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from his aching sight. We would not wish, however, to discourage the literary pilgrim who is disposed to wander in search of these gems, which the unfathomable caves of Byzantium, Persia, or Spain, may bear; but on the contrary, in despite of the anticipations in which we have for a moment indulged, would be glad to join in the hunt, and raise the view-holla with as delighted a cry as any classical enthusiast in the country.
Art. XII. Chester Mysteries* MS. in the Harleian Collection, British Museum.
Coventry Plays, MS. in the Cottonian Library, British Museum.
Hawkins's Origin of the English Drama, 3 vols. 8vo. Oxford, 17 3.
Dodsley's select Collection of old Plays, 12 vols. \2mo. 1744.
As it is one of the objects of this work to trace the history of literature, and particularly the literature of our own country, it is our design, in pursuance of that plan, to present our readers with a series of articles on the English Drama ; more especially of that part of it which is most ancient and little known, except to antiquaries and professed scholars. Before, however, we can enter upon this task, with any pleasure either to our readers or ourselves, it will be necessary to take a review of the earliest specimens of the dramatic art in this kingdom, if we may be allowed to apply the term of art to compositions as inartificial, as crude and jejune, as can be well imagined. It will, at all events, prepare the way for more interesting disquisitions and more agreeable extracts than those with which we shall
* The fall of Lucifer was represented by the Tanners. The Creation, by the Drapers. The Deluge, by the Dyers. Abraham, Melchisedech, and Lot, by the Barbers. Moses, Balak, and Balaam, by the Cappers. The Salutation and Nativity, by the Wrights. The Shepherds feeding their flocks by night, by the Painters and Glaziers. The three Kings, by the Vintners. The Oblation of the three Kings, by the Mercers. The killing of the Innocents, by the Goldsmiths. The Purification, by the Blacksmiths. The Temptation, by the Butchers. The Last Supper, by the Bakers. The Blind Men and Lazarus, by the Glovers. Jesus and the Lepers, by"the Corvesarys. Christ's Passion, by the Bowyers, Fletchers, and Ironmongers. Descent into Hell, by the Cooks and Innkeepers. The Resurrection, by the Skinners. The Ascension, by the Taylors. The election of S. Matthias, Sending of the Holy Ghost, &c. by the Fishmongers. Antechrist, by the Clothiers. Day of Judgment, by the Websters.
commence the present series. Let not our readers, however, be startled at the ominous words mi/steries and moralities, for we fairly give them notice, that it is not our intention to enter into a recondite detail of their origin, or even to give any very. minute account of them. All we mean to do, is to make a few desultory observations on this kind of composition, and on the interest which they excited in our unlettered ancestors; and to give such specimens of them as will enable the reader to form some opinion of the nature of the first rude attempts of our dramatic muse. Religion, which has in all countries first excited dramatic representation, was the subject of the Mysteries or Miracle-plays, as they were sometimes denominated. These productions were either founded on different parts of the Old and New Testament, or on the legends of the Saints; but the former description were chiefly prevalent in England. They sometimes consisted of detached historical events, as in the old Mystery of Candlemas Day, or the killing of tlie children of Israel; and, at other times, of a succession of such events, even from the creation of the world to the day of judgment; or it might be to a less remote period, as in Bale's Mystery of The Promises of God from the fall of Adam to the incarnation of our Saviour; but these were, in fact, rather a collection of distinct mysteries than a continued drama. The latter class of these sacred exhibitions, it must be confessed, comprise a sufficient space of time, and could not, with a greater degree of ingenuity than fell to the lot of their composers, be rendered much more comprehensive. The very early writers of these productions, however, appear to be altogether guiltless of any knowledge of the rules by which the drama is governed in more critical times, and therefore ought not to be adjudged criminal for any infraction of them. Notwithstanding this total disregard of one of the most important unities, which a short time ago would have been sufficient to rouse the ire and contempt of the most placid critic, and the absence of the still more essential qualities of the drama, we conceive it will not be either useless or unprofitable to dwell, for a short time, on what constituted the chief intellectual entertainment of our forefathers. At what time such exhibitions were first introduced into this kingdom, is not accurately ascertained; but it appears from Fitzstephen, who wrote about the year 1174, that religious plays were even then by no means uncommon. The oldest Mysteries now extant, and in all probability the first which appeared in the English language, are the Chester Mysteries, written by Ralph Higden, the Chronicler, and exhibited at Chester in the year 1327, at the expense of the different trading companies of that city. Mysteries were acted on solemn festivals in the churches, or at some place near to them in the open air, by the monks, and
subsequently by the students at the universities or public schools. The learned fraternity of parish clerks of London also cut no inconsiderable figure in these theatrical representations; for, in the years 1390 and 1409, they exhibited a play at Clerkenwell for eight days successively, at which most of the nobility and gentry were present. One cannot help admiring the unsuspecting innocence of our ancestors on this subject.—The gravest personages are introduced speaking in the most ludicrous manner:—the Almighty Creator of the universe almost always fills a conspicuous part among the Dramatis Persona of these sacred plays; and, if we are to take his character, as there delineated, for their conception of it, what a strange earthly notion must they have had of the divine Intelligence and his attributes! If such a character were drawn of him in our days, it would be considered absolute blasphemy; but our progenitors, in the simplicity of their hearts, and in the absence of the divine record itself, considered it as gospel—as authentic "as proof of holy writ." The Devil, too, was not unfrequently introduced: John Heywood says, in the 4 P's,
"For oft, in the play of Corpus Christi, He hath play'd the Devil at Coventrie."
