English drama began as an extension of the liturgy of the same church, which had abolished such displays because of their indecency some four centuries prior. The church made no move to revive an art form they considered to be associated with Satan. Instead, they had utilized “acting” to make the scriptures more accessible to the uneducated.
In the Sixth Century, Pope Gregory compiled antiphons (or chants). These served as the basis for the rituals. In an antiphon, part of a church choir, or perhaps a single voice, chants a section of the service to which another part of the choir or a single voice answers. At first these passages were wordless. It was the Tenth Century before words were added to the antiphons. These were called tropes.
The significance of the change was far-reaching. Dialogue could be exchanged between the separate parts, and thus liturgical dramas were born. The earliest of these dealt with the three Marys attending the tomb of Christ. Needless to say, this trope was staged or Easter Sunday. The popularity of the format brought stories for other services and other Biblical related “holidays” and more elaborate displays. By the Twelfth Century much of the Bible had been transformed into a “play” of sorts.
Unfortunately, the form, which was meant to instruct the masses, held its limitations. The first of those was the lack of space. The churches simply could not hold the crowds coming together for the presentations. Crowds were very rowdy, jostling each other, sometimes actually breaking into fights. Moreover, the crowds demanded more and more secular material in the plays. Therefore, in 1201, Pope Innocent III ordered the plays performed outside the church. In 1255, Urban IV established a street festival, called Corpus Christi, in honor of the Sacrament. These plays were staged in the summer when the weather was better. Soon both the Easter and Christmas plays were abandoned.
The guilds took over the plays when the Church gave up the presentations. They were assisted by the corporations that aided the towns. The plays drew visitors to the towns and so economic support appeared only reasonable for business increased with the influx of people. The different guilds “specialized” in the plays presented. For example, the water carriers guild enacted the Great Flood, grocers performed Adam and Eve in the Garden, etc. If the guilds required more funds to stage an elaborate display, the corporations chipped in the funds.
The guild productions were not limited to pious displays, and more secular elements were added. Soon the plays were not a reflection of Biblical settings and morals, but those of contemporary England. One might see Mrs. Noah acting as the town gossip, shepherds overlooking the nativity suffered from unreasonable landlords, etc. Anachronisms were everywhere. For example, Herod would swear by the Trinity. Another Biblical character might mention Thomas à Becket.
By the Fourteenth Century, these presentations were termed Miracle Plays. A “miracle” in those days meant anything dealing with religion. A Miracle play was one which speaks of an incident in the life of a saint, whereas, a Mystery play is used to characterize incidents from the Bible. However, in Medieval England, no such distinction occurred.
Most miracles plays are in the form of four cycles, or collections. These collections are named after the four towns in which they were most often presented. The cycles are the York cycle (with 48 separate scenes), the Wakefield or Towneley cycle (with 32 scenes), the Chester cycle (25 scenes), and the Coventry or Ludus Coventriae cycle (43 scenes). There was also a Cornish cycle, and single plays or fragments of cycles that were acted at Dublin, Newcastle, Shrewsbury, etc.
Heralds announced the Miracle plays 2-3 days in advance of an actual performance with the crying of Banns. In a small town, the performers used the town square or other public place for the play. At least a dozen stands were constructed. A separate scene would be enacted upon each. With the scenes set up in a circle, the crowds could easily manage the viewing of each. While the crowd moved on to the next scene, another scene would set up so the performance was a continuous “cycle.”
In larger towns, the scenes were set up upon wagons, called “pageants.” The wagons would be stationed at street corners or before a shop where the shopkeeper paid the performers a fee for the privilege. The pageants were arranged so horses (or apprentices) could drag the wagon to the next station.
The anthology The English Drama 900-1642 (Norton) tells us, “The one on which the Second Shepherds’ Play was enacted, for example was said by a well-informed critic to have been at least thirty feet long. In one corner of it, Mak’s house probably stood. Near the center were the fields, where we find the shepherds at the beginning of the drama. In an opposite corner was the stable in Bethlehem, to which the shepherds go in the last scene. Usually there were two decks to the stage; if God was a character there might be three – the top one representing Heaven, the middle, Earth, the lower, Hell. The lower deck also served as a dressing room, and from its side there was an opening representing hell’s mouth, from which smoke belched, and from which the devil frequently leaped with a pitchfork.
“The major cycles were all written in English, although the early liturgical plays were in Latin. They follow rhyme schemes of a sort, but these schemes are obviously not the work of scholars, nor is the diction generally. Often, too, the plots of the plays are loosely strung together, for plotting was a thing which English dramatists learned from the ancients. The serious and the facetious are frequently jumbled together. Yet these complaints are definitely minor. The miracles are still interesting – quite apart from the historical reasons – because of their rich realism and humor, because they are fundamentally healthy, and because they reflect the growth of a people toward expression, which is freedom.” (pp. 3-4)