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much valuable matter mixed up with more rubbish. It is acknowledged, that whenever the subject, though scriptural, turned from mere religion to things purely domestic and simple, and referred to matters of mere naked morality, abstracted from religious mystery, those writers displayed profound knowledge of the dramatic art, and showed that they possessed many requisites for the composition of amusing and instructive dramas.
As a confirmation of this opinion, it may not be amiss, nor indeed can it be uninteresting, to give a short analysis of one of the pieces just mentioned, " The Prodigal Son," composed by Rutebeuf, so long ago as the year 1240. The story of the Prodigal Son, exclusive of the reverence it demands, as a parable of holy writ, exacts our highest admiration as a simple, natural and affecting lesson of morality. Of the privilege thus afforded him, Rutebeuf has availed himself .by departing as much as possible from the track of mystery, and giving the piece up to morality, simplicity and nature. He places his scene in a beautiful country, and makes his characters opulent labouring husbandmen, a class of people to whom, according to nature, any real wants are generally as little known as the artificial necessaries of life. From this he contrives to give, in the character of his Prodigal Son, one of the most beautiful and faithful pictures imaginable of the restlessness of human nature.
Blessed with health, strength and competence, for every wise or honest purpose of life, and assured of every rational blessing for nothing more than the trouble of earning it, the Prodigal Son makes it the business of his life to run counter to reason. He is as vitious as a human being can be supposed to be made without the contagion of bad example. In return for the fondness and unbounded indulgence of his father, he disobeys and torments him; he abhors his brother for no other reason but because, being good and dutiful, he is a contrast to himself; he grows discontented, malicious and wicked; at length determines to go seek his fortune, and, to that end, demands his patrimony, and leaves his father's house. Thus cast forth upon a world, of whose ways he is ignorant, he is delighted, astonished and confounded. He greedily swallows the flattery of the knavish and the interested; and, wilfully credulous, admits the praises bestowed upon his accomplishments, of which he knows himself to be destitute, and receives the compliments lavished on him for his wisdom, his wit, hís eloquence and his endowments, though in his heart he knows them to be false. In the next stage of depravation, the poet makes him actually fancy he possesses those accomplishments which he before doubted, and in this mood makes him inveigh, with great asperity, against his father and brother for endeavouring to depress his genius, for undervaluing his great merits, and for considering him as no better than a clown, who was born to linger out his life in obscurity. Here the poet brings him to the acme of his folly, and then, by means not less natural and conformable to the experience of man, and to true poetical justice, brings him down to ruin.
He is then found in a public house, where he experiences all the venal respect paid to wealth by the sordid and the selfish. Attendants and waiters fly at his call, and the landlord himself is his humble servant. A lady enters. He immediately falls in love with her. Dinner is served up with wine, music and every treacherous incentive to enjoyment that can “ lap the soul (of a fool) in elysium." A second lady is introduced, becomes a competitor with the former for his good graces, and fills him with the ridiculous and ruinous imagination that he is beloved by both, and that they are rival candidates for his affection. He endeavours to satisfy them by assuring each separately that she and she alone is the object of his dearest regards and shall be his choice. They intoxicate him with their flattery, and during the paroxysm, make him drink till he gets dead drunk, when they pick his pockets, share the booty with the landlord, and, leaving him asleep, disappear. In due time he wakes, discovers his loss, deplores and deprecates his folly, grows frantic, raves like a bedlamite, and calls for satisfaction on the landlord, who answers his expostulations by demanding payment of his bill, and when the unhappy wretch declares his incapacity to pay it, kicks him out of the house.
In the next stage the poet exhibits his prodigal HERO begging alms on the highway. And now misery, bringing reason and repentance in its train, calls up his home, with his father and his indulgence and advice, to remembrance, and he weeps in an agony of despair and contrition. His brother then recurs to his mind, living by honest industry and frugality in content and abundance, and his folly smites him to the soul at the contrast of his condition of profligacy and want. While he is in this deplorable condition a countryman finds him, and commiserating his starving situation, employs him to feed his hogs. And now he has time and motives
for reflection; the whole of his errors flash conviction on his mind: his repentance becomes deep and unalterable; he resolves to return to his father, and he does so. The father receives him with tenderness: the fatted calf is killed, and the play has precisely the same denouement as the parable.
Underthe name of a mystery, then, here is a regular drama, replete with simple but impressive morality; a perfect, natural and well coloured picture of man as he ever was, is, and ever will be. The piece too is full of poetical excellence. The plot is perspicuous, grand, delightfully simple, and full fraught with instruction. Though the poet neglected the frigid rules of Aristotle, he studiously investigated nature, and, therefore, without any of the crabbed rules of the Stagyrite, has given his drama a well connected, lucid arrangement-a beginning, a middle, and an end. Had all the mysteries been managed in this way, there would have been no cause, as undoubtedly there was, for reprobating many of them as ridiculous and impious profanations of the holy scriptures.
