Medieval Theatre: History, Facts & Plays

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  • 0:04 The Church's Role in…
  • 1:09 Mystery Plays & Guilds
  • 2:49 Structure of Performance
  • 3:11 Farces & Morality Plays
  • 4:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

In this lesson, we'll explore some facts related to medieval theatre and learn about some of its best-known plays. We'll explore guilds, mystery plays, sotties and morality plays.

The Church's Role in Early Plays

Theatre went through many changes during the medieval period. The ways some of these works approached stories, sets, and characters paved the way for what was to come. Scholars don't know much about early medieval theatre, which was probably related to the church as liturgical dramas, or parts of public worship that told stories from the Bible.

The earliest example of a surviving drama dates from roughly 925 CE. It's very brief, only four lines of dialogue about the Resurrection of Jesus. During this time, traveling bands of musicians and storytellers also performed for people, but the church frowned on them. In some places, they were officially banned.

Despite initial fears of theatre, eventually the church became its primary venue. Priests and other religious men put on miracle plays and pageants during holy seasons, especially the nativity at Christmas and the passion during Easter. These productions were done in churches and in Latin, the official language of the church. Remember, at this time many people couldn't read, so putting on a play was one way of conveying religious ideas and doctrine.

Mystery Plays & Guilds

During the 12th century, theatrical performances moved from inside the church to outside as they grew in size and scope. Eventually, the popularity of religious plays put on by religious orders declined. By 1350, most performances were in languages other than Latin and a new system for presenting plays developed.

The guild system rose in the 14th and 15th centuries in Germany and then spread throughout Europe. Guilds were made up of craftsmen who pursued a similar trade by forming groups or associations to train and support members, sort of like a trade union. Over time, guilds began to take over the roll of staging theatrical performances.

They had members and funds to afford increasingly elaborate costumes and sets that involved special effects like people flying across a stage and fiery depictions of Hell. Often, the type of guild influenced the story its members performed. For example, ship builders performed Noah's Ark, and bakers performed the Last Supper. These were called mystery plays, and they usually drew on stories from the Bible. In England, specific mystery play cycles became associated with individual towns. Some cycles were so time-consuming and elaborate that they required hundreds of performers, and were performed once a year or less.

Four such cycles survive today. One of the most famous is the Wakefield Mystery Plays, a series of 32 plays based on scripture and performed during the summer religious feast of Corpus Christi. The series begins with the fall of Lucifer and ends with the Last Judgment. It sounds very serious, but parts of it are comical and irreverent.

Structure of Performance

So how were these massive events performed? Some cycles had fixed staging, in which a series of platforms were set up in a central location like temporary stages, with audiences moving from one play to another. Other cycles had movable staging, in which a series of pageant wagons traveled a path, taking the plays to audiences who remained in one place.

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