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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.

III. The Early Religious Drama

§ 16. Saints’ Plays

Dramas from legends of the saints, performances of which are mentioned in English deeds and chronicles—for example, those of St. Laurence, St. Botolph, St. George, St. Christina—were, probably, of a character analogous to the numerous medieval dramas of this kind that have been preserved in other countries, especially in France. At least, the single English play preserved that is based on a saint’s legend, that of Mary Magdalene (about 1500), as has been noticed before, decidedly exhibits reminiscences of the French manner. It consists of 2144 lines, about one-half of which are filled with events of the saint’s life until the resurrection; then follows the legend of her stay in Provence, where she converts the heathen king of Marseilles by her sermons and miracles. The comic element is represented by a priest at the king’s court and his impudent acolyte, who says a burlesque service before the priest bids all present pray to “Mahownde.” A short play (of 927 lines) on the profanation of a consecrated host by the Jews, is to be classed with miracle-plays; in the end, the evil-doers are converted and baptised. In this class, we may also include a lost play on king Robert of Sicily. It is based on a story, from Gesta Romanorum, of a monarch who, for his over-proud consciousness of power, is punished by an angel assuming his shape and dignity, while he is in his bath. This play was acted at Lincoln in 1453; on the occasion of a performance of Kynge Robert of Cicylye at Chester, in 1529, we learn, from a letter addressed from that town to a gentleman in the royal court, that the piece was “penned by a godly clerke” and had been previously acted, in the reign of Henry VII; evidently, under Henry VIII, a play was no longer thought quite unobjectionable in which a frank lesson was given to the great ones of this world.

Finally, three plays from the later Middle Ages must be mentioned which remind us of the simpler dramatic forms of past ages. Of one of these, the first part was designed for performance on Good Friday afternoon, the second for Easter morning; the first contains lengthy complaints of the Virgin Mary, such as also occur in other countries in the Good Friday service; here, the author could make the most ample use of the extant contemplative literature. In the second part, the complaints of the repentant Peter occupy much space. For performance on St. Anne’s day (26 July), a play was written which comprises the murder of the Innocents and the purification of Mary; the poet, who offers excuses himself for his “sympyll cunning,” apprises us that, in the foregoing year, the adoration of the shepherds and the magi had been produced, and that the dispute in the temple was to be presented in the year following; and a comic personage, the messenger of Herod, mars with his stale jests the tragical scene of the murder of the Innocents. Similar in style is a play on the conversion of Paul the apostle.