The modern drama does not originate in the ancient, but in the religious plays of the Middle Ages, themselves an outcome of the liturgy of the Church. Ecclesiastical worship was thoroughly dramatic, particularly the Holy Mass, with its progressive action, its dialogue between the priests and their ministers at the altar, or, on feastdays, between the officiating priest and his assistants, with the choir of singers, and the people. Often e.g. at Christmas, Epiphany, and Easter the text of the Gospel called for a variety of rôles. The celebration of the feasts was as rich and varied as they were numerous; poetry and music, in particular, helped to impress properly on the laity the full significance of the great events commemorated. The Benedictines of St. Gall, in Switzerland, in the tenth century wrote sequences, hymns, litanies, and tropes and set them to music. The tropes elaborations of parts of the Liturgy, particularly the Introit, fine musical settings found universal acceptance and remained in use in various forms until the end of the seventeenth century. These tropes were dramatic in construction and, as their musical settings prove, were sung alternately by two choirs of men and boys, or by two halfchoirs. The history of the ecclesiastical drama begins with the trope sung as Introit of the Mass on Easter Sunday. It has come down to us in a St. Gall manuscript dating from the time of the monk Tutilo (tenth century).
Quem quæritis in sepulchro, o christicolæ
Jesum Nazarenum, o cœlicolæ
Non est hic. Surrexit, sicut prædixerat.
Ite nuntiate quia surrexit de sepulchro.
Resurrexi, postquam factus homo, tua jussa paterna peregi."
The first three sentences are found in many liturgical books dating from the tenth to the eighteenth century. The trope, however, did not develop into a dramatic scene, until it was brought into connection with the Descent from the Cross, widely commemorated in Continental monasteries, but which appears first in a Ritual of English origin, attributed to St. Dunstan (967). In giving directions for public services, the Ritual refers to this custom particularly as observed at Fleury-sur-Loire and Ghent. On Good Friday, after the morning services, a crucifix swathed in cloth was laid in a sort of grave arranged near the altar, where it remained until Easter morning. On Easter morning, after the third responsory of the Matins, one or two clerics clothed in albs, and carrying palms in their hands, went to the grave and seated themselves there. Thereupon three other priests vested in copes, and carrying censers representing the three holy women, joined them. Upon their arrival the angel asked them: "Whom seek ye?" The women answered; they hear from the angel the message of the Resurrection and were told to go forth and announce it. Then they intoned the antiphon: "Surrexit enim, sicut dixit dominus. Alleluia". The choir finished Matins with the "Te Deum".
This simplest form of liturgical Easter celebration was elaborated in many ways by the addition of Biblical sentences, hymns, and sequences, in particular the "Victimæ paschali", which dates from the first half of the eleventh century; also by the representation of St. Peter and St. John running to the grave, and by the appearance of the Lord, who thenceforth becomes the central figure. The union of these scenes in one concerted action (the dialogue), rendered in poetic form (hymns, sequences) or in prose (Bible texts), and the participation of a choir gave to the Nuremberg Easter celebration of the thirteenth century the character of a short chanted drama. Such celebrations, however, remained parts of the liturgy as late as the eighteenth century. They were inserted between Matins and Lauds, and served for the instruction of the people, whose hearts and minds were more deeply impressed by reproductions of the Resurrection of the Lord, which appealed to the senses, than by a sermon. The Latin text was no obstacle, since the separate parts of the plays were known or were previously explained. The wide diffusion of these liturgical plays, in which priests took the different parts, is proof of their popularity. Lange, to whom we owe some thorough studies on this subject, proves the existence of 224 Latin Easter dramas, of which 159 were found in Germany, 52 in France, and the rest in Italy, Spain, Holland, and England.
