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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.

II. Secular Influences on the Early English Drama

§ 5. Influence of Folk-lore

The history of the other influence on our early drama with which this chapter has to deal belongs in a large measure to the study of folk-lore. The pagan festivals of summer and winter which had, or came to have, the object of securing by ritual observance plenteous crops and fruitful herds, had, also, a side which explains what influence they may have on the drama—the holiday mood, the desire for the exercise of activity purely for the pleasure in it, to which we give the name of play. The churl who would not play on festival days was, from immemorial times, the object of the holiday-maker’s dislike and rough treatment.

At the same time, the ritual itself came to include many elements—disguise, combat, procession, dance, song, action—which, arising from whatever symbolical and ritual origins, lent themselves easily to the spirit of play, and approximated to the acted drama. It is not possible, of course, to trace any such direct road from village festival to drama in England as in Greece; but a certain connection, besides the mere fostering of the spirit of play, is to be observed between the early drama and pagan observance, wholly or partly or not at all absorbed by Christianity.