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throwing-at-cocks and other like brutal usages :-"Some French, writers have represented this diversion of the common people much to our disadvantage, and imputed it to a natural fierceness and cruelty of temper, as they do some other entertainments peculiar to our nation; I mean those elegant diversions of bull-baiting, and prizefighting, with the like ingenious recreations of the beargarden. I wish I knew how to answer this reproach which is cast upon us, and excuse the death of so many innocent cocks, bulls, dogs, and bears, as have been set together by the ears, or died an untimely death, only to make us sport.” Reader! are there no sports with which thou art apt to indulge thyself, which cause misery to that animated nature towards which thou art nearer related than thou wottest of ?
But the amusement of the people which most concerns us in the present work, is that of dramatic representation, whether in the form of mysteries, moralities, interludes, or plays of any description, from which the English drama can in any way be thought to have taken its rise. I cannot here fully enter into the origin and subsequent history of the dramatic art : how Æschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, perfected the Grecian drama ; and how Plautus and Terence copied after, and borrowed from them, in Rome. The classical tragedies and comedies were doomed to banishment by priestly intolerance, and in their places were substituted those ridiculous pieces of blasphemy and buffoonery, called mysteries or miracle-plays. All their curses of “bell, book, and candle,” were powerless against the most rational of all amusements, until a mental garbage was substituted by the monks in its stead, on which the souls of the poor cheated millions were fated for centuries to be fed.
“ We have little information respecting the Jewish drama,” says Dr. Nuttall; “but one of their plays has been preserved in Greek iambics, which is the first known to have been written on a Scripture subject.
It was taken from Exodus. The principal characters are Moses, Sapphora, and God from the bush. Moses delivers the prologue in a speech of sixty lines, and his rod is turned into a serpent on the stage. The author of the play was Ezekiel, the tragic poet of the Jews. Warton supposes that he wrote it after the destruction of Jerusalem, as a political spectacle to animate his dispersed brethren with the hopes of a future deliverance from their captivity, under the conduct of a new Moses, and that it was composed in imitation of the Greek drama at the close of the second century.'
“At what period of time the moralities had their rise," says Bishop Percy, “it is difficult to discover. But plays of miracles appear to have been exhibited in England soon after the Conquest. Matthew Paris tells us that Geoffrey, afterwards abbot of St. Albans, a Norman, who had been sent over for by Abbot Richard, to take upon himself the direction of that monastery, coming too late, went to Dunstable, and taught in the abbey there ; where he caused to be acted (probably by his scholars,) a miracle-play of St. Catharine, composed by himself. This was long before the year 1119, and probably within the eleventh century. The above play of St. Catharine was, for aught that appears, the first spectacle of this sort that was exhibited in these kingdoms.” In the reign of Henry the Second [1154 to 1189], these miracle plays—so called because they set forth to the credulous people the lying miracles alleged to have been wrought by certain fanatics and cunning impostors, who arrogated to themselves the sacred name of saints—appear to have become quite common ; and fit representations they were for a people whose monarch could bare his back to be lashed by the monks of Canterbury when his own queen, Eleanor, would have done it so well! In the following reign—that of the brave, but fanatic, Richard the First—when the poor Jews were cruelly butchered in cold blood at home, and the Saracens in those mad and wholesale murders, the Crusades in the Holy Land, anything better than mysteries would have been but as "pearls before swine.” Robin Hood, with Sherwood Forest for his capital, and the whole of the northern and midland counties for his tributary states, was the truest king of England, and reigned supreme, whilst the royal knight-errant was murdering and plundering abroad. Not only was the bold outlaw destined to become “the English ballad-singer's joy," but the subject of various representations that rivalled, in the affections of the multitude, those miracle-play abortions of the monkish mind.
The usual place for the performance of a miracle-play was the interior of the church or chapel, where a temporary scaffold was erected to serve for the stage ; and sometimes the representations took place in the churchyard. The church ornaments appear to have been used for theatrical property, and Sundays and holy-days were the times chosen for the exhibition. Thus Chaucer's Wife of Bath amuses herself during Lent :
" Therefore made I my visitations
To vigilies and to processions,
The famous “Household Book” of the fifth earl of Northumberland, begun in 1512, clearly proves that on all great festivals of the church, the chaplains of the nobility were in the habit of providing plays on the event, mythical or historical, which either superstition or piety meant to celebrate. The principal performers were the clergy, who looked with extreme suspicion on any secular players that might attempt to break through the monkish mono. poly. But even in those days we find persons of superior sanctity, who might say with the friar minor in the valuable old poem of “Pierce Ploughman,” supposed to have been written by a secular priest named Robert Long. lande, one of the immediate predecessors of Chaucer :
“We haunten no tavernes, ne hobelen abouten :
At markets AND MIRACLES we meddley us never." In the sixteenth century so great was the outcry against this monkish buffoonery by the religious reformers, that we find even the notorious Bishop Bonner, in 1542, issuing a proclamation to the clergy of his diocese, in which every description of common play, game, or interlude, is forbid to be played in their churches or chapels.
