CHAPTER XIII. THE ENGLISH DRAMA.
Origin of the Drama. Miracle Plays. Moralities. First Comedy. Early
Tragedies. Christopher Marlowe. Other Dramatists. Playwrights and
ORIGIN OF THE ENGLISH DRAMA.
To the Elizabethan period also belongs the glory of having produced and fostered the English drama, itself so marked a teacher of history, not only in plays professedly historical, but also in the delineations of national character, the indications of national taste, and the satirical scourgings of the follies of the day. A few observations are necessary as to its feeble beginnings. The old Greek drama indeed existed as a model, especially in the tragedies of Euripides and the comedies of Aristophanes; but until the fall of Constantinople, these were a dead letter to Western Europe, and when the study of Greek was begun in England, they were only open to men of the highest education and culture; whereas the drama designed for the people was to cater in its earlier forms to the rude tastes and love of the marvellous which are characteristic of an unlettered people. And, besides, the Roman drama of Plautus and of Terence was not suited to the comprehension of the multitude, in its form and its preservation of the unities. To gratify the taste for shows and excitement, the people already had the high ritual of the Church, but they demanded something more: the Church itself acceded to this demand, and dramatized Scripture at once for their amusement and instruction. Thus the mysteria or miracle play originated, and served a double purpose.
“As in ancient Greece, generations before the rise of the great dramas of Athens, itinerant companies wandered from village to village, carrying their stage furniture in their little carts, and acted in their booths and tents the grand stories of the mythology—so in England the mystery players haunted the wakes and fairs, and in barns or taverns, taprooms, or in the farm-house kitchen, played at saints and angels, and transacted on their petty stage the drama of the Christian faith.”
THE MYSTERY, OR MIRACLE PLAY.—The subjects of these dramas were taken from such Old Testament narratives as the creation, the lives of the patriarchs, the deluge; or from the crucifixion, and from legends of the saints: the plays were long, sometimes occupying portions of several days consecutively, during seasons of religious festival. They were enacted in monasteries, cathedrals, churches, and church-yards. The mise en scene was on two stages or platforms, on the upper of which were represented the Persons of the Trinity, and on the lower the personages of earth; while a yawning cellar, with smoke arising from an unseen fire, represented the infernal regions. This device is similar in character to the plan of Dante's poem—Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise.
The earliest of these mysteries was performed somewhere about the year 1300, and they held sway until 1600, being, however, slowly supplanted by the moralities, which we shall presently consider. Many of these mysteries still remain in English, and notices of them may be found in Collier's History of Dramatic Poetry.
A miracle play was performed to celebrate the birth of Philip II. of Spain. They are still performed in Andalusia, and one written within a few years for such representation, was enacted at Seville, with great pomp of scenic effect, in the Holy Week of 1870. Similar scenes are also witnessed by curious foreigners at the present day in the Ober-Ammergau of Bavaria. These enable the traveller of to-day to realize the former history.
To introduce a comic element, the devil was made to appear with horns, hoof, and tail, to figure with grotesque malignity throughout the play, and to be reconsigned at the close to his dark abode by the divine power.
MORALITIES.—As the people became enlightened, and especially as religious knowledge made progress, such childish shows were no longer able to satisfy them. The drama undertook a higher task of instruction in the form of what was called a morality, or moral play. Instead of old stories reproduced to please the childish fancy of the ignorant, genius invented scenes and incidents taken indeed from common life, but the characters were impersonal; they were the ideal virtues, morality, hope, mercy, frugality, and their correlative vices. The mystery had endeavored to present similitudes; the moralitieswere of the nature of allegory, and evinced a decided progress in popular intelligence.
These for a time divided the interest with the mysteries, but eventually superseded them. The impersonality of the characters enabled the author to make hits at political circumstances and existent follies with impunity, as the multitude received advice and reproof addressed to them abstractly, without feeling a personal sting, and the government would not condescend to notice such abstractions. The moralities were enacted in court-yards or palaces, the characters generally being personated by students, or merchants from the guilds. A great improvement was also made in the length of the play, which was usually only an hour in performance. The public taste was so wedded to the devil of the mysteries, that he could not be given up in the moral plays: he kept his place; but a rival buffoon appeared in the person of the vice, who tried conclusions with the archfiend in serio-comic style until the close of the performance, when Satan always carried the vice away in triumph, as he should do.
The moralities retained their place as legitimate drama throughout the sixteenth century, and indeed after the modern drama appeared. It is recorded that Queen Elizabeth, in 1601, then an old woman, witnessed one of these plays, entitled “The Contention between Liberality and Prodigality.” This was written by Lodge and Greene, two of the regular dramatists, after Ben Jonson had written “Every Man in his Humour,” and while Shakspeare was writing Hamlet. Thus the various progressive forms of the drama overlapped each other, the older retaining its place until the younger gained strength to assert its rights and supersede its rival.
