THE GROWTH OF ENGLISH DRAMA
ARNOLD WYNNE, M.A.
Oxford At the Clarendon Press Printed in England At the Oxford University Press by John Johnson Printer to the University Impression of 1927 First edition, 1914
In spite of the fact that an almost superabundant literature of exposition has gathered round early English drama, there is, I believe, still room for this book. Much criticism is available. But the student commonly searches through it in vain for details of the plots and characters, and specimens of the verse, of interludes and plays which time, opportunity, and publishers combine to withhold from him. Notable exceptions to this generalization exist. Such are Sir A.W. Ward's monumental English Dramatic Literature, and that delightful volume, J.A. Symonds' Shakespeare's Predecessors; but the former extends its survey far beyond the limits of early drama, while the latter too often passes by with brief mention works concerning which the reader would gladly hear more. Some authors have written very fully, but upon only a section of pre-Shakespearian dramatic work. Of others it may generally be said that their purposes limit to criticism their treatment of all but the best known plays. The present volume attempts a more comprehensive plan. It presents, side by side with criticism, such data as may enable the reader to form an independent judgment. Possibly for the first time in a book of this scope almost all the plays of the University Wits receive separate consideration, while such familiar titles as Hick Scorner, Gammer Gurton's Needle, and The Misfortunes of Arthur cease to be mere names appended to an argument. As a consequence it has been possible to examine in detail the influence of such men as Heywood, Udall, Sackville, and Kyd, and to trace from its beginning, with much closer observation than a more general method permits, the evolution of the Elizabethan drama.
I have read the works of my predecessors carefully, and humbly acknowledge my indebtedness to such authorities as Ten Brink and Ward. From Mr. Pollard's edition of certain English Miracle Plays I have borrowed one or two quotations, in addition to information gathered from his admirable introduction. Particularly am I under an obligation to Mr. Chambers, upon whose Mediaeval Stage my first chapter is chiefly based. To the genius of J.A. Symonds I tender homage.
For most generous and highly valued help as critic and reviser of my manuscript I thank my colleague, Mr. J.L.W. Stock.
SOUTH AFRICAN COLLEGE, CAPE TOWN.
PAGE CHAPTER I EARLY CHURCH DRAMA ON THE CONTINENT 9
CHAPTER II ENGLISH MIRACLE PLAYS 22
CHAPTER III MORALITIES AND INTERLUDES 51
CHAPTER IV RISE OF COMEDY AND TRAGEDY 87
CHAPTER V COMEDY: LYLY, GREENE, PEELE, NASH 124
CHAPTER VI TRAGEDY: LODGE, KYD, MARLOWE, Arden of Feversham 193
APPENDIX THE ELIZABETHAN STAGE 270
EARLY CHURCH DRAMA ON THE CONTINENT
The old Classical Drama of Greece and Rome died, surfeited with horror and uncleanness. Centuries rolled by, and then, when the Old Drama was no more remembered save by the scholarly few, there was born into the world the New Drama. By a curious circumstance its nurse was the same Christian Church that had thrust its predecessor into the grave.
A man may dig his spade haphazard into the earth and by that act liberate a small stream which shall become a mighty river. Not less casual perhaps, certainly not less momentous in its consequences, was the first attempt, by some enterprising ecclesiastic, to enliven the hardly understood Latin service of the Church. Who the innovator was is unrecorded. The form of his innovation, however, may be guessed from this, that even in the fifth century human tableaux had a place in the Church service on festival occasions. All would be simple: a number of the junior clergy grouped around a table would represent the 'Marriage at Cana'; a more carefully postured group, again, would serve to portray the 'Wise Men presenting gifts to the Infant Saviour'. But the reality was greater than that of a painted picture; novelty was there, and, shall we say, curiosity, to see how well-known young clerics, members of local families, would demean themselves in this new duty. The congregations increased, and earnest or ambitious churchmen were incited to add fresh details to surpass previous tableaux.
But the Church is conservative. It required the lapse of hundreds of years to make plain the possibility of action and its advantages over motionless figures. Just before this next step was taken, or it may have been just after, two of the scholarly few mentioned as having not quite forgotten the Classical Drama, made an effort to revive its methods while bitting and bridling it carefully for holy purposes. Some one worthy brother (who was certainly not Gregory Nazianzene of the fourth century), living probably in the tenth century, wrote a play called Christ's Passion, in close imitation of Greek tragedy, even to the extent of quoting extensively from Euripides. In the same century a good and zealous nun of Saxony, Hroswitha by name, set herself to outrival Terence in his own realm and so supplant him in the studies of those who still read him to their souls' harm. She wrote, accordingly, six plays on the model of Terence's Comedies, supplying, for his profane themes, the histories of suffering martyrs and saintly maidens. It was a noble ambition (not the less noble because she failed); but it was not along the lines of her plays or of Christ's Passion that the New Drama was to develop. It is doubtful whether they were known outside a few convents.
