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Greece and Rome
Middle Ages
     Liturgical drama
     Mystery plays
     Processional plays
     Noh theatre

16th - 18th century
17th century
18th century
To be completed

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Liturgical drama: 10th century

During the centuries of upheaval in Europe, after the collapse of the Roman empire, theatre plays no part in life. But with the approach of the first millennium, in the late 10th century, Christian churches introduce dramatic effects in the Easter liturgy to enliven the theme of resurrection.

The gospels describe Mary Magdalene and two other women visiting the tomb of Jesus and finding it empty. In about 970 the bishop of Winchester, eager to emphasize this important moment, introduces a custom which is already in use (he says) in certain French monasteries.


During the Easter morning service in Winchester three monks enact the arrival at the tomb of the three women, while another (as the angel in the story) sits beside the high altar (the holy sepulchre). The angel, intoning in Latin, asks the women whom they are seeking? Jesus of Nazareth, they chant in reply. He says Jesus is not here, he has risen, go and tell the people. The three turn to the choir with a joyous Alleluia! resurrexit Dominus ('the Lord is risen'), and the choir launches into the Te Deum.

From these small beginnings there develops the great tradition of medieval Christian drama. More and more scenes are enacted during church services, some quite boisterous. Herod, in particular, tends to make a lot of noise.


Mystery plays: 12th - 16th century

In about 1170, priests somewhere in France decide to move a performance to a platform outside their church and to give it in the language of the people. Their French play, the Mystère d'Adam ('Mystery of Adam'), introduces some very popular characters in medieval imagination - the wicked devils, who can be vividly enacted in the street but not inside the church. The play ends with devils arriving to tie Adam and Eve up in chains, before dragging them off with a great clatter of pots and kettles. They and their victims vanish into a hole from which smoke belches forth.

The flaming mouth of Hell is set to become a standard and increasingly spectacular element in the mystery plays.


Over the centuries the narrative of such plays extends from Adam and Eve to encompass the entire Bible story, from the Creation to the Last Judgement. The lives of saints are also much performed, in what are known as miracle plays. The torments suffered by saints in their martyrdom give these stories a special appeal for medieval audiences.

St Apollonia is a popular subject (tortured by having all her teeth pulled out). In a Danish 16th-century play about St Dorothy, the saint has already been whipped, partially burnt at the stake and stretched with tongs before the executioner lists the Real torments which he has in store for her.


Gradually the plays become longer and the productions more elaborate. In some places the performance lasts for an hour a day spread over a month, in others the entire biblical cycle is enacted in a dusk-to-dawn pageant lasting three days.

In most of Europe the plays are done on fixed open-air platforms, usually along one side of a square, with little 'houses' or mini-stages set up for different scenes. A famous illustration of one such stage survives from Valenciennes in 1547. But in some places an entirely different style of performance evolves, with the players forming a long slow procession.


Processional plays: 14th - 17th century

In parts of Europe, particularly Spain, the players perform on carts, each with its own scenery, moving through the town to appear before a succession of audiences. It is an ingenious way of bringing drama to more spectators than can be gathered in one place. These Spanish plays are known as autos sacramentales, 'eucharistic plays'.

The four English mystery cycles (linked with the cities of Chester, Coventry, Wakefield and York) are also of this kind. The plays are performed during the Corpus Christi festivities by different guilds, often with a direct link between their scene and their craft. The tailors are usually entrusted with Adam and Eve - who sew fig leaves to make themselves aprons.


The mystery plays go out of fashion in the 16th century. In Protestant Europe their broad humour and bawdiness offend the reformers. But this vigorous popular entertainment also seems unduly frivolous to solemn humanists of the Renaissance. Performance of the plays is banned in Paris in 1548. Many other places follow suit.

The exceptions are the strongholds of the Catholic Reformation, where the church recognizes the power of drama if doctrinally correct. The autos sacramentales still flourish in Spain in the late 17th century (many of them written by Calderon, a dramatist turned priest). Europe's best-known surviving cycle of plays, at Oberammergau, dates from 1634.


Noh theatre: from the 14th century

A father and his 11-year-old son, Kanami and Zeami Motokiyo, perform in 1374 before the shogun, Yoshimitsu, at the Imakumano shrine in Kyoto. Kanami has made innovations in a traditional form of theatre, deriving originally from China and known as sarugaku-noh. The shogun likes what he sees, and particularly likes the performance of the talented young Zeami. He takes the family into his service.

With the name reduced to the more simple noh, this is the beginning of the Noh theatre of Japan - and the beginning of some five centuries of patronage by the shoguns of this most refined of theatrical styles.


The style of Noh production and performance, and almost the entire repertoire of Noh plays, is established within a few decades of that day in 1374. Kanami is the author of the first plays in the new style; Zeami writes the bulk of those which survive; a few more are the work of Zeami's son-in-law, Zenchiku. Only a small number of Noh plays have been written since Zenchiku's death in the 15th century.

In Noh the all-male actors, accompanied by a small chorus and orchestra, sing and dance scenes from legend with an immense slowness and solemnity which can nevertheless imply great passion. The dimensions of the cypress-wood stage, and the placing of certain scenic props, are invariable.


This is a form of art so exquisite that it almost seems to begin life as a classic, a rare national treasure. In fact, in its first two or three centuries, it does reach a reasonably wide audience. But then, in the 17th century, an offshoot of Noh adopts a more popular style.

Known as kabuki, this new departure soon becomes the vigorous mainstream of Japanese theatre. The earlier form of Noh, fossilized in its perfection, is henceforth the preserve of the court and nobility.


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