abstract qualities, personified by living actors, took upon themselves something of the nature of reality. Furthermore, the moralities mark the end of the biblical cycle of drama, and, with the interludes, form the link between the medieval and the modern play. In them can be recognized the seeds of the romantic and later schools. The habit of using qualities for names is a stock device of comedy, and has long persisted, the Mrs. Sneerwell and Mrs. Backbite of Sheridan being a direct continuation of the tribe of Greed and Vanity.

Varieties of medieval secular plays. Coexistent with biblical plays and the moralities, there grew up during the late Middle Ages several kinds of plays of a more or less secular nature. In a rough classification we discover the following branches:

Carnival or Shrovetide plays
Puppet shows
"Feasts" of various sorts, being travesties of Church rituals

Some of these types are as ancient as the sacred play, while others developed from it. There are naturally no hard and fast lines between these groups; but the existence of such a variety of forms proves anew the enormous appetite for theatrical entertainment in the late Middle Ages.

In these secular plays there were, generally speaking, four classes of performers: strolling players (successors of the ancient mimes and pantomimic actors); roystering citizens out for revel; the Fool companies; and people connected with the schools and universities. The first of these were what might be called professional performers. They belonged to the lowest stratum of society and were classed as vagabonds. Besides keeping alive the ancient Roman skits, they probably picked up for their own use such contemporaneous pieces as served their purpose. They were often jugglers, acrobats, minstrels and magicians as well as actors. No doubt it is due to this class that certain stock comic situations and "business" have been handed down in an unbroken tradition from early Roman days.

The second group of actors was composed of ordinary citizens, merchants, petty officers, journeymen and the like, who banded themselves together during carnival season for purposes of revelry and mumming. The third class, the Fool companies, consisted of bands of youths--a sort of under-ground clique--sometimes organized under a secret code, whose chief business it was to play gross comedies and to execute nonsensical and often ribald travesties on the Mass. These companies existed all over Europe and England, and gained immunity for their ribaldry by their popularity, their anonymity, and their audacity. Mantzius says: "They satirized the Mass, turned the church into a ballroom, and the altar into a bar." These boisterous "Feasts" antedate most of the mysteries, and may have been reverent in their origin. Remnants of pagan ceremonies seem to be embedded in their rites. Theophylact, Patriarch of Constantinople in 990, ordered the Feast of Fools and the Feast of the Ass, with other "religious farces," to be played in the Greek Church. In France one group of these youthful mummers was called Enfants sans souci, another the Société des Sottes, still another La Bazoche du Palais. The fourth group was composed of school and choir boys, with an admixture of university men. These would naturally give their attention to plays of a more scholarly nature, imitations of Seneca and Terence, dramatic exercises in Latin, and adaptations more closely allied to the classic stage.

Shrovetide plays. It is likely that the Shrovetide or carnival mummers were in many cases the same people who participated in the mysteries. Sometimes the same stage was used both for the sacred play and the farce, which were often given in immediate succession, with the same audience sitting through both performances. The Shrovetide plays--also called interludes, sotties, Fastnachtsspiele--for some centuries made a specialty not only of the comic, but of the indecent aspects of society. The fables, found upon the lips of the Crusaders and Spanish Moors, in the pages of French fabliaux, in the novelle of the Italian Renaissance--had become current throughout Europe. We must allow, of course, for a difference of standard in language and manners; but even granting all that, one can but grimace at the nastiness of many of these so-called comic plays.

Sex and digestion were the two subjects which particularly excited the mirth of these lovers of medieval farces. In plays on the first topic, the joke usually turned on the deceived husband, who, to the medieval mind, was always a ludicrous object. The other unfailing source of comedy was even more intimate--the vicissitudes, distresses, and experiences accompanying digestion. Mantzius says that the subject of sex was peculiarly Gallic, while that pertaining to digestion was typically Teutonic. Both themes were bandied about all over Europe to the last shred of vulgarity.

