There is archaeological evidence of Roman theatre all over England.
However, Roman theatre was almost exclusively urban.
With the disappearance of the Roman Empire and its cities, the theatre disappeared as an organised, sophisticated expression.
The early Christians were anti-theatrical.
To be fair, the Roman theatre of the 4th Century CE was not that of Seneca, Plautus and Terence, so admired in the Renaissance,
but a decadent spectacle focused firmly on sex and sensationalism.
Moreover, the Mimi mocked the Christians.
The Mimi were excommunicated, the clergy were forbidden to act or associate with actors.
Under Justinian the theatres of Rome were closed.
The Dark Ages: Church vs. Mimi
There is evidence that theatre survived in some form but very little is known of what form it took.
There was no doubt some mixing of epic (i.e. poetic), lyric (i.e. singing) and dramatic performance.
King Edwin of Northumbria (early 7th Century) built a Roman-style theatre.
In 679 the English monasteries were warned not to have ‘revels or plays’ staged for their benefit.
In 789 a church law threatened any player who dared to imitate a priest with corporal punishment and exile.
There are (negative) Church references to the Mimi and actors in the 7th, 8th, and 10th Centuries in England.
In 960 King Edgar lamented that the monks had become so decadent
that the mimes mocked them in song and dance in the market-place.
Varieties of pre-Christian ritualistic drama probably existed from before the Roman Conquest, typically rural.
Paralleled by the Roman Saturnalia – an end of year fertility festival involving a temporary return to chaos before order could be clearly seen to be restored.
They survived into modern times in the form of Mumming1 (or Mummers’) plays, which are usually simple stories of death and resurrection (in surviving versions referring to Saint/Sir George and a Turkish Knight).
These fertility/resurrection rites – typically George dies and is brought back to life by a doctor – can be linked to similar ideas we saw in relation to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Central focus on sex is all its euphoria and silliness.
All this was also linked to ‘Robin Hood plays’, which were popular both in England and Scotland.
Also probably descended from fertility rituals: in Stratford in Shakespeare’s boyhood, a Robin and Marion were paraded through the town in the spring ‘copulating’ in a cart.
There are isolated indications of the survival of paganism in Britain throughout the Middle Ages.
Mummers’ Plays used “Terence staging” – narrator in a booth speaking the parts of the players who mimed their roles.
In mediaeval times this was erroneously believed to be the way that the plays of Terence (190-159BCE) were performed.
Mumming plays included ‘wild men’ (think: Green Knight) and fools.
Mumming plays had a great influence on later courtly masques and on some morality plays (just think of the role of the doctor in Everyman).
Estrifs and Farces
A popular 12th-century entertainment was the dramatic debate, typically a scripted argument between two actors, representing two different animals or abstractions.
There were debates between Winter and Summer, Wine and Water, the Fox and the Wolf, as well as between the Body and the Soul and one between Mary and the Cross.
You can get a good idea of these from the poem The Owl and the Nightingale.
There is also a surviving English farce from the 13th Century – Interlude of the clerk and the Maiden – which involves three characters, the Clerk, the Girl and Mother Eloise, who advises the young man how to get the girl to go to bed with him.
The Church Gradually Changes its Attitude to Drama
As the Church became the most powerful institution in mediaeval Europe it was progressively infiltrated by the aristocracy determined to adapt it in their own image.
The priesthood gradually stopped being ‘first among equals’ and transformed themselves into a religious aristocracy.
Meanwhile, the Church insisted on conducting its services in Latin,
which was incomprehensible to those outside the aristocracy and clergy.
The result was a growing alienation between the priesthood and the congregation.
Drama was not “reinvented” in the High Middle Ages but grew naturally out of Church ceremony.
Churchmen like Honorius of Autun (d. 1151) compared the priest at mass to a Tragicus (= tragic actor).
Elaborate Church ceremonies involved re-enactments, e.g.
the Virgin on a donkey parading round the ambulatory or
the scripted entrance of the bishop into church.
From the Old English period dramatised spectacles called “Tropes” [from trope = “turn” in Greek]) had been performed at Christmas and Easter.
For instance, we have the Agreed Model (Regularis Concordia, c. 970) prepared by St. Ethelwold of Winchester that tells Benedictine monks how the trope of one angel and three women should be performed.
By the end of the 10th Century Christmas plays of the Pastores and Magi were common.
Especially, the Quem Queritis trope (Latin questions and answers between priest and congregation).
Originally the performers belonged to the clergy.
We know of one woman, Katherine of Sutton († 1376), abbess of Barking Abbey, who wrote this type of simple liturgical drama
- she is the earliest known female woman dramatist.
In the 12th Century Aelred, Abbot of Rievaulx – in his Mirror of Holy Love (Speculum Caritatis) – complained that the clergy were singing in a style that involved
the mimicry of female voices,
sudden dramatic silences and
vocal imitation of the agonies of the tortured and the dying,
and that some priests contorted their whole body with ‘histrionic gestures’
– practices more suitable for the stage than the church.
English Theatre 1140-1313
As with poetry, the earliest form of extant mediaeval drama in England is in Anglo-Norman.
e.g. Jeu d’Adam (a.k.a. Mystère d’Adam) written c. 1140.
Deals with the Fall, and Cain and Abel.
1207 Pope Innocent III (1161-1216) ruled that plays that were primarily devotional in purpose were acceptable.
We know of the performance of The Lord’s Resurrection at Beverley in about 1220, which was “presented in words and gestures by the usual masked players”.
- so in the early 13th Century there is evidence of professional actors performing a scripted Passion Play.
By the early 14th Century the rehabilitate of acting was complete:
In 1313 a scholar and a very worthy candidate for the post of Archbishop of Canterbury was passed over in favour of Walter Reynolds, Bishop of Worcester, who “had recently been a mere clerk and was scarcely literate [but who] excelled in theatrical presentations, and through this obtained the kings favour”.