Pre-Elizabethan Drama: Morality Plays


The 1522 cover of “Mundus et Infans,” a morality play ~ Wikipedia

Previously, I did a piece on Liturgical Drama. Today I would like to look at Moralities. As compared to the Miracle or Liturgical dramas, the morality play was one where the playwright had to come up with an original story line, which many consider to be a major step forward in the history of drama. No longer did the playwright use the scripture for his plots. He did, however, employ a well-known allegory, popular for several centuries in England and upon the European continent, but which had rarely been celebrated as the central issue of a tale, as it was in the moralities. 

A morality play was defined as “an allegorical drama popular in Europe especially during the 15th and 16th centuries, in which the characters personify moral qualities (such as charity or vice) or abstractions (as death or youth) and in which moral lessons are taught.” (Britannica) The issue was the struggle between good and evil in claiming the soul of man. Vice and Virtue became the central characters. In these plays, mankind always desired to chase after the vice, but he is well aware that if he does he will face eternal damnation. Evidently, the medieval mind thought much upon the dichotomy presented in the plays. 

mummers2.jpgThe characters in the plays were personified abstractions. In moralities we find Friendship, Riches, Good, Evil, Knowledge, Mankind, etc. The action of the morality play centers on a hero whose inherent weaknesses are assaulted by such personified diabolic forces as the Seven Deadly Sins, but who may choose redemption and enlist the aid of such figures as the Four Daughters of God (Mercy, Justice, Temperance, and Truth). Customarily, the play began with Man being summoned to the Grave. The action that followed involved the conflict for the possession of Man’s spirit.

The purpose of the Moralities was didactic. In Everyman, for example, the protagonist is made acquainted with the entire Catholic scheme of salvation. In the play, Man dons the jewel of Penance and later, the robe of contrition. He also consumes the seven “blessed sacraments.” Through the action, the play teaches its audience that all men must adhere to the tenets of the church. The play ends with the Doctor or Expositor reemphasizing the moral of the story. He shows the audience how Pride, Beauty, Wealth, and other worldly aspirations abandon “Everyman” at death. Only Good Deeds will accompany him to the underworld. These early plays were solemn personifications of church sermons. 

MoralityFigures.JPGAmong the oldest of morality plays surviving in English is The Castle of Perseverance (c. 1425), about the battle for the soul of Humanum Genus. A plan for the staging of one performance has survived that depicts an outdoor theatre-in-the-round with the castle of the title at the centre. Everyman was published in 1500. They both were from the York Paternoster Plays, which date back to 1378. These plays were similar to the early moralities. They took their names from the belief that each clause of the Lord Prayer could counter one of the seven deadly sins. 

The character of Vice became the first element of comedy in 16th Century Moralities. Vice’s purpose was to irritate and arouse the ire of the Devil. Vice prodded the Devil with sticks. He taunted him. He baited him into arguments. The character of the Devil was a crossover from the Miracle plays. He “excited” the audience for they anticipated his antics. Both characters met the demand of the latter audiences for action rather than sore sermons. 

“Morality plays were an intermediate step in the transition from liturgical to professional secular drama, and combine elements of each. They were performed by quasi-professional groups of actors who relied on public support; thus the plays were usually short, their serious themes tempered by elements of farce. In the Dutch play Het esbatement den appelboom (“The Miraculous Apple Tree”), for example, a pious couple, Staunch Goodfellow and Steadfast Faith, are rewarded when God creates for them an everbearing apple tree with the property that whoever touches it without permission becomes stuck fast. This leads to predictable and humorous consequences.” (Britannica)


History of Morality Plays 


New Advent: Catholic Encyclopedia 



About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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