At its best, however, the humor of the secular plays is naive and diverting. The farce of Mak the Sheep Stealer may have been taken from the French; but as we have it, it forms an interlude in the second Shepherd play of the Towneley cycle. The French farce of The Wash Tub introduces the henpecked husband whose wit, combined with his wife's misfortunes, restores him to his masculine prestige. The most famous of all the medieval farces, Pierre Pathelin, is entirely innocent, without vulgarity of any sort, and has a well rounded plot. It is fairly long, consisting of about 1600 lines; and like all medieval pieces was played through without intermission. Its author is unknown; but it is of French origin, and was played by the Fraternity of the Bazoche in 1480. It was immensely popular in its day, going through six different editions in the fifteenth century, and no less than twenty-four in the sixteenth. In the eighteenth century it was adapted for use in the repertory of the Théâtre Français, and restored to a form much nearer the original in 1872. It was also used as the libretto for a comic opera by Bazin.

These farces picture authentic types of character, and have comedy situations which were native to the participants, not borrowed from Greece or Rome. They smack of the soil and carry on the true dramatic tradition. The Brotherhood of the Passion gave a play in the fifteenth century on the subject of Griselda, a story which came through the Moors from Spain, was part of the Italian stock of tales, and was used by Chaucer and Spenser. An English sixteenth century play is still in existence, with Friar Tuck, Little John, and all the other characters of the immortal Robin Hood legend. The story goes that Bishop Latimer's own church was closed on a festal day, because all the congregation had gone to see Robin Hood.

Hans Sachs. 1494-1576. The name of Hans Sachs should be placed in an honorable niche with the writers of early secular plays. He touched upon more subjects, had more wit and charm, and developed a better technique than any other play-maker of his time. He lived as an honored and distinguished citizen of Nuremberg, following the trade of shoemaker and at the same time producing plays, songs, poems and other works to the number of more than six thousand separate pieces. Of these, about two hundred are in dramatic form--tragedies, comedies, Shrovetide pieces, or simple dialogues to which he gave no name. He was at his best in the Shrovetide piece which, under his hand, changed from a formless dialogue to an entertaining, well-constructed, merry and wholesome little play. It was seldom more than four hundred lines, and nearly always inculcated some lesson in morals or manners.

The interlude. The interlude was usually a short, humorous piece, suited for two or three, scarcely ever more than four, actors; and it was, par excellence, the banquet entertainment. Occasionally it was used as a comic diversion between the more serious parts of a sacred play; or as one of the features of medieval vaudeville in a program of juggling acts, necromancy, and wrestling. Gradually the interlude acquired a courtly character; but it was also employed, during the period of religious strife, as a means of propaganda. It was essentially witty and full of action. A fragment of a very early interlude exists, called Interlude de Clerico et Puella, probably belonging to the reign of the first Edward. It is written in dialect, and requires three actors and a puppy. There is no prologue or explanation; but the characters begin at once, Clericus making immediate love to Puella. In the fourteenth century the Society of Parish Clerks, which enjoyed considerable renown in medieval London, played interludes before King Richard, his queen and court. Nicholas Udall and John Bale, both of whom belong to the sixteenth century, wrote religious and political interludes. The most famous of all the writers of this species of play is John Heywood (1497-1580) under whose hand the form became satirical and entertaining. He discarded rustic and biblical subjects, also subjects of controversy, and turned towards Chaucer and the French fables for his themes. With him the medieval secular play changed almost imperceptibly into the English realistic comedy of the Elizabethan age.

Historical, legendary, and puppet plays. There are a few extant plays, generally called mysteries, which are based on non-biblical stories. Two of these are French and have for themes, respectively, the Fall of Troy and the story of Joan of Arc. They were evidently meant for gigantic spectacles, and seem to foreshadow the chronicle play. It is recorded that, in these plays, from three hundred to five hundred people were on the stage at one time.

The puppet show (also called "motions") developed in its humble way side by side with the more pretentious types of drama. Dumb shows, which were pantomimic performances with either living actors or puppets, were performed in Florence early in the fourteenth century, and spread over Europe and into England in the fifteenth. Old stories of cheating merchants, devils in disguise, and of Noah's Ark, were standbys in the way of fables. A letter from Bath, mentioned in the Tatler, relates the appearance of a puppet show featuring Alexander the Great as hero. At Bartholomew Fair in the reign of Queen Anne, a performance of the Creation and Flood was followed by a puppet show called Punch and Sir John Spendall. In it Punch beat his wife, insulted the priest, was frightened by a ghost and was finally carried off to hell.


Books on Medieval Theatre

Related Webpages

Medieval Theatre Index
Decline of Religious Drama
Drama of the Middle Ages
The Medieval Drama
Minstrels and Jongleurs

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