The objection which holds to the use of sacred matters as subjects for dramatic pieces, does not extend to the writing, but to the acting of them. An attempt to personify beings whose essence we are incapable of even remotely conceiving, is absurd in the highest degree; and, therefore, in its application to things divine, truly abominable. When confined to poetry, in which the being is figured to the imagination, but not corporeally impersonized to the eye, descriptions may be not only admissible, but majestic, awful, sublime: such are the descriptions in Milton's Paradise Lost and Regained. But let us imagine the same scenes dramatized and exhibited in substantial personification, and what can be conceived more intolerable? The more sacred the subject, and the more sublime the poetry, the greater would be the burlesque in action. Fortunately, the mysteries, as they were generally composed, received no addition from the grandeur of the poetry, which was, in most instances, truly miserable; but, on the other hand, it is lamentable to think, that the priests, in their mistaken zeal, always selected the most sacred stories in holy writ, and, therefore, the most dangerous to couple with levity and expose to ridicule and burlesque. Perhaps the excessive enthusiastic religious zeal, and darkness of those times, and the simplicity of the people, may have prevented the effect which the representation of them would now produce: but at this day, nothing can be a more offensive outrage
upon christian piety than an impersonized performance on the stage of such sacred subjects as the conception of the virgin Mary, the passion of Christ, and the resurrection. Nor can we help pitying the ignorance or condemning the impiety of the country where such things were permitted.
“ The Mystery of the Conception,” says the able historian, to whom we are so often indebted, “is composed in fifty-three acts, distributed historically, and traced all the way from the prophecy of Isaiah to the murder of the innocents, and, without mentioning the choruses, has at least one hundred characters. To go over the plot would be to reiterate all we have read on the subject in the New Testament, which is on the stage tediously spun out in four feet verse, with now and then a few awkward alexandrians, perpetually fishing for the sublime and catching the bathos. The joy of the human race on the coming of the Messiah is truly poetical; so is the discomfiture of the devils; but if it had not been larded with the jokes of the landlord of the inn at Bethlehem, and the devils putting new bolts and bars upon limbo, for fear our Saviour should let out Adam and Eve, it would not have been seasoned to the palates of the people.
“ The jests also of those who are employed by Herod to murder the innocents, might as well have been spared; nor can it be forgiven that the devils, after they have tempted Herod with so many flattering promises of reward, should instigate him to cut his throat, afterwards kick his soul about till they are tired, and then enjoy the pleasure of seeing it bubble in a furnace of molten lead.” For such was actually the profanation and absurdity which the dramatic ecclesiastics acted upon their theatre; and yet these, for which absurdity is too mild an epithet, and which were sincerely meant for sanctity, are much outdone in impiety by the mystery of the Passion," and still more by that of “the Resurrection," which actually finishes with a figure dance between Adam, Eve, Isaiah, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, the good thief that was crucified,' and an immense number of souls, supposed to be just liberated from limbo.
Wonderful and extravagant as it may appear, these mysteries gained such high reputation in Paris, that they spread all over the kingdom. Rouen, Angers, Le Mans, Metz, and most of the principal towns, had a company of strollers detached from Paris, by the confraternity, for the pious purpose of exhibiting these mysteries.
Among the rest Villon, the poet, in the fullness of his zeal, became an itinerant, of which a very satirical and ludicrous account is given by the learned and witty RABELAIS.
It may be amusing to read the titles of some of those mysteries taken literally from the French, as published.
“The Triumphant Mystery of Catholic Works in the acts of the “ Apostles, taken from St. Luke, Evangelist and Historiographer; “ by ARNOT GREBAN, Canon of Mons.”
Another was called the History of the Old Testament. The title, ran literally thus" The Old Testament in which is shown how “ the children of Israel passed the Red Sea and reached the Land “ of Promise, with several other histories, such as Job, Tobit, “ Daniel, Susannah, and Esther."
A third, “The Vengeance of Christ in the destruction of Jerusalem, “ executed by Vespasian and his son Titus, contained in several “ Roman chronicles in the reign of Nero, and other fine histories « in honour of our Saviour and the court of Paradise.”
A fourth bore this title, “ The mystery of the patience of JOB; and how he lost all his 6 wealth by war and by fortune; how he was reduced to the
greatest poverty; and how every thing was rendered back again “ by the grace
of God” A fifth was intitled, - The sacrifice of Abraham-this is a French tragedy necessary " to all christians that they may find consolation in times of tribu
lation and adversity."
This last bore no feature of a tragedy, though called one to give it attraction at a time the public rage for mysteries had abated.
After this, familiar things were considered fitter subjects for the drama than sacred ones. It is evident too, that the authors, who were now chiefly laymen, did all they could to put down that misuse of sacred subjects, and wrote in a way to bring it into contempt. It is impossible otherwise to account for the preposterous titles given by them to some of their pieces; such as
6 The joyous mystery of the three kings," and
“ The pleasant conceit of the apocalypse of St. John of Zebedee, “ in which are contained the visions and revelations of the said St. “ John of Patmos." VOL. III.