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THE RISE AND EARLY PROGRESS OF THE DRAMA. 39
Toothless Satires first, and afterwards his Biting Satires, were directed against some of the vices of his time, and are interesting because of the pictures we thus obtain of the manners and customs of the age.
THE RISE AND EARLY PROGRESS OF THE DRAMA.
The Mystery or Miracle Play-the Morality—the Interlude-
the First Comedy--the First Tragedy—the First Theatres. THE EARLY DRAMATISTS—Marlowe-Other Dramatists.
The Mystery or Miracle Play. This is the name of the first kind of play known in England, and it dates back to the Norman period. The common people of that time were very ignorant; and the monks, in order to teach them something of sacred history, set up three platforms in their churches, one above another, to represent Hell, Earth, and Heaven. On these they acted the stories of the Bible. Such plays were common until the end of the fourteenth century.
The Morality. As civilization advanced, the Mystery gave place to the Morality—that is, a play by which the people were taught useful lessons, showing how the good are rewarded, and the wicked punished. Instead, however, of the Adams, and Cains, and Abrahams of the Mystery, we have such characters as Wisdom, Good Counsel, Gluttony, Pride, &c. In short, the Morality was just an allegory acted on the stage. It continued to be popular till the close of the sixteenth century.
The Interlude.—This was a still nearer approach to the modern drama. It was shorter and merrier than either of the preceding plays, and is supposed to have been played between the ts of the wearisome Morality, with a view to make the audience more cheerful. This is
why they are called inter-ludes. JOHN HEYWOOD, jestër to Henry VIII., wrote many plays of this kind.
The First Comedy. The original meaning of the word comedy is a merry-making song. It now means a play in which the little faults and failings of the people are held up to public ridicule. The earliest English comedy is Ralph Royster Doyster, by NICHOLAS UDALL. Ralph is a young heir, with more money than brains. He is surrounded by a set of flatterers, who help him to spend his wealth, and secretly make him their laughing-stock by leading him into all sorts of scrapes. The play very clearly shows the weaknesses of middle class society in the sixteenth century. It was first acted in 1551.
The First Tragedy.—The word tragedy comes from two Greek words, meaning a goat song. It was the name of an anthem sung to a heathen god, just before a goat was killed for the sacrifice; hence tragedy now means a drama ending in sorrow and death. The first regular play of this kind in England was written by SACKVILLE and NORTON, and is called Gorboduc, or Ferrex and Porrex. It tells the story of an ancient British king (Gorboduc), and his two sons, named respectively Ferrex and Porrex. These brothers quarrelled. Ferrex was driven from the land; and, on attempting to gain back his lost possessions, was defeated and slain. Porrex is afterwards put to death by his own mother and her women. This tragedy was first acted in 1562.
The First Theatres.—Long before the existence of regular theatres, there were companies of strolling players, who had a portable stage, which they could erect in a barn, in the yard of an inn, at fairs, and at other places of public resort. It is not of such as these we mean to speak, but of the first theatres established in London.
These were built, for the most part, on the south side of the Thames, because, in Elizabeth's time at least, the residents on the north disliked both plays and players. The most celebrated of the London theatres was the Globe, which was an octagon or eight-sided building, having no roof except high above the stage, for between the stage and the roof
there was a gallery for the orchestra. The upper classes occupied little rooms or boxes ranged round the theatre, while the middle classes stood in the pit. There was no grand painting or gilding such as we have in the theatres of our time; nor had they any scenery except of the very simplest description. The usual way of informing the audience what the stage was to represent for the time being was to hang up a placard bearing the name of the place intended as the scene of the play. The actors were all males, the female parts being taken by boys and delicate looking young men.
In the time of good Queen Bess, the players, before dismissing the audience, knelt at the front of the stage, and offered up a prayer for the Queen! It
may be interesting to know that theatrical performances did not take place in the evening, as with us, but in the afternoon, about three o'clock. A flag was usually hoisted to inform the public that the play was about to begin.
THE EARLY DRAMATISTS.
CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE (6. at Canterbury, about 1563, d. 1593). — Of all the writers for the stage before Shakespeare's time, Kit Marlowe was the greatest. After leaving the University of Cambridge, where he obtained his degree, he seems to have begun a wild and reckless course of life. Having joined a company of actors, most of whom were either drunkards or gamblers, or both, the gay, witty, jovial poet speedily became their boon companion, and abandoned himself to all kinds of wickedness, frequenting the worst places in London, despising everything that was good, and even denying the existence of a God. His death was in keeping with his life. Having quarrelled with a serving man in a low gambling house, he was stabbed with his own dagger, which "pierced through eye and brain.” He died of his wound in 1593, aged only thirty years.
His principal works are the drama of Faustus and the tragedy of Edward II.
The former represents Dr. Faustus as a learned man thirsting for more knowledge and greater enjoyment than his studies have been able to afford him. By the aid of magic, he is made to call up the Evil One, who promises him all kinds of delight, on condition that his soul shall be forfeited to Satan at the end of four-and-twenty years. Caring nothing for the future, Faustus signs the agreement with his blood, and, under the guidance of Mephistopheles, a fallen angel, enjoys every possible kind of pleasure. In this way the years glide on until the awful moment draws nigh when he must fulfil his pact. Then Faustus would pray, but cannot; and, in an agony of remorse and terror, he begs piteously for another day, another hour, in order to have more time for repentance; but the fatal moment came, and when some of his friends entered his room next day, they found his body torn limb from limb.
In the tragedy of Edward II. we have the story of that poor, favourite-loving, English King, who slighted his beautiful but revengeful Queen, Isabella, and suffered in consequence a cruel imprisonment and a violent death. The last scene of the play represents the murderer, Lightborn, entering the cell of the imprisoned King, and pretending to weep at the miserable condition in which he finds him. Thinking that Lightborn really sympathizes with him, Edward reveals his sufferings in these words
“This dungeon where they keep me is a sink
Wherein the filth of all the castle falls
After a while, the king feels convinced that Lightborn
has come to kill him; and yet he would fain close his eyelids in sleep
“Now, as I speak, they fall, and yet with fear
Open again. At length the murderer thinks he sleeps; but suddenly the king awakes again, and cries to Lightborn
Something still buzzeth in mine ears,
And therefore, tell me wherefore art thou come?
Assist me, sweet God, and receive my soul.”
In the two plays above referred to, Marlowe shows himself to possess a power as great as that of Shakespeare himself. The terrible language of Faustus in the last scene of the drama, and the touching and piteous words of Edward II. in the closing scene of the tragedy, are perhaps as fine as any similar passages in the whole range of English literature. But Marlowe wrote other plays which are characterized by excess in everything. His loves are mad passions ; his angers, rages; his tragedies, massacres. In other words, he makes a lover speak to his mistress as though he would devour her; when his characters get angry, they stamp, and tear their hair, and gnash their teeth ; and when they kill, they must stab, burn, drown, wholesale. In some of his shorter pieces, however, he is gentle, natural, and melodious.
Other Dramatists.—These were mostly of the same set to which Marlowe belonged. They were very reckless and profligate; but their plays are so excellent that, had there been no Shakespeare, they would have stood in the front rank of the dramatic poets of England. The most distinguished were GEORGE PEELE, who acted along with Shakespeare, and wrote the first historical drama (Edward I.); THOMAS Kys, the author of a very