The Evolution of Liturgical Drama
From Miracle Play to Judgement House
Development of Theatre 1
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20) This New Testament passage, often referred to as the ‘Great Commission’, urges all Christians to evangelize and share the message of Jesus Christ with others. Of course, such a task is most vital to religious leaders, priests and pastors – those professional theologians that strive to communicate the gospel in a powerful and influential way. Besides the quotation of scripture, the sermons, the hymns and the rituals, the church has long utilized the liturgical drama as a means of communication and celebration. Beginning with the simple ‘miracle plays’ in the early Middle Ages, this type of religious theatre became gradually more elaborate and lengthy until it’s peak around the time of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Although the church’s use of liturgical drama declined after this point, moral and religious themes continued to be popular in the arts. It is ironic that, in the very secular world of the late 20th century, fundamentalist Christian groups revived the tradition of evangelizing through drama – whether through play, movie, or television program. The recent development of ‘Hell Houses’ or ‘Judgment Houses’ is a particularly vivid example of such evangelism. Around the 10th century, as Europe was leaving the stark poverty and cultural suppression of the Dark Ages behind, religious monasteries began slowly adding theatrical presentations to church services. What happened in the monasteries gradually began to spread to the universities and eventually to the general public – at least those in the cities. These presentations primarily took the form of ‘miracle plays’ – brief dramas that told the story of the lives of the Saints or the Virgin Mary. These plays typically quoted the scriptures, in Latin, while visually portraying the gospel tale. Obviously, such a multi-sensory presentation would be more engaging and influential for an often-illiterate and unsophisticated audience. Although the more stoic and tradition-bound leaders of the church often resisted such practices, which to them seemed similar to the pagan rituals of the past, miracle plays proved their effectiveness and steadily grew in popularity. Miracle plays generally deal with the supernatural intervention of God, a Saint, or the Blessed Virgin in the life of a common man. Some of the notable miracle plays include: “Adam” (the Fall from grace, the paradise of Eden, Eve, Cain and Abel), “Quem Quaeritis?” (dialogue between an angel at the tomb of Christ and the women who are seeking his body), and “The Miracles of Our Lady” (the blessed virgin consoles and saves sinners that repent). As time went on and the miracle plays increased in popularity, there was a natural inclination to expand the Biblical stories into more elaborate productions with dramatic moral lessons. What gradually evolved was the mystery play. The word ‘mystery’ is derived from the Latin ministerium, which means, ‘act.’ “The plays frequently took for subject the mysteries of Christian belief. However, the mysteries were often devoted to a saint, and, in exceptional cases, even represented matters which were not religious. (Bertrin)” Instead of simply dealing with our awe for the transcendent power of God, mystery plays began to deal with the moral conflicts of everyday life. Some of the notable mystery plays include “Mystery of the Destruction of Troy” (the sins of becoming too worldly); “Wise Virgins” (wise and chaste virgins … good!, foolish & hedonistic virgins … bad!); and “Play of St. Nicholas” (heroic stories about defeating Muslim infidels in the...
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