Professor Charlotte McIvor
Cultures & Ideas
12 February 2012
Morality Plays: The Necessity of Elaborate Theatre
After reading about medieval morality plays for the last couple of weeks–by reading I mean painstakingly combing over the small print of several different books I discovered in the library–I came to a realization. All of these books said the same basic thing just in a large variety of ways. Stage production and theatrics were an important contributing factor to performing the morality plays, but one above all others was invested in the showmanship of theatre: The Castle of Perseverance. The elaborate, extensive and theatrical stage production that was involved in the performance of the medieval morality play The Castle of Perseverance was not essential to the audience’s viewing of the actual play.
The morality play has its roots in the miracle and mystery plays of the eleventh century. Miracle plays were dramas that revolved around the lives of Saints or the Virgin Mary. Mystery plays revolved around stories from the Bible and were also known as Pageants or as Corpus Christi plays. Mystery plays were performed across Europe during the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries.[i] Morality plays represent a transition between religion-based plays to secular, professional theatre. “These moralities centered on the life of the individual Christian, portrayed as a generalized type-figure such as “Mankind” or “Everyman,” and emphasized his fall from grace, his death, and his eventual salvation through the intercession of a divine figure, usually Christ or the Virgin.” [ii] The concept of the plays were all the same, there was just a dissonance in the approach each play took. The differences in the plots of the plays reflects the evolution of this genre of play and the time they were written in.
An example of the evolution of these plays based on the events surrounding their time is the fact that The Castle of Perseverance ended with Mankind being saved not because of confession or repentance, but because God saved him through special circumstance even though the rules of justice told him not to. It reflects the fact that the actors of these plays weren’t necessarily given church burials so they had to rely on God’s grace. The events of the time influenced the play. “It is quite possible that the emphasis of the plays on special grace stems from the uncertain relations between the wandering players and the church. Actors were often refused church burial and thus had to depend on divine intervention for their salvation rather than on the sacraments.” [iii]
There are palpable conflicts in each of the plays. The over dramatizing of the “bad” characters in these theatric works lead the viewer to feel something other than loathing for them which opposes the whole concept of these plays in the first place. “Vice is far more attractive on the stage than virtue, which appears rather stuffy and dull. The comic, undignified devils of the mystery plays become the “vices” of the moral play, who degenerate from supernatural demons into riotous clowns, with so much audience sympathy that in the end, when sound church doctrine demands their punishment, they often escape.” [iv] The fact that the audiences react favorably to the vices because of the comedic element they begin to bring to the plays shows that the theatrics can be a hindrance to the moral of performance.
Another conflict that arose in the production of these plays was that the supposed “morals” that were being portrayed strayed from the moral views of the church at the time. By letting Covetousness in The Castle of Perseverance continuously lure Mankind away from the virtues it permits the idea that it doesn’t matter by what means you win, just as long as you do actually win. Now this would not be so monumental in any of the other morality plays because it is to be expected that evil would attempt to use trickery, but it is important in this play...
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