THE INTERLUDE.—While the moralities were slowly dying out, another form of the drama had appeared as a connecting link between them and the legitimate drama of Shakspeare. This was the interlude, a short play, in which the dramatis personae were no longer allegorical characters, but persons in real life, usually, however, not all bearing names even assumed, but presented as a friar, a curate, a tapster, etc. The chief characteristic of the interlude was, however, its satire; it was a more outspoken reformer than the morality, scourged the evils of the age with greater boldness, and plunged into religious controversy with the zeal of opposing ecclesiastics. The first and principal writer of these interludes was John Heywood, a Roman Catholic, who wrote during the reign of Henry VIII., and, while a professed jester, was a great champion of his Church.
As in all cases of progress, literary and scientific, the lines of demarcation cannot be very distinctly drawn, but as the morality had superseded the mystery, and the interlude the morality, so now they were all to give way before the regular drama. The people were becoming more educated; the greater spread of classical knowledge had caused the dramatists to study and assimilate the excellences of Latin and Greek models; the power of the drama to instruct and refine, as well as to amuse, was acknowledged, and thus its capability of improvement became manifest. The forms it then assumed were more permanent, and indeed have remained almost unchanged down to our own day.
What is called the first comedy in the language cannot be expected to show a very decided improvement over the last interludes or moralities, but it bears those distinctive marks which establish its right to the title.
THE FIRST COMEDY.—This was Ralph Roister Doister, which appeared in the middle of the sixteenth century: (a printed copy of 1551 was discovered in 1818.) Its author was Nicholas Udall, the master of Eton, a clergyman, but very severe as a pedagogue; an ultra Protestant, who is also accused of having stolen church plate, which may perhaps mean that he took away from the altar what he regarded as popish vessels and ornaments. He calls the play “a comedy and interlude,” but claims that it is imitated from the Roman drama. It is regularly divided into acts and scenes, in the form of our modern plays. The plot is simple: Ralph, a gay Lothario, courts as gay a widow, and the by-play includes a designing servant and an intriguing lady's-maid: these are the stock elements of a hundred comedies since.
Contemporary with this was Gammer Gurton's Needle, supposed to be written, but not conclusively, by John Still, Bishop of Bath and Wells, about 1560. The story turns upon the loss of a steel needle—a rare instrument in that day, as it was only introduced into England from Spain during the age of Elizabeth. This play is a coarser piece than Ralph Roister Doister; the buffoon raises the devil to aid him in finding the lost needle, which is at length found, by very palpable proof, to be sticking in the seat of Goodman Hodge's breeches.
THE FIRST TRAGEDY.—Hand in hand with these first comedies came the earliest tragedy, Gorboduc, by Sackville and Norton, known under another name as Ferrex and Porrex; and it is curious to observe that this came in while the moralities still occupied the stage, and before the interludes had disappeared, as it was played before the queen at White Hall, in 1562. It is also to be noted that it introduced a chorus like that of the old Greek drama. Ferrex and Porrex are the sons of King Gorboduc: the former is killed by the latter, who in turn is slain by his own mother. Of Gorboduc, Lamb says, “The style of this old play is stiff and cumbersome, like the dresses of the times. There may be flesh and blood underneath, but we cannot get at it.”
With the awakened interest of the people, the drama now made steady progress. In 1568 the tragedy of Tancred and Gismunda, based upon one of the stories of Boccaccio, was enacted before Elizabeth.
A license for establishing a regular theatre was got out by Burbage in 1574. Peele and Greene wrote plays in the new manner: Marlowe, the greatest name in the English drama, except those of Shakspeare and Ben Jonson, gave to the world his Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, which many do not hesitate to compare favorably with Goethe's great drama, and his Rich Jew of Malta, which contains the portraiture of Barabas, second only to the Shylock of Shakspeare. Of Marlowe a more special mention will be made.
PLAYWRIGHTS AND MORALS.—It was to the great advantage of the English regular drama, that the men who wrote were almost in every case highly educated in the classics, and thus able to avail themselves of the best models. It is equally true that, owing to the religious condition of the times, when Puritanism launched forth its diatribes against all amusements, they were men in the opposition, and in most cases of irregular lives. Men of the world, they took their characters from among the persons with whom they associated; and so we find in their plays traces of the history of the age, in the appropriation of classical forms, in the references to religious and political parties, and in their delineation of the morals, manners, and follies of the period: if the drama of the present day owes to them its origin and nurture, it also retains as an inheritance many of the faults and deformities from which in a more refined period it is seeking to purge itself. It is worthy of notice, that as the drama owes everything to popular patronage, its moral tone reflects of necessity the moral character of the people who frequent it, and of the age which sustains it.
CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE.—Among those who may be regarded as the immediate forerunners and ushers of Shakspeare, and who, although they prepared the way for his advent, have been obscured by his greater brilliance, the one most deserving of special mention is Marlowe.
Christopher Marlowe was born at Canterbury, about the year 1564. He was a wild, irregular genius, of bad morals and loose life, but of fine imagination and excellent powers of expression. He wrote only tragedies.
His Tamburlaine the Great is based upon the history of that Timour Leuk, or Timour the Lame, the great Oriental conqueror of the fourteenth century:
So large of limb, his joints so strongly knit,
Such breadth of shoulders as might mainly bear
Old Atlas' burthen.
The descriptions are overdrawn, and the style inflated, but the subject partakes of the heroic, and was popular still, though nearly two centuries had passed since the exploits of the historic hero.
The Rich Jew of Malta is of value, as presenting to us Barabas the Jew as he appeared to Christian suspicion and hatred in the fifteenth century. As he sits in his country-house with heaps of gold before him, and receives the visits of merchants who inform him of the safe arrival of his ships, it is manifest that he gave Shakspeare the first ideal of his Shylock, upon which the greater dramatist greatly improved.
The Tragicall Life and Death of Doctor John Faustus certainly helped Goethe in the conception and preparation of his modern drama, and contains many passages of rare power. Charles Lamb says: “The growing horrors of Faustus are awfully marked by the hours and half-hours which expire and bring him nearer and nearer to the enactment of his dire compact. It is indeed an agony and bloody sweat.”
Edward II. presents in the assassination scene wonderful power and pathos, and is regarded by Hazlitt as his best play.
Marlowe is the author of the pleasant madrigal, called by Izaak Walton “that smooth song”:
Come live with me and be my love.
The playwright, who had led a wild life, came to his end in a tavern brawl: he had endeavored to use his dagger upon one of the waiters, who turned it upon him, and gave him a wound in the head of which he died, in 1593.
His talents were of a higher order than those of his contemporaries; he was next to Shakspeare in power, and was called by Phillips “a second Shakspeare.”
OTHER DRAMATIC WRITERS BEFORE SHAKSPEARE.
Thomas Lodge, 1556-1625: educated at Oxford. Wrote The Wounds of Civil-War, and other tragedies. Rosalynd, a novel, from which Shakspeare drew in his As You Like It. He translated Josephus andSeneca.
Thomas Kyd, died about 1600: The Spanish Tragedy, or, Hieronymo is Mad Again. This contains a few highly wrought scenes, which have been variously attributed to Ben Jonson and to Webster.
Robert Tailor: wrote The Hog hath Lost his Pearl, a comedy, published in 1614. This partakes of the character of the morality.
John Marston: wrote Antonio and Mellida, 1602; Antonio's Revenge, 1602; Sophonisba, a Wonder of Women, 1606; The Insatiate Countess, 1603, and many other plays. Marston ranks high among the immediate predecessors of Shakspeare, for the number, variety, and vigorous handling of his plays.
George Peele, born about 1553: educated at Oxford. Many of his pieces are broadly comic. The principal plays are: The Arraignment of Paris, Edward I. and David and Bethsabe. The latter is overwrought and full of sickish sentiment.
Thomas Nash, 1558-1601: a satirist and polemic, who is best known for his controversy with Gabriel Harvey. Most of his plays were written in conjunction with others. He was imprisoned for writing The Isle of Dogs, which was played, but not published. He is very licentious in his language.
John Lyly, born about 1553: wrote numerous smaller plays, but is chiefly known as the author of Euphues, Anatomy of Wit, and Euphues and his England.
Robert Greene, died 1592: educated at Cambridge. Wrote Alphonsus, King of Arragon, James IV., George-a-Greene, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, and other plays. After leading a profligate life, he left behind him a pamphlet entitled, “A Groat's-worth of Wit, bought with a Million of Repentance:” this is full of contrition, and of advice to his fellow-actors and fellow-sinners. It is mainly remarkable for its abuse of Shakspeare, “an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers;” “Tygre's heart wrapt in a player's hide;” “an absolute Johannes factotum, in his own conceyt the onely shakescene in the country.”
Most of these dramatists wrote in copartnership with others, and many of the plays which bear their names singly, have parts composed by colleagues. Such was the custom of the age, and it is now very difficult to declare the distinct authorship of many of the plays.