In the tenth century the all-important step from tableau to dialogue and action had been taken. Its initiation is shrouded in obscurity, but may have been as follows. Ever since the sixth century Antiphons, or choral chants in which the two sides of the choir alternately respond to each other, had been firmly established in the Church service. For these, however, the words were fixed as unchangeably as are the words of our old Psalms. Nevertheless, the possibility of extending the application of antiphons began to be felt after, and as a first stage in that direction there was adopted a curious practice of echoing back expressive 'ah's' and 'oh's' in musical reply to certain vital passages not fitted with antiphons. Under skilful training this may have sounded quite effective, but it is natural to suppose that, the antiphonal extension having been made, the next stage was not long delayed. Suitable lines or texts (tropes) would soon be invented to fill the spaces, and immediately there sprang into being a means for providing dramatic dialogue. If once answers were admitted, composed to fit into certain portions of the service, there could be little objection to the composition of other questions to follow upon the previous answers. Religious conservatism kept invention within the strictest limits, so that to the end these liturgical responses were little more than slight modifications of the words of the Vulgate. But the dramatic element was there, with what potentiality we shall see.
So much for dramatic dialogue. Dramatic action would appear to have grown up with it, the one giving intensity to the other. The development of both, side by side, is interesting to trace from records preserved for us in old manuscripts. Considering the occasion first—for these 'attractions' were reserved for special festivals—we know that Easter was a favourite opportunity for elaborating the service. The events associated with Easter are in themselves intensely dramatic. They are also of supreme importance in the teaching of the Church: of all points in the creed none has a higher place than the belief in the Resurrection. Therefore the 'Burial' and the 'Rising again' called for particular elaboration. One of the earliest methods of driving these truths home to the hearts of the unlearned and unimaginative was to bury the crucifix for the requisite three days (a rite still observed in many churches by the removal of the cross from the altar), and then restore it to its exalted position; the simple act being done with much solemn prostration and creeping on hands and knees of those whose duty it was to bear the cross to its sepulchre. This sepulchre, it may be explained, was usually a wooden structure, painted with guardian soldiers, large enough to contain a tall crucifix or a man hidden, and occupying a prominent position in the church throughout the festival. Not infrequently it was made of more solid material, like the carved stone 'sepulchre' in Lincoln Cathedral.
A trope was next composed for antiphonal singing on Easter Monday, as follows:
Quem quaeritis? Jhesum Nazarenum. Non est hic; surrexit sicut praedixerat: ite, nuntiate quia surrexit a mortuis. Alleluia! resurrexit Dominus.
Now let us observe how action and dialogue combine. One of the clergy is selected to hide, as an angel, within the sepulchre. Towards it advance three others, to represent three women, peeping here, glancing there, as if they seek something. Presently a mysterious voice, proceeding out of the tomb, sings the opening question, 'Whom do you seek?' Sadly the three sing in reply, 'Jesus of Nazareth'. To this the first voice chants back, 'He is not here; he has risen as he foretold: go, declare to others that he has risen from the dead.' The three now burst forth in joyful acclamation with, 'Alleluia! the Lord has risen.' Then from the sepulchre issues a voice, 'Come and see the place,' the 'angel' standing up as he sings that all may see him, and opening the doors of the sepulchre to show clearly that the Lord is indeed risen. The empty shroud is held up before the people, while all four sing together, 'The Lord has risen from the tomb.' In procession they move to the altar and lay the shroud there; the choir breaks into the Te Deum, and the bells in the tower clash in triumph. It is the finale of the drama of Christ.
To illustrate at once the dramatic nature and the limitations of the dialogue as it was afterwards developed we give below a translation of part of one of these ceremonies, from a manuscript of the thirteenth century. The whole is an elaborated Quem quaeritis, and the part selected is that where Mary Magdalene approaches the Sepulchre for the second time, lamenting the theft of her Lord's body. Two Angels sitting within the tomb address her in song:
Angels. Woman, why weepest thou?
Mary. Because they have taken away my Lord, And I know not where they have laid him.
Angels. Weep not, Mary; the Lord has risen. Alleluia!
Mary. My heart is burning with desire To see my Lord; I seek but still I cannot find Where they have laid him. Alleluia!
[Meanwhile a certain one disguised as a gardener draws near and stands at the head of the sepulchre.]
He. Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou?
Mary. Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.
Mary [throwing herself at his feet]. Rabboni!
He [drawing back, as if to avoid her touch]. Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.