The popular taste for dramatic productions was fed by these Easter celebrations. The clergy emphasized more and more the dramatic moments, often merely hinted at in the rude original celebrations, and added new subjects, among them some of a secular nature. They introduced the characters of Pilate, the Jews, and the soldiers guarding the sepulchre, added the figure of an ointment-vender bargaining with the holy women, and other features which did not contribute to the edification or instruction of the people, though they satisfied their love of novelty and amusement. In this way the early Easter celebrations became real dramatic performances, known as the Easter Plays. Since the element of worldly amusement predominated more and more (a development of which Gerhoh of Reichersberg complained as early as the twelfth century), the ecclesiastical authorities began to prohibit the production of Easter Plays in the churches. It became necessary to separate them from church services, because of their length, which increased greatly, particularly after the introduction of the story of the Passion. Fragments of an Easter Play in Latin dating from the thirteenth century are found in the Benedictbeurn Easter Play, also in that of Klosterneuburg, both of which, probably, go back to the same source as the Mystery of Tours, composed as late as the twelfth century, and which, better than any other, offers an insight into the development of the Easter Plays from the Latin Easter celebrations.
When, in course of time, as shown in the Easter Play of Trier, German translations were added to the original texts as sung and spoken, the popularizing of the Easter Play had begun. That of the monastery of Muri, in Switzerland, belongs to this period, and is written entirely in German. But it was only after the popular element had asserted itself strongly in all departments of poetry, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, that the popular German religious drama was developed. This was brought about chiefly by the strolling players who were certainly responsible for the introduction of the servant, of the ointment-vender (named Rubin), whose duty it was to entertain the people with coarse jests (Wolfenbüttel, Innsbruck, Berlin, Vienna, and Mecklenburg Easter Plays, 1464). The Latin Easter Plays, with their solemn texts, were still produced, as well as the German plays, but gradually, being displaced by the latter, the Latin text was confined to the meagre Biblical element of the plays and the player's directions. The clergy still retained the right to direct these productions, even after the plays reflected the spirit and opinions of the times. Popular poetry, gross and worldly, dominated in the plays, particularly susceptible to the influence of the Carnival plays.
The Easter Plays represented in their day the highest development of the secular drama; nevertheless this most important event in the life of the God-Man did not suffice: the people wished to see His whole life, particularly the story of His Passion. Thus a series of dramas originated, which were called Passion Plays, the sufferings of Jesus being their principal subject. Some of them end with the entombment of Christ; in others the Easter Play was added, in order to show the Saviour in His glory; others again close with the Ascension or with the dispersion of the Apostles. But, since the persecution of the Saviour is intelligible only in the light of His work as teacher, this part of the life of Christ was also added, while some authors of these plays went back to the Old Testament for symbolical scenes, which they added to the Passion Plays as "prefigurations"; or the plays begin with the Creation, the sin of Adam and Eve, and the fall of the Angels. Again two short dramas were inserted: the Lament of Mary and the Mary Magdalene Play. The sequence "Planctus ante nescia", which was brought to Germany from France during the latter half of the twelfth century, is the basis for the Lamentations of Mary. This sequence is merely a monologue of Mary at the foot of the Cross; by the introduction of John, the Saviour, and the bystanders as taking part in the lamentations, a dramatic scene was developed which became a part of almost all Passion Plays and has been retained even in their latest survivor. The Magdalene Play represents the seduction of Mary Magdalene by the devil and her sinful life up to her conversion. In Magdalene's sinfulness the people saw a picture of the depraved condition of mankind after the sin of the Garden, from which it could be redeemed only through the sacrifice of Christ. This profound thought, which could not be effaced even by the coarse reproduction of Magdalene's life, explains the presence of this little drama in the Passion Play.
