Open main menu

Page:Catholic Encyclopedia, volume 10.djvu/399

This page needs to be proofread.


MIRACLE


349


MIRACLE


contemporaries would care to submit. In some " pas- sions " the actor who reiiresented Christ had to recite nearly 4000 lines. Moreover, the scene of the cruci- fixion had to last as long as it did in reality. It is re- lated that in 1437 the cure NicoUe, who was playing the part of Christ at Metz, was on the point of dy- ing 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, re- mained hanging for so long that his heart failed and he had to be cut tiown and borne away.

As regards the esthetic si<le of this drama, modem 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 at- taches to the chief personage and the general idea of eternal salvation, whether of a single man or of hu- manity, which constitutes the common fountlation 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 ha\'e at every period char- acterized this dramatic .style, viz. weakness and wordi- ness. The poets said things as they occurred to them, without display of selection, gradation, ortaste. 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 com- plex 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 repre- sentation 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 sce- nery did not change, for it showed simultaneously all the various localtties where the characters succes- sively 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 tlie scenery was inunovable. it was very rich and secrets of theoretical mechanism often produced sur- prising 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 sub- ject-matter admitted of the marvellous and was bor- rowed from religion. For the rest there was some difference between the miracles and the mysteries. The miracles emphasized the supernatural interven- tion 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 Testa- ment 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, Imt 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 afforfled 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 enor- mous theatre, the city was deserted, and it was neces- sary to organize bands of armed citizens to protect the deserted houses against robbery. This custom en- dured 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 teach- ings. These attacks aroused the scrujiles of some Catholics, and the judiciary considered it time to inter- fere. The mysteries perished; for the example of Paris, where they were forbidden to be played, w-as by degrees followed by the provinces. Thus the re- ligious drama of the Middle Ages disappeared in France at the height of its success.

GEORGE.S BeRTRIN.

England. — There is no record of any religious drama in England previous to the Norman Conquest. About the beginning of the twelfth century we hear of a play of St. Catharine performed at Dimstable by Geoffroy, later abliot of St. .-Vlbans, and a passage in Fitzstephen's " Life of Becket " shows that such plays were common in London about 1170. These were evidently "miracle plays ", though for England the distinction between miracles and mysteries is of no importance, all religious plays being called " miracles ". Of miracle plays in the strict sense of the word nothing is preserved in English literature. The earliest re- ligious plays were undoubtedly in Latin and French. The oldest extant miracle in English is the "Harrow- ing of Hell" (thirteenth centun,'). Its subject is the apocryphal descent of Christ to the hell of the damned, and it belongs to the cycle of Easter-plays. From the fourteenth century dates the play of " ,\braham and Isaac". A great impetus was again given to the re- ligious drama in England as elsewhere liy the institu- tion of the festival of Corpus Christi (12G4; generally ob.served since 1311) with its solemn processions. Presently the Eastern and Christmas cycles were joined into one great cycle representing the whole course of sacred history from the Creation to the Last Judgment. Thus arose the four great cycles still extant and known as the Towneley, Chester, York, and Coventry plays, the last three designated from the place of their performance. The Towneley mysteries owe their name to the fact that the single MS. in which they are preserved was long in the possession of the Towneley family. They were perfonned, it .seems, at Woodkirk, near Wakefield. These cycles are very heterogeneous in character, the plays being by differ- ent authors. In their present form the number of plays in the cycles is: Towneley 30 (or 31), Chester 24, York 48, Coventry 42. Four other plays are also preserved in the Digby codex at Oxford. The so- called "moralities" (q. v.) arc a later offshoot of the "miracles". These aim at-the inculcation of ethical