drama, Western

Medieval Drama

While the Christian church did much to suppress the performance of plays, paradoxically it is in the church that medieval drama began. The first record of this beginning is the trope in the Easter service known as the Quem quaeritis [whom you seek]. Tropes, originally musical elaborations of the church service, gradually evolved into drama; eventually the Latin lines telling of the Resurrection were spoken, rather than sung, by priests who represented the angels and the two Marys at the tomb of Jesus. Thus, simple interpolations developed into grandiose cycles of mystery plays, depicting biblical episodes from the Creation to Judgment Day. The most famous of these plays is the Second Shepherds' Play.

Another important type that developed from church liturgy was the miracle play, based on the lives of saints rather than on scripture. The miracle play reached its peak in France and the mystery play in England. Both types gradually became secularized, passing into the hands of trade guilds or professional actors. The Second Shepherds' Play, for all its religious seriousness, is most noteworthy for its elements of realism and farce, while the miracle plays in France often emphasized comedy and adventure (see miracle play).

The morality play, a third type of religious drama, appeared early in the 15th cent. Morality plays were religious allegories, the most famous being Everyman. Another type of drama popular in medieval times was the interlude, which can be generally defined as a dramatic work with characteristics of the morality play that is primarily intended for entertainment.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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