Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 9. Liturgical Drama

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

§ 9. Liturgical Drama

The history of the religious drama in England, if in it be included a survey of the adjuncts to the church liturgy in the form of alternating song and visible action, goes back to a period before the Norman conquest. Out of the mystical liturgy, the liturgical mystery grows by a process alike inevitable and unforced, of which sufficient illustrations will be given—beginning with the Quem quaeritis of the Easter morning Mass. In England, however, we meet with no examples proper of tropes, by the interpolation of which in the offices of the church the liturgical mystery had advanced beyond its earliest stage, or what might be called that of mere ornamentation—such as the Provençal production of The Foolish Virgins, and The Raising of Lazarus, written by Hilarius in Latin with occasional French refrains. These and other examples seem to show that, in the century succeeding that of the Norman conquest, the process of the emancipation of the dramatic mystery from the liturgy had already begun in France, where, in the eleventh century, we know that the former had been considered an integral part of the latter. To the twelfth century belongs the famous Norman-French—perhaps Anglo-Norman—play of Adam, which may very possibly have grown out of a processional representation of the prophets, but which seems (for the later portion of it is lost) to have aimed at dramatic representation of the entire Scriptural story, after the manner of the French and English collective mysteries of later date. We may safely conclude that the Norman conquest, or the period which followed immediately upon it, introduced into England as a virtually ready-made growth the religious performance or exhibition which could and did edify the devout, without actually forming part of the religious exercises incumbent upon them. At the same time, the English mysteryplay did not fail to reveal its liturgical origin by such stage directions as Tunc cantabit angelus in the Chester Ascensio, or by the disquisitions of the Chester Expositor and the Coventry Contemplacio, recalling the priest’s elucidatory comment. These plays were acted either within the church walls, or on a scaffold immediately outside them, the performers being no doubt, in the first instance and ordinarily, ecclesiastics or the pupils of ecclesiastics.