A Mystery was, in fact, neither more nor less than a few chapters of the Bible stripped of all their simplicity—of all their solemnity, and of all their poetry, and converted into English verse. From the Miracle-plays, founded on the more mysterious part of the New Testament, into which it was frequently necessary to introduce allegorical characters, arose a species of drama called Moralities, which entirely consisted of such personifications. In the Moralities, some progress was certainly made in the drama.—" They indicate," as Warton observes, "dawnings of the dramatic art: they contain some rudiments of a plot, and even attempt to delineate characters and paint manners." If they do attempt to delineate character, we must confess we think it a lamentable failure; but they most assuredly afford us a picture of the manners of the times, and as such are highly valuable. As to plot, too, they have but small pretensions; and we cannot but consider Bishop Percy's proposition, that in the Morality of Every-Man " the fable is constructed upon the strictest model of the Greek tragedy;" and that, "except in the circumstance of Every-Man's expiring on the stage, the Sampson Agonistes of Milton is hardly formed on a severer plan," as not a little extravagant. The plot is, in few words, the summoning of Every-Man, who represents the human race, out of the world by death. Every-Man, in this extremity, applies to Fellowship, Kindred, and Riches, for relief, but they successively forsake him; he then has recourse to Good-dedes, by whom he is introduced to Knowledge, and by her to Confession, who gives him " a precious jewell" called Penance. After receiving this jewel, he is deserted by Strength, Beauty, Discretion, and Five-wits, and expires, accompanied only by Good-dedes. This plot, such as it is, is perhaps more perfect than that of any other of the Moralities; but still it does not more deserve the name of a plot than some of our ancient ballads. The Mysteries, it is proper to notice, did not altogether cease with the introduction of Moralities, but continued to be acted for some time afterwards. The Chester mysteries were represented so late as the year 1600. At the commencement of the Reformation, moralities were found convenient for the purposes of religious controversy, and we have, accordingly, moralities both for and against the Reformation. This was so much abused, that by Stat. 34 and 35, of Henry the 8th, all religious plays, interludes, except plays for the rebuking and reproaching of vices, and the setting forth of virtue, were abolished; and it is probable, that after this time mysteries were, in a great measure, superseded by moralities, which appear to have been exempted from the above prohibition, and continued to be occasionally represented even after the appearance of more regular dramas. It may seem strange to us, that exhibitions of this kind, without plot, passion, or character, and with no scenical illusion, should have attracted such attention, and excited such interest, amongst all ranks of society. That such was the fact is evident, and, as one proof of the assertion, we need only refer to the circumstance of the play before mentioned to have been acted at Clerkenwell, being attended by most of the nobility and gentry for eight days. There is a curious account of the representation of a morality, and the effect it produced upon the author, who was then very young, in a book, entitled Mount Tabor, or private Exercises of a penitential Sinner, by R. W. published in 1639, when the author was 75 years of age, which we shall extract.
"Upon a stage-play which I saw when I was a child.
"In the city of Gloucester the manner is, (as I think it is in other like corporations,) that when players of enterludes come to towne, they just attend the mayor, to enforme him what nobleman's servants they are, and so to get licence for their publike playing; and if the mayor like the actors, or would shew respect to their lord and master, he appoints them to play their first play before himself, and the alderman and common counsell of the city; and that is called the mayor's play: where every one that will, comes in without money, the mayor giving the players a reward as he thinks fit to shew respect unto them. At such a play, my father tooke me with him, and made me stand between his leggs, as he sate upon one of the benches, where we saw and heard very well. The play was called The Cradle of Security, wherein was personated a king or some great prince, with his courtiers of several kinds, among which three ladies were in special grace with him; and they keeping him in delights and pleasures, drew him from his graver counsellors, hearing of sermons, and listening to good councell and admonitions, that in the end they got him to lye down in a cradle upon the stage, where these three ladies, joyning in a sweet song, rocked him asleepe, that he snorted again; and, in the mean time, closely conveyed under the cloaths, wherewithall he was covered, a vizard, like a swine's snout, upon his face, with three wire chains fastened thereunto, the other end whereof being holden severally by those three ladies; who fall to singing againe, and then discovered his face, that the spectators might see how they had transformed him, going on with their singing. Whilst all this was acting, there came forth of another doore at the farthest end of the stage, two old men; the one in blew, with a serjeant at armes, his mace on his shoulder; the other in red, with a drawn sword in his hand, and leaning with the other hand upon the other's shoulder; and so they went along, with a soft pace, round about by the skirt of the stage, till, at last, they came to the cradle, when all the court was in the greatest jollity; and then the foremost old man, with his mace, stroke a fearfull blow upon the cradle; wherewith all the courtiers, with the three ladies, and the vizard, all vanished; and the desolate prince, starting up bare-faced, and finding himself thus sent for to judgement, made a lamentable complaint of his miserable case, and so was carried away by wicked spirits. This prince did personate in the morall, the wicked of the world: the three ladies, Pride, Covetousness, and Luxury; the two old men, the end of the world, and the last judgement. This sight took such impression on me, that when I came towards man's estate, it was as fresh in my memory, as if I had seen it newly acted."*
The people could not forget their old predilections for the sacred plays—they still cherished the recollection of them, and hung over their expiring glories with fond partiality. At length, the faint rivalry with which they had contended with the regular drama altogether subsided, and they sunk into the mass of things forgotten.
The fondness of our ancestors for mysteries and moralities may be, perhaps, in some degree, ascribed to the circumstance of there being, at that time, no other species of dramatic entertainment. But a still more powerful cause of this partiality was in the subjects of the sacred dramas. Few being able to read the Scriptures, and those that could being shut out from their perusal by the want of a translation,^ it is not surprizing that,
* Historical Account of the English Stage, prefixed to the Plays of Shakespear, vol. iii. p. 29.
t Tyndale's translation of the bible, which was printed at Paris,