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Home » » The early history of the british drama-from the beginning till the early renaissance
In an age, when printing was unknown, any spectacular appeal was of no mean significance. It was so in the matter of inculcating religious appeal of the drama for scriptural instructions to common men and women.

The Mass,the central element in the service of the church  had a certain dramatic feature.The whole of the service, with its accompanying rituals, was a symbolic representation of some of the most arresting episodes, taken from the Holy Writ. On the occasion of some great religious days,particularly on the days of 'Christmas 'and of 'Easter',such episodes were displayed inside the premises of the Church for the purpose of impressing the poor masses with the truth of scripture.The earliest two plays Adam and The Resurrection, performed in England, belonged to the French language.The earliest purely English drama was Jacob and Esau which had its association with the Townley Mysteries. But in all cases, the popularity of the drama was found great and growing. growth of english drama ,The first stage of the development of the English drama  & literature  is discerned in such scriptural performances inside the church premises by the churchmen.
development of drama in english literature

The Mysteries and the Miracle Plays

From that liturgical origin  of the drama came its earliest species -the Mysterious and the Miracles -the two types of scriptural plays. Of course, the 'Mystery 'and the 'Miracle 'were not the same type of drama.There was a distinct mark of difference between them. The plsyd,dealing with the Biblical events were called Mysterious, while those related to the lives of the saints were characterised as Miracles. In fact, different scriptural incidents as well as lives of the saints attracted the clerical dramatists and prompted them to arrange for the performances of those two specific types of the plays, known as the 'Mystery 'and the 'Miracle ',although, in general, the plays were designed as mysteries.orgin of modern english theatre. 

As the drama had a growing popularity among the masses of people, it became,however,secularised to meet the necessity of the time.The church could not have the adequate accommodation for the multiplaying crowd that thronged to see the religious shows. As a result, the Venue of the performance had to be shifted from inside the church to the market place.But once the drama was in the market place and in competition with other forms of entertainment, its secularity became well established. The authority of the church passed away, and different secular guilds or their organizations took up the entire controls as well as management of all performance.

The second stage in the development of the British drama was attained with the shifting of the venue of performance from inside the church to the open market -place under the control of different guilds.Of course,the church sternly opposed and took rigorous steps to stop such performance. Both the acting of the plays by the clergy and the performances of the scriptural materials were tried to be banned. But all such efforts were of no avail. The rising popularity of the drama remained unchecked.The sincere  efforts of different guilds made it grow from more to more. Neither expenses nor labour and efforts  were spared. Different guilds contributed to make dramatic performance as successful as possible. The important centres of dramatic activities were Chester, York,Coventry, Wakefield, Towneley, and so on.

The stage was at first stationary, a sort of the raised platform in the market -place, around which the audience gathered. But the increasing number of the audience led to the emergence of the mobile theatre.The theatre moved on wheels, and was bodily taken to different stationss,marked out with flags, throughout the town. Of the professional plays,known as the 'pageants'those of Chester, York Coventry, and Towneley were particularly popular.

Of course, the production of the Mystery or Miracle plays was rather crude.There was little or no stage property. No adequate scenery was also available. The effect of reality was tried to be achieved by means of some symbols. Such devices were certainly deficient in many ways, and could hardly produce any scenic illusion. The supernatural was represented in a crudely simple manner by means of some symbols.But in their representation of the supernatural those plays certainly helped the Elizabethan dramatists in their treatment of ghosts and spirits.

Indeed,the Mystery and Miracle plays were no perfect productions.They were chaotic in construction and offered no scope to the dramatists, who were unhappily fettered by stereotyped themes and stilted expressions.But,with all their weaknesses, The Mysteries and Miracle plays,like Abraham and Isaac,Noah, The First Shepherd's Play, The Second Shepherds play, The Resurrection etc,served a very useful purpose. They bred in the people of England a taste for theatrical shows and opened up the door for the dramatic development of the Elizabethan age.Moreover,despite their religious character, they were most original in their comic scenes. There was enough of enjoyable farce in Noah's conversation with his wife.,in the coarse fooleries of the Shepherds plays,and so on.