The evolution of the Passion Play was about the same as that of the Easter Play. It originated in the ritual of the Church, which prescribes, among other things, that the Gospel on Good Friday should be sung in parts divided among various persons. Later on, Passion Plays, properly so called, made their appearance, first in Latin, then in German; contents and form were adapted more and more to popular ideas until, in the fifteenth century, the popular religious plays had developed. Thus the Benedictbeurn Passion Play (thirteenth century) is still largely composed of Latin ritual sentences in prose and of church hymns, and, being designed to be sung, resembles an oratorio. Yet even this oldest of the Passion Plays already shows, by the interpolation of free translations of church hymns and of German verses not pertaining to such hymns, as well as by the appearance of the Mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the action, a tendency to break away from the ritual and to adopt a more popular form. From these humble beginnings the Passion Play must have developed very rapidly, since in the fourteenth century we see it at a stage of development which could not have been reached except by repeated practice. From this second period we have the Vienna Passion, the St. Gall Passion, the oldest Frankfort Passion, and the Maestricht Passion. All four Plays, as they are commonly called, are written in rhyme, principally in German. The Vienna Passion embraces the entire history of the Redemption, and begins with the revolt and fall of Lucifer; it is to be regretted that the play as transmitted to us ends with the Last Supper. The oldest Frankfort Passion play, that of Canon Baldemar von Peterwell (1350-80), the production of which required two days, was more profusely elaborated than the other Passion Plays of this period. Of this play only the "Ordo sive Registrum" has come down to us, a long roll of parchment for the use of the director, containing directions and the first words of the dialogues. The plays based on this list of directions lead us to the period in which the Passion Play reached its highest development (1400-1515). During this period the later Frankfort Passion Play (1467), the Alsfelder, and the Friedberger (1514) originated. Connected with this group are the Eger, the Donaueschingen, Augsburg, Freising and Lucerne Passion Plays, in which the whole world drama, beginning with the creation of man and brought down to the coming of the Holy Ghost, is exhibited, and which was produced with great splendour as late as 1583.
Nearly all these Passion Plays have some relation to those coming from the Tyrol, some contributing to, others taking from, that source. These, again, are founded upon the Tyrolese Passion Play which originated during the transition period of the fourteenth to the fifteenth century. Wackernell, with the aid of the plays that have reached us, has reconstructed this period. In the Tyrol the Passion Plays received elaborate cultivation; at Bozen they were presented with great splendour and lasted seven days. Here, too, the innovation of placing the female rôles in the hands of women was introduced, which innovation did not become general until during the seventeenth century. The magnificent productions of the Passion Plays during the fifteenth century are closely connected with the growth and increasing self-confidence of the cities, which found its expression in noble buildings, ecclesiastical and municipal, and in gorgeous public festivals. The artistic sense and the love of art of the citizens had, in co-operation with the clergy, called these plays into being, and the wealth of the citizens provided for magnificent productions of them on the public squares, whither they migrated after expulsion from the churches. The citizens and civil authorities considered it a point of honour to render the production as rich and diversified as possible. Ordinarily the preparations for the play were in the hands of a spiritual brotherhood, the play itself being considered a form of worship. People of the most varied classes took part in the production, and frequently the number of actors was as high as two hundred and even greater. If was undoubtedly no small task to drill the performers, particularly since the stage arrangements were still very primitive.
The stage was a wooden structure, almost as broad as it was long, elevated but slightly above the ground and open on all sides. A house formed the background; a balcony attached to the house represented Heaven. Under the balcony three crosses were erected. Sometimes the stage was divided into three sections by doors. Along the sides of the stage, taken lengthwise, stood the houses required for the production; they were indicated by fenced-in spaces, or by four posts upon which a roof rested. The entrance into hell was pictured by the mouth of a monster, through which the devil and the souls captured or released during the plays passed back and forth. The actors entered in solemn procession, led by musicians or by a præcursor (herald), and took their stand at the places appointed them. They remained on the stage all through the performance; they sat on the barriers of their respective divisions, and were permitted to leave their places only to recite their lines. As each actor finished speaking, he returned to his place. The audience stood around the stage or looked on from the windows of neighbouring houses. Occasionally platforms, called "bridges", were erected around the stage in the form of an amphitheatre.
The scenery was as simple as the stage. There were no side scenes, and consequently no stage perspective. Since an illusion of reality could not be had, indications were made to suffice. Thus a cask standing on end represents the mountain on which Christ is tempted by the devil; thunder is imitated by the report of a gun; in order to signify that the devil had entered into him, Judas holds a bird of black plumage before his mouth and makes it flutter. The suicide of Judas is an execution, in which Beelzebub performs the hangman's duty. He precedes the culprit up the ladder and draws Judas after him by a rope. Judas has a black bird and the intestines of an animal concealed in the front of his clothing, and when Satan tears open the garment the bird flies away, and the intestines fall out, whereupon Judas and his executioner slide down into hell on a rope. A painted picture representing the soul, is hung from the mouth of each of the two thieves on the cross; the angel takes the soul of the penitent, the devil that of the impenitent thief. Everything is presented in the concrete, just as the imagination of the audience pictures it, and the scenic conditions, resembling those of the antique theatre demand. All costume, however, is contemporary, historical accuracy being ignored.