At Christmas a performance similar to the Quem quaeritis took place to signify the birth of Jesus, the 'sepulchre' being modified to serve for the Holy Infant's birthplace, and Shepherds instead of women being signified by those who advanced towards it. The antiphon was in direct imitation of the other, commencing 'Quem quaeritis in praesepe, pastores?' Another favourite representation at the same festival was that of the Magi. The development of this is of interest. In its simplest form, the three Magi (or Kings) advance straight up the church to the altar, their eyes fixed on a small lamp (the Star) lit above it; a member of the choir stationed there announces to them the birth of a Saviour; they present their offerings and withdraw. In a more advanced form the three Magi approach the altar separately from different directions, are guided by a moving 'star' down the central aisle to an altar to the Virgin, bestow their gifts there, fall asleep, are warned by an Angel, and return to the choir by a side aisle. For this version the service of song also is greatly enlarged. Another rendering of the story adds to it the interview between the Magi and Herod; yet others include a scene between Herod and his Councillors, and the announcement to Herod of the Magi's departure; still another extends the subject to include the Massacre of the Innocents. Finally the early Shepherd episode is tacked on at the beginning, the result being a lengthy performance setting forth in action the whole narrative of the birth and infancy of Jesus.
Here then is drama in its infancy. A great stride has been taken from the first crude burying of a crucifix to an animated union of dialogue and natural action. The scope of the Mystery (for so these representations were called) has been extended from a single incident to a series of closely connected scenes. In its fullest ecclesiastical form it consisted of five Epiphany Plays, of the Shepherds (or Pastores), the Magi (or Stella or Tres Reges), the Resurrection (or Quem quaeritis), the Disciples of Emmaus (or Peregrini), and the Prophets (or Prophetae), the last perhaps intended as a final proof from the Old Testament of Christ's Messianic nature. Four points, however, deserve to be noted. The language used is always Latin. The subject is always taken from the Bible. Close correspondence is maintained with the actual words of the Vulgate (compare the Magdalene dialogue with John xx. 13-17). The Mystery is performed in a church. Each point, it will be observed, imposes a serious limitation.
There was one play, however, which broke loose from most of these limitations, a play of St. Nicholas, written by one Hilarius early in the twelfth century. The same author composed a Mystery of Lazarus, and an elaborate representation of Daniel, which must have made large demands on the Church's supply of 'stage properties'. But his St. Nicholas is the only one that interests us here. To begin with, the title informs us that the subject is not drawn from the Bible. The words, therefore, are at the discretion of the author. Further, though the medium is mostly Latin, the native language of the spectators has been slipped in, to render a few recurrent phrases or refrains. The story is quite simple, and humorous, and is as follows:
The image of St. Nicholas stands in a Christian church. Into the church comes a pagan barbarian; he is about to go on a long journey, and desires to leave his treasure in a safe place. Having heard of the reputation of St. Nicholas as the patron of property, he lays his riches at the foot of the statue, and in four Latin verses of song commits them to the saint's safe-keeping. No sooner is he gone, however, than thieves steal in silently and remove the booty. Presently the barbarian returns, discovers his loss, charges the image with faithlessness, and, snatching up a whip, threatens it with a thrashing if the treasure is not brought back. He withdraws, presumably, after this, to give St. Nicholas an opportunity to amend matters. Whereupon one representing the real celestial St. Nicholas suddenly appears, perhaps from behind a curtain at the rear of the image, and seeks out the thieves. He threatens them with exposure and torment unless they restore their plunder; they give in; and St. Nicholas goes back to his concealment. When the barbarian returns, his delight is naturally very great at perceiving so complete an atonement for the saint's initial oversight. Indeed his appreciation is so genuine that it only needs a few words from the reappearing Saint to persuade him to accept Christianity.—Monologue and dialogue are throughout in song. The following is one of the three verses in which the barbarian proclaims his loss; the last two lines in the vernacular are the same for all.
Gravis sors et dura! Hic reliqui plura, Sed sub mala cura. Des! quel dommage! Qui pert la sue chose purque n'enrage.
A play of this sort, dealing with the wonder-working of a Saint, became known as a Miracle Play, to differentiate it from the Mystery Plays based on Bible stories.
St. Nicholas would be performed in a church. But there is a probably contemporaneous Norman Mystery Play, Adam, of unknown authorship, which shows that the move from the church to the open air was already being made. This play was performed just outside the church door, and though the staging remains a matter of conjecture, it may be reasonably assumed that the church represented Heaven, and that the three parts of a projecting stage served respectively as Paradise (Eden), Earth, and Hell (covered in, with side doors). The manuscript of the play (found at Tours) supplies careful directions for staging and acting, as follows:
A Paradise is to be made in a raised spot, with curtains and cloths of silk hung round it at such a height that persons in the Paradise may be visible from the shoulders upwards. Fragrant flowers and leaves are to be set round about, and divers trees put therein with hanging fruit, so as to give the likeness of a most delicate spot. Then must come the Saviour, clothed in a dalmatic, and Adam and Eve be brought before him. Adam is to wear a red tunic and Eve a woman's robe of white, with a white silk cloak; and they are both to stand before the Figure (God), Adam the nearer with composed countenance, while Eve appears somewhat more modest. And the Adam must be well trained when to reply and to be neither too quick nor too slow in his replies. And not only he, but all the personages must be trained to speak composedly, and to fit convenient gesture to the matter of their speech. Nor must they foist in a syllable or clip one of the verse, but must enounce firmly and repeat what is set down for them in due order. Whosoever names Paradise is to look and point towards it.