“Whatever was the rudeness of the English stage prior to the fifteenth century,” says Dr. Dunham, “at that time we certainly find a more artificial expedient. Then there was a change of scene, inasmuch as there were often two, sometimes three distinct stages, which rose like the boxes of a theatre one above another : the highest was heaven, when there were three, the middle one earth, and the lowest hell.” One of the most celebrated places for the exhibition of mysteries was the city of Coventry, from which Stratford-on-Avon is only nineteen miles distant ; and doubtless thither “many a time and oft” has Shakspere in his youth gone to amuse himself with these ridiculous mummeries, for his writings abound with allusions and sarcasms thereon. In the Cotton MSS. there is a series of forty-two of these mysteries, beginning with the Creation, and ending with Doomsday, which were once the property of the monastery of Grey Friars in Coventry ; and these, we are told by Sir William Dugdale, were “acted with mighty state and reverence by the friars of this house, who had theatres for several scenes, very large
and high, placed upon wheels, and drawn to all the eminent parts of the city, for the better advantage of spectators." And he adds, “I have been told by some old people, who in their younger years were eye-witnesses of these pageants 80 acted, that the yearly conflux of people to see that show [Corpus Christi] was extraordinary great, and yielded no small advantage to this city.” And in John Heywood's “Four P's" we have :
“For as good hope would have it chance,
We both play'd the devil at Coventry," But the representation of those sorry blasphemies were not confined altogether to the clerical class, though doubtless they were all written by them. Various trades had been in the habit of representing them, at stated periods, in most of the principal places in England. Some of the entries in the records of the Coventry gilds are, as Dr. Dunham observes, strange enough, but certainly never dictated by irreverence. Thus, in the expenditure of the Smiths' company, we have :"God's coat of white leather (6 skins). Cheverel (chevelure, peruke) for God. Girdle for God. Paid to God, 28. Item, paid to Herod, 3s. 4d. Item, to Pilate's wife, 28. Item, to the Devil and to Judas, 18d.” Again, in the Cappers' expenditure, we have :-"Item, paid to Pilate, 4d. Item, paid to the four knights, 48. 8d. Item, paid to the two bishops, 2s. Item, paid to God, 20d. Item, paid to the Spirit of God, 16d. Item, paid to the two angels, 8d. Item, paid to the three Maries, 2'. Item, paid to the Demon, 16d."
I am sorry that my limits prevent me from here giving a few extracts as specimens of those ecclesiastical plays of our forefathers. “How they were exhibited in their most simple form,” says Bishop Percy, we may learn from an ancient novel, often quoted by our old dramatic poets, entitled "A Merry Jest of a Man that was called Howleglas,' &c., being a translation from the Dutch language, in which he is called “Ulenspiegle.' Howleglas, whose waggish tricks are the subject of this book, after many adventures comes to live with a priest, who makes him his parish-clerk. This priest is described as keeping a leman or concubine, who had but one eye, to whom Howleglas owed a grudge for revealing his rogueries to his master.” I give the passage below, as quoted by the worthy bishop, in his “Reliques of Ancient English
Poetry," the only liberty I have taken with it being that of modernising the spelling,-a liberty I have taken with most of my quotations from old writers :
" And then in the mean season, while Howleglas was parish-clerk, at Easter they should play the Resurrection of our Lord : and for because than the men were not learned, nor could not read, the priest took his leman, and put her in the grave for an angel : and this seeing Howleglas, took to him three of the simplest persons that were in the town, that played the three Maries: and the parson played Christ, with a banner in his hand. Then said Howleglas to the simple persons, When the angel asketh you whom ye seek, you may say, “ The parson's leman with one eye "' Then it fortuned that the time was come that they must play, and the angel asked them whom they sought, and then said they, as Howleglas had showed and learned them afore, and then answered they, •We seek the priest's leman with one eye.' And then the priest might hear that he was mocked, And when the priest's leman heard that, she arose out of the grave, and would have smitten with her fist Howleglas upon the cheek, but she missed him, and smote one of the simple persons that played one of the three Maries; and she gave her another; and then took she him by the hair ; and that seeing his wife, came running hastily to smite the priest's leman; and then the priest seeing this, cast down his banner, and nt to help his woman, so that one gave the other sore strokes, and made great noise in the church, And then Howleglas, seeing them lying together by the ears in the body of the church, went his way out of the village, and came no more there."
Such were the base substitutes for the classical drama palmed upon our poor forefathers, by the church, in the dark night of the middle ages : but God, whose immutable law of progression is ever active, though often working unseen by the finite eye of the philosopher, was about to produce a band of bards, whose minds would throw off the monkish trammels imposed upon them, and exult in the sunshine of their own souls. Nature to them should be a mother and a companion, and not some mere legendary saint, known to them only through the uncertain medium of tell-tale Tradition. The Sun, did he not still shine as brightly as when poor blind Homer basked in his golden rays, five-and-twenty centuries before? Were not the moon and stars as glorious in the heavens as when a Virgil sang? Why should not they also look on the great book of nature everywhere opened around them, and obey the promptings of the spirit within them, and try to regenerate the fallen drama? Miracle-plays were already in some measure giving way to moralities, and interludes, and court-pageants, and it was ovident that the awakening minds of the people could no longer be fed on mere men