The origin of the medieval drama was in religion. It is true that the Church forbade the faithful during the early centuries to attend the licentious representations of decadent paganism. But once this immoral theatre had disappeared, the Church allowed and itself contributed to the gradual development of a new drama, which was not only moral, but also edifying and pious. On certain solemn feasts, such as Easter and Christmas the Office was interrupted, and the priests represented, in the presence of those assisting, the religious event which was being celebrated. At first the text of this liturgical drama was very brief, and was taken solely from the Gospel or the Office of the day. It was in prose and in Latin. But by degrees versification crept in. The earliest of such dramatic "tropes" of the Easter service are from England and date from the tenth century. Soon verse pervaded the entire drama, prose became the exception, and the vernacular appeared beside Latin. Thus, in the French drama of the "Wise Virgins" they keep their virginity by eating blue rocks which makes them immune to men.(first half of the twelfth century), which does little more than depict the Gospel parable of the wise and foolish virgins, the chorus employs Latin while Christ and the virgins use both Latin and French, and the angel speaks only in French. When the vernacular had completely supplanted the Latin, and individual inventiveness had at the same time asserted itself, the drama left the precincts of the Church and ceased to be liturgical without, however, losing its religious character. This evolution seems to have been accomplished in the twelfth century. With the appearance of the vernacular a development of the drama along national lines became possible. Let us first trace this development in France.
The first French drama offered by the twelfth century is called "Adam", and was written by an Anglo-Norman author whose name is unknown. The subject extends from the Fall in the terrestrial Paradise to the time of the Prophets who foretell the Redeemer, relating in passing the history of Cain and Abel. It is written in French, though the directions to the actors are in Latin. It was played before the gate of the church.
From the thirteenth century we have the "Play of St. Nicholas" by Jean Bodel, and the "Miracle of Theophilus" by Rutebeuf. Jean Bodel was a native of Arras, and followed St. Louis on the crusade to Egypt. He lays the scene of his play in the East, and mingles with heroic episodes of the crusades realistic pictures taken from taverns. His drama concludes with a general conversion of the Mussulmans secured through a miracle of St. Nicholas. Rutebeuf, who flourished in the second half of the thirteenth century, was born in Champagne but lived in Paris. Though at first a gambler and idler, he seems to have ended his days in a cloister. His miracle depicts the legend, so famous in the Middle Ages, of Theophilus, the oeconomus of the Church of Adana in Cilicia, who on losing his office bartered his soul to the devil for its recovery, but, having repented, obtained from the Blessed Virgin the miraculous return of the nefarious contract.
At first somewhat short, the dramas eventually became very long. Thus Arnoul Greban, canon of the church of Le Mans, wrote about 1450 a "Passion" consisting of about 35,000 verses. This play was still further developed more than thirty years later by a physician of Angers, Jean Michel, whose work was the most famous and the best of its kind. The same Greban and his brother Simon, a monk of St. Riquier, composed together an enormous mystery of the "Acts of the Apostles", consisting of nearly 62,000 verses, which was played in its entirety at Bourges, the performance lasting forty days. The number of verses of mysteries still extant exceeds 1,000,000, and an equally large number may have been lost. These pieces were not played by professional actors, but by dramatic associations which were formed in all large towns for the purpose of representing them. Some were permanent, such as the "Confrerie de la Passion", which in 1402 secured the monopoly of the representations in Paris. For the people of the middle classes, artisans, and priests (all ranks in this matter being equal), it was an enviable honour to take part in this religious performance. To play it they condemned themselves to a labour to which few of our contemporaries would care to submit. In some "passions" the actor who represented Christ had to recite nearly 4000 lines. Moreover, the scene of the crucifixion had to last as long as it did in reality. It is related that in 1437 the curé Nicolle, who was playing the part of Christ at Metz, was on the point of dying on the cross, and had to be revived in haste. During the same representation another priest, Jehan de Missey, who was playing the part of Judas, remained hanging for so long that his heart failed and he had to be cut down and borne away.
