Pre-Elizabethan drama moved from miracle plays to morality plays to folk plays to interludes. Interludes were the last to develop. Initially, “interludes” were closed identified with morality plays, especially in subject matter.
Precursors to Elizabethan Drama summarizes the development from Morality plays to interludes. “A separate class of drama, called the morality play, also became popular in medieval England. Morality plays, like the later developed Renaissance masques, may seem a little strange to us, as they were more allegorical in nature. That is to say, the characters were not individuals, but rather abstract concepts. For example, in the most famous morality play, Everyman, some of the characters include Death, Knowledge, Strength and Discretion. The purpose of the plays was, generally speaking, to illustrate the conflict between good and evil.
“Here again, we must not believe that such a genre could ever possibly survive were it to be all humorless instruction. The important, and very popular, development of the English morality play was the introduction of a fatuous character called Vice, to which the Elizabethan authors refer repeatedly. Vice, the tempter of man, served the Devil, but his main role seemed to be to “torment and tease” his master, to the guaranteed delight of the audience.
“Another type of play, called the interlude, developed in the 16th century. Its great practitioner was John Heywood. An interlude was brief play of a non-religious nature (we must note, however, that the terms interlude and morality play overlap, and it may not be easy, nor is it usually necessary, to absolutely categorize a given play as one type or another); for example, in Heywood’s The Play of the Weather, the god Jupiter has to determine what kind of weather to provide England, and a debate ensues between two Millers, a Gentleman and a Ranger about what kind of weather is most desirable. Again, we see that we have characters that are not developed individuals, but rather character-types.”
Moralities continued to be heavy in lessons in ethics. They were designed for the lower classes and presented before large audiences. The moralities denied the idea that physical pleasure and intelligent speculation against the superstitions of the day could be enjoyed without eternal damnation. These plays purported the life everlasting.
Meanwhile, by 1500, interludes separated themselves from what were termed as morality plays. First, they were shorter. Secondly, the audience changed. They were accepted by a more aristocratic viewer. Finally, they lost their moral emphasis. The interludes spoke of the values found in the world. Condemnation for enjoying some of life’s pleasures was not the subject matter.
Interludes were performed at colleges or at the homes of the wealthy. They were often staged between the courses of a supper. The dialogue was very lively and contemporary (politics, new scientific discoveries, the secular elements of religion, etc.). Interludes spoke of the ruling group, changing from emphasis on Protestants to Catholics, and back again. Sometimes they went so far as to “attack” a person or a cause. They might, for example, defend a personage. In John Skelton’s Magnificence, the plot satirized Thomas Wolsey, a cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church.
John Heywood, who was mentioned above, was likely the best known writer of interludes. In his early days, Heywood served as Master of Revels at court, meaning he was to provide pleasant entertainment for those the Court hosted. Heywood studied the works of Chaucer and Boccaccio. He borrowed some of their favorite characters for his plays: friars, poticaries, peddlers, wives, husbands, pardoners, priests, etc.). He used them in situations which were also similar to the early tales. In The English Drama 900-1642 (W. W. Norton, 1963), editors Edd Winfield Parks and Richmond Croom Beatty tell us, “He [Heywood] was fortunate in appearing before the regular drama had had opportunity to develop. After him the men who wrote Interludes were mostly uninspired versifiers who found the new and lusty national drama too vigorous a form for their taste. They returned to the stock devices of early writers, they were lacking in humor and resourcefulness, and as a result their achievement is, by comparison, dull Writers of genuine talent had turned to the regular drama.”