The Passion Plays of the fifteenth century, with their peculiar blending of religious, artistic, and popular elements, gave a true picture of German city life of those times. Serious thought and lively humour were highly developed in these plays. When, however, the patricians, in the sixteenth century, withdrew more and more from the plays, these, left to the lower classes, began to lose their serious and (in spite of the comic traits) dignified character. The influence of the Carnival plays (Fastnachtspiele) was felt more and more. Master Grobianus with his coarse and obscene jests was even introduced into the Passion Plays. In time the ecclesiastical authorities forbade the production of the plays. Thus the Bishop of Havelberg commanded his clergy, in 1471, to suppress the Passion Plays and legend plays in their parish districts because of the disgraceful and irrelevant farces interspersed through the productions. In a similar manner the Synod of Strasburg (1549) opposed the religious plays, and the year previous (1548), the Parliament of Paris forbade the production of "the Mysteries of the Passion of our Redeemer and other Spiritual Mysteries". One consequence was that the secular plays were separated from the religious, and, as Carnival plays, held the public favour. The Passion Plays came to be presented more rarely, particularly as the Reformation was inimical to them.
School dramas now came into vogue in Catholic and Protestant schools, and frequently enough became the battle-ground of religious controversies. When, in the seventeenth century, the splendidly equipped Jesuit drama arose, the Passion Plays were relegated to out-of-the-way villages and to the monasteries, particularly in Bavaria and Austria. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, during the so-called age of enlightenment, efforts were made in Catholic Germany, particularly in Bavaria and the Tyrol, to destroy even the remnants of the tradition of medieval plays. Public interest in the Passion Play awoke anew during the last decades of the nineteenth century, and since then Brixlegg and Vorderthiersee in the Tyrol, Höritz in southern Bohemia, and above all, Oberammergau in Upper Bavaria attract thousands to their plays. The text of the play of Vorderthiersee (Gespiel in der Vorderen Thiersee) dates from the second half of the seventeenth century, is entirely in verse, and comprises in five acts the events recorded in the Gospel, from the Last Supper to the Entombment. A prelude (Vorgespiel), on the Good Shepherd, precedes the play. After being repeatedly remodelled, the text received its present classical form from the Austrian Benedictine, P. Weissenhofer. Productions of the play, which came from Bavaria to the Tyrol in the second half of the eighteenth century, were arranged at irregular intervals during the first half of the nineteenth century; since 1855 they have taken place at regular intervals, at Brixlegg every ten years. The Höritz Passion Play, the present text of which is from the pen of Provost Landsteiner, has been produced every five years, since 1893.
The chief survival, however, of former times is the Passion Play of Oberammergau. The first mention we find of it is in 1633, when if is referred to in connection with a vow made to obtain relief from the Black Death, when the people of Ammergau vowed to produce the play every ten years. As early as 1634 the Passion was enacted (tragiert). Since this Passion Play was then well-known, productions must have taken place before that date. The oldest text still in existence was written about 1600 and contains traces of two older dramas, one of which was preserved at St. Ulric, the other at St. Afra, Augsburg. In 1662 a Passion text by the Augsburg Meistersinger, Sebastian Wild, was woven into it, together with parts of the Weilheim Passion Play of Rector Johann Aelbel (c. 1600). About the middle of the eighteenth century the text was revised by the Benedictine Rosner, after the model of the Jesuit drama; in 1780 this bombastic version was again reduced to a simpler form by the Benedictine Knipfelberger. Finally, P. Otmar Weiss and M. Daisenberger gave it its present simple and dignified form, and transcribed the verse into prose. Stage and costuming are adapted to modern requirements. The music is by Rochus Dedler. (See also MIRACLE PLAYS AND MYSTERIES.)
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APA citation. (1911). Passion Plays. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11531a.htm
MLA citation. "Passion Plays." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11531a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. February 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
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