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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

I. The Origins of English Drama

§ 1. Earliest traces of English drama

THE PRESENT volume and its successor will be devoted to the discussion of English drama—a growth which, in the meridian splendour of its maturity, is without an equal in the history of literature. Attic drama, in literary art, at all events, the choicest product of an age from which posterity has never ceased to derive its serenest conceptions of human culture, was restricted in its higher creativeness by the brief duration of that age itself. Spanish drama, nearest to English in the exuberance of its productivity, is, in its greatest period, associated with the decay of the nation’s vigour. French classical drama, in a much larger measure than that in which the same assertion could be made of English, was bound by its relations to a royal court, and debarred from an intimate union with the national life. English drama, as, with marvellous rapidity, it rose to the full height of its literary glories, reflected and partook of the imaginative strength of an age in which England consciously, nor for a generation only, assumed her place in the van of nations.

In view of the twofold fact, that English drama was destined to rank not only among the most glorious but among the most characteristic of national achievements, and that an English nation and an English national literature were already in existence before the Norman conquest, it may seem strange that, with the exception of certain suggestive features in the church liturgy to which attention will be directed below, the beginnings of the growth which we are considering cannot be safely traced beyond that date. In other words, we are unable to assume the existence in these islands, before the Norman conquest, of anything recognisable by us as drama or dramatic literature. Our English ancestors, with whose advent the Roman empire in Britain had come to an abrupt end, can hardly, except in a few isolated instances, have been brought into contact with the broken and scattered remnants of the Roman theatre—the strolling mimes who, after their fashion, may have preserved some ignoble reminiscences of the Roman acting drama in the days of its decadence. And when Christianity—that is to say, Roman Christianity—came to England, and gradually, more especially through the efforts of king Alfred, fostered the growth of English literature, the last literary form which it was likely to introduce or sanction was that of the drama, the feeder of the theatre. The strange and shifting relations between the Christian church and the stage had begun, in the fourth century, with loud anathemas launched by the one against the other; in the fifth, the whole craft of actors and entertainers was denounced by an ecclesiastical council; and, as the empire of the west broke up under the inroads of the barbarians, histriones and nugatores went forth as homeless outlaws under the ban of both church and state. If any of these found their way to England and, as they passed along the highways and byways, displayed their tricks for a crust of bread or a cup of ale, they were, no doubt, despised and accounted infamous. Far otherwise was it with the gleeman, who sat among the warriors, telling in a solemn and religious strain of the great deeds of the past, and the scop, whose songs had the king and his companions for an audience, and who, on his travels, found himself everywhere an honoured guest. Anything less dramatic could hardly be imagined than the poems of recitations of the Old English singer, and even in those dialogues which form an interesting part of English literature before the Norman conquest a dramatic element is only occasionally perceptible—for there could be no greater mistake than to suppose that a dialogue, be its progress never so vivacious, is, of necessity, a drama in embryo.