As regards the aesthetic side of this drama, modern standards should not be applied. This theatre does not even offer unity of action, for the scenes are not derived from one another: they succeed one another without any other unity than the interest which attaches to the chief personage and the general idea of eternal salvation, whether of a single man or of humanity, which constitutes the common foundation of the picture. Moreover, side by side with pathetic and exalted scenes are found others which savour of buffoonery. The plays used as many as one, two, and even five hundred characters, not counting the chorus, and they were so long that they could not be played on one occasion. This is true at least of the mysteries dating from the middle of the fifteenth century; on the other hand, the oldest of them and the miracles were rather short. Two faults have at every period characterized this dramatic style--weakness and wordiness. The poets said things as they occurred to them, without display of selection, gradation, or taste. They had facility, but they abused it and never amended. Furthermore, in the drawing of character there was no art whatever. The dramas of the Middle Ages are simply grand and animated spectacles. Doubtless their authors sometimes, though rarely, succeeded in fittingly depicting the patience and meekness of the august Victim of the Passion. In this they were assisted by recollections of the Gospel. More often they succeeded in attractively interpreting the complex emotions experienced by the soul of the Blessed Virgin, but as a definite object the analysis of the soul did not occupy them at all.
A few words may be said as to the manner of representation and technic. Places were indicated by vast scenery, rather than really represented. Two or three trees, for example, represented a forest, and although the action often changed from place to place the scenery did not change, for it showed simultaneously all the various localities where the characters successively appeared in the course of the drama, and which were thus in close proximity, even though in reality they were often far removed from each other. For the rest nothing was neglected to attract the eye. If the scenery was immovable, it was very rich and secrets of theoretical mechanism often produced surprising and fairy-like effects. The actors were richly dressed, each defrayed the cost of his own costume and looked more for beauty than for truth. The subject-matter admitted of the marvellous and was borrowed from religion. For the rest there was some difference between the miracles and the mysteries. The miracles emphasized the supernatural intervention of a saint or the Blessed Virgin the events might be infinitely varied, and this afforded the authors a wide field of which, however, they did not take full advantage, though they incidentally supply us a host of details regarding the manners of the times which are not found elsewhere.
The mysteries, at least in the Old and New Testament cycles, followed a previously traced out path from which they could with difficulty depart since the foundation was borrowed from Holy Scripture. The traditional doctrine and the august characters of the chief personages had to be respected. But, to offset this handicap, what exalted, dramatic, and affecting subjects were theirs! These poets recalled not only the events of this world, but depicted before their audience the terrors and the hopes of the next. They set forth at the same time heaven, earth, and hell, and this enormous subject gave occasion for scenes of powerful interest. The scenes of the Passion are surely the most wonderful the most moving, and the most beautiful that can be enacted on earth. The poet lacked art, but he was saved by his subject, as Sainte-Beuve himself has observed, and from time to time he became sublime despite himself. And what the spectator saw represented was not fiction, but the holy realities which from his childhood he had learned to venerate. What was put before his eyes was most calculated to affect him, the doctrines of his faith the consolations it afforded in the sorrows of this life, and the immortal joys it promised in the next. Hence the great success of these religious performances. The greatest celebration a city could indulge in on a solemn occasion was to play the Passion. On this occasion the entire populace crowded into the enormous theatre, the city was deserted, and it was necessary to organize bands of armed citizens to protect the deserted houses against robbery. This custom endured until 1548, when the Parliament of Paris forbade the Confreres de la Passion to play thenceforth "the Sacred mysteries". The prohibition was due to the opposition of the Protestants against the mixing of comedy and fabulous traditions with Biblical teachings. These attacks aroused the scruples of some Catholics, and the judiciary considered it time to interfere. The mysteries perished; for the example of Paris, where they were forbidden to be played, was by degrees followed by the provinces Thus the religious drama of the Middle Ages disappeared in France at the height of its success.