Glancing through the story we find that Adam and Eve are led into Paradise, God first giving them counsel as to what they shall and shall not do, and then retiring into the church. The happy couple are allowed a brief time in which to demonstrate their joy in the Garden. Then Satan approaches from Hell and draws Adam into conversation over the barrier. His attempt to lure Adam to his Fall is vain, nor is he more successful the first time with Eve. But as a serpent he over-persuades her to eat of the forbidden fruit, and she gives it to Adam, with the well-known result. In his guilt Adam now withdraws out of sight, changes his red tunic for a costume contrived out of leaves, and reappears in great grief. God enters from the church and, after delivering his judgment upon the crime, drives Adam and Eve out of Eden. With spade and hoe they pass under the curse of labour on the second stage, toiling there with most disappointing results (Satan sows tares in their field) until the end comes. Let the manuscript speak for itself again:
Then shall come the Devil and three or four devils with him, carrying in their hands chains and iron fetters, which they shall put on the necks of Adam and Eve. And some shall push and others pull them to hell: and hard by hell shall be other devils ready to meet them, who shall hold high revel at their fall. And certain other devils shall point them out as they come, and shall snatch them up and carry them into hell; and there shall they make a great smoke arise, and call aloud to each other with glee in their hell, and clash their pots and kettles, that they may be heard without. And after a little delay the devils shall come out and run about the stage; but some shall remain in hell.
Immediately after this conclusion comes a shorter play of Cain and Abel, followed in its turn by another on the Prophets; but in all three the catastrophe is the same—mocking, exultant devils, and a noisy, smoky 'inferno'.
The most important characteristics of Adam are the venturesome removal of the play outside the sacred building, the increase in invented dialogue beyond the limits of the Bible narrative, and the 'by-play' conceded to popular taste. The last two easily followed from the first. Within a church there is an atmosphere of sanctity, a spirit of prohibition, which must, even in the Middle Ages, have had a restrictive effect upon the elements of innovation and naturalness. The good people of the Bible, the saints, had to live up to their reputation in every small word and deed so long as their statues, images, and pictures gazed down fixedly from the walls upon their living representatives. This was so much a fact that to the very end Bible and Saint plays conceded licence of action and speech only to those nameless persons, such as the soldiers, Pharisees, and shepherds, who never attained to the distinction of individual statues, and who could never be invoked in prayer. Out of sight of these effigies and paintings, however, the oppression was at once lightened. True, these model folk could not be permitted to decline from their prescribed standards, but they might be allowed companions of more homely tastes, and the duly authorized wicked ones, such as the Devil, Cain, and Herod, might display their iniquity to the full without offence. Thus it is that in this play we find great prominence given to the Devil and his brother demons. They would delight the common people: therefore the author misses no opportunity of securing applause for his production by their antics. Throughout the play we meet with such stage directions as 'the devils are to run about the stage with suitable gestures', or the Devil 'shall make a sally amongst the people'. In this last the seeing eye can already detect the presence of that close intimacy between the play and the people which was to make the drama a 'national possession' in England. The devil, with his grimaces and gambols, was one of themselves, was a true rustic at heart, and they shrieked and shouted with delight as he pinched their arms or slapped them on the back. The freer invention in dialogue is equally plain. Much that is said by Adam and the Devil has no place in the scriptural account of the Fall, and the importance of this for the development of these dramas cannot be exaggerated.
The move into the open air was not accidental. Every year these sacred plays drew larger congregations to the festival service. Every year the would-be spectators for whom the church could not find standing room grumbled more loudly. In the churchyard (which was still within the holy precincts) there was ample space for all. So into the churchyard the performers went. The valuable result of this was the creation of a raised stage, made necessary for the first time by the crushing of the people. But alas, what could be said for the sanctity of the graves when throngs trampled down the well-kept grass, and groups of men and women fought for the possession of the most recent mounds as highest points of vantage? Those whose dead lay buried there raised effectual outcries against this desecration. To go back into the church seemed impossible. The next move had to be into the street. It was at this point that there set in that alienation of the Church from the Stage which was never afterwards removed. Clerical actors were forbidden to play in the streets. As an inevitable consequence, the learned language, Latin, was replaced more and more by the people's own tongue. Soon the festivals assumed a nature which the stricter clergy could not view with approval. From miles around folk gathered