The Moralities or the Moral Plays

The translation of the English drama  from the Miracles and the Mysteries to a new order of plays as the Moralities, was spontaneous. It is of course,very difficult to trace the exact stage of this translation. It may only be said that when the Miracles had a firm footing on the soil of England, The Morality plays made their debut.In the evolution of the British drama,this transition from Mystery to Morality, forms the third stage.

The aim of the Morality plays,like that of the Mysteries and Miracle plays was primarily religious, yet they were different from their earlier counterparts, both in contents and in forms.The their earlier counterparts, both in contents and in forms. The moralities were allegorical in character and took abstract qualities as the dramatic personae. The cardinal features of nearly all the moralities was to show the conflict between evil forces and the conscience of man and to celebrate the triumph  of the latter. In fact, the theme,running through all the moral plays, was the contention between the personified good powers and the bad for the possession of the soul of man.

The moral plays were abound in realistic touches and contained the germs of true humour. They gave more scopes to the author who could handle his theme freely and treat his characterss with some sort of psychological analysis. Plot construction as well as characterisation advanced perceptibly in moral plays. Some of them had, like regular tragedies and comedies, acts and scenes, too.Everyman,Mankind , Hyckescorner,The Castell of Perseverance, Wyt and Science,The world and the child,The Three Estates,mind, will and understanding and The pride of Life are some of the important names in the long series of the moralities. The moralities definitely marked one step advance of the British drama. With their renascent humanism, the moral plays freed the stage fully from the shackle of the church and paved the path for the onward march to a great age of plays and playwrights.

The interludes

along with the moralities ,there developed another from of the secular drama.It was the interlude.There was,of course,no strict line of dramacation between the interludes and thr moralities. There were even cases, like the play  Hyckescorner where the play went  both in the name of an interlude and in the name of a morality.The word interlude actually had no definite meaning. It merely suggested a play, carried on between several characters.'Interludes' were also looked upon as the plays, performed in the midst of other festivities or some business.The interludes had little dramatic strength and ran on the lines of morality plays . But they were more humanistic and less didactic,  and the sense of realism was particularly patent in them. They rather showed the move from symbolism to realism . The important interludes of the age were A Play of Love. The Play of the Weather, The Four P.P.,Of Gentleness and Nobility, A Merry Play between Johan the Husband, Tyb his wife and sir John the Priest and soon. Heywood was the most famous author of the interludes.
In the history of the advancement of the British drama,the morality along with the interlude,constitutes one important step . This is to lead to the evolution of regular tragedies and comedies -the fourth stage in the development of drama.

The early Tragedies, Comedies and History Plays

Early English tragedies and comedies followed the morality and the interlude under the influence of the Renaissance. The main source of inspiration of tragedies was Seneca, a Latin dramatist of the age of Nero . It was the theme of blood and revenge of Seneca's plays that gave impetus to the early English tragedies. The first English tragedy Gorboduc or Ferrex and Porrex, written by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackvile,was of the same type. Other two leading tragedies, The Misfortune of Arthur and The Tragedy of Tancred and Gismund,were too,indebted to Seneca in style and in the treatment of the theme. The note of comedy already partially struck both in the moralists and in the interludes, flowered in England under the classical influence. The first comedy produced on the classical model was Ralph Roister Doister by Nicholas Udall,.Gammer Gurtons Needle was also an effective early comedy, based on a genuine element of farce and fun . History plays had a parallel development with the tragedies, based on the Senecan model. They were, however, largly independent of Seneca. In fact, they were purely English in their theme and outlook. Some of them like The Troublessome Reign of John, King of England, The True Tragedy of Richard the third, The famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, The True Chronicle History of King Lear,The Reign of king Edward the Third, etc. supplied the later Elizabethan masters with basis for great dramatic creations . In fact, the stage was set ready for the Renaissance of the British drama.


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