It is customary to ascribe the beginnings of postclassical drama to the action of the Mass, and even beyond this the first identifiable dramatist is Hroswitha, the tenth-century nun of Gandersheim in Saxony, whose attempts at comedy owe much to Terence but add strict moral and religious teaching in a manner foreign not only to the Roman writer but even to the dramatic mode itself.
The church relied upon visual means-paintings, stained glass, mime, etc.-to convey its message to illiterate congregations, and gradually there grew the practice of dramatizing the events associated with the major festivals, and especially Easter. In due course these representations outgrew the places where they were performed, and so they moved out of the church and into the churchyard. In addition, the range of representation was extended. The churchyard in its turn proved inadequate, and so a further move was made into the open spaces of the town, while in some places there grew up the practice of playing the several episodes on different carts, which might move from one location to another and thus present the possibility of multiple performance.
The Mysteries or Miracle Plays,* as the several sequences came to be known, covered the whole of biblical history and even included nonbiblical material. They were mounted by the several trade guilds and often performed on the, especially after 1311 when the ordered the strict observance of this feast. It is known that these cycles of plays were given in at least a hundred English towns. Those which survive include, in part or whole, the plays performed at Chester (from the early fourteenth century until at least as late as 1600), York (with forty-eight plays-from 1360 to 1579 and revived over the last twenty years), Wakefield (the so-called Towneley cycle of thirty-two plays), and Coventry. Of these the last is least dramatic. The others, however, contain a variety of effort and achievement ranging from such solemn and moving scenes as the Crucifixion to the farcical of Noah's wife railing at what she considers her half-crazy husband, and the thoroughly English sheep-stealing and concealment of the Second Shepherd's play in the Towneley cycle. The whole shows the capacity of medieval man to regard the sacred and the secular in a coalescence which he did not find either irreverent or inappropriate.
The Morality Plays,* by contrast, tend to be more what they say they are. One of the earliest is The Castell of Perseverance (c.1405), tracing the history of Humanum Genus from birth to judgment, assailed by Mundus, Belyal, and Caro and protected by his Good Angel. This is a prolix and tedious play and does not compare with what is doubtless the greatest example of the genre, Everyman (early sixteenth century), which, though presenting basically the same story, does so with effects of psychological tension quite remarkable for its type and time.
The sixteenth century saw the full flowering of the Renaissance with its stress on humanistic learning at the inevitable expense of the religious. There were plays on sacred themes, such as John Bale's God's Promises (1538) with its strong Calvinistic propagandist intent. Later there was George Peele's David and Bethsabe (c.1594), a play first of high erotic sensuality and then of war, revenge, and retribution. The plot is close to the Bible, but the tone owes much to Ovid and Seneca, those models who inspired the Elizabethans to their equivalents of modern Hollywood spectaculars of blood and lust.
It is not plays like these, but rather one like Marlowe's Faustus (c.1590) which best illustrates the secular and religious tension in Renaissance man. Like others of Marlowe's heroes, Faustus is an overreaching egotist; nothing is beyond man's aim and, with Lucifer's help, his attainment; but with figures such as the Good Angel to balance Mephostophilis there is an inescapable morality element which reaches the joys and agonies of high tragedy first in Faustus's intercourse with Helen of Troy and then in his dying speech, a piece of writing unmatched in English for its evocation of torture, remorse, and final damnation.
Hamlet also presents something of the tension “What a piece of work is a man!” and Imperial Caesar, dead and turn'd to clay Might stop a hole to keep the wind awaybut in general Shakespeare is concerned not with religious, but metaphysical questionings. His most explicit treatment of religious problems and attitudes is in Measure for Measure (c.1602), where questions of law and liberty, charity and chastity, justice and mercy are examined with that fulness and subtlety of which Shakespeare alone is capable.
His great successor in English poetry,* wrote two dramatic pieces, but neither is actable drama. Comus (1634) is a masque and, like Measure for Measure, much concerned with the demands of chastity and the lure of license, seeking to define the nature of responsible freedom. Samson Agonistes (1671) traces the history of fallen Samson and of his restoration to fulfil God's will, even though it be at the cost of his own destruction. Shaped in the Greek tragic manner, Samson lacks dramatic urgency and tension. Dryden dramatized Paradise Lost in his State of Innocence (1677).
The eighteenth century is the age of the opera and the oratorio, and notably of Handel.* When drama reemerges in the nineteenth century, it is represented biblically by Byron with Cain and Heaven and Earth, but now in the age of Romantic individualism the hero is Cain, puzzled and “Satanic,” set against an unjust and capricious God-and yet the end with Cain is full of remorse. It shows, in fact, the contrasting polarities of Byron's own disturbed personality. Like most dramas of its century, Cain is all but unactable. In addition, the nineteenth century by its rigid censorship practically annihilated the possibility of religious drama.
At the end of the period a work like Wilde's Salome
1893) is a deliberate flouting of this rigidity. He wrote it in French, and performance was prohibited in England. Despite continuing restraints, writers like Yeats with his own symbolic Calvary (1920) and Resurrection (1931), presenting a strangely dehumanized Christ, and D.H. Lawrence with David (1926), aiming to bring passion into religion, pursued biblical themes. (Lawrence reverently retells the Resurrection story in The Man Who Died.. The developing freedom allowed Laurence Housman to present his Plays (1950) with their bitter hostility to the biblical accounts. A more orthodox approach is represented by Norman Nicholson's The Old Man of the Mountains (1946), with Elijah and Ahab in modern Cumberland. Its producer was E. Martin Browne, who did much for T.S. Eliot* including Murder in the Cathedral (1935), where the dilemma of self and service is explored unto death in Thomas à Becket. * is a lesser figure, but his Seed of Adam (1936) and of Canterbury (1936) should be mentioned. The latter is a story much like that of Becket, while the former is an attempt to put human history into a single act. Finally there is Dorothy Sayers* with The Man Born to be King (1943), a BBC series of twelve plays, and Christopher Fry's treatment of the mystery of human existence through Moses in The Firstborn (1948) and his psychological reinterpretation of biblical story in A Sleep of Prisoners (1951).
See M. Roston, Biblical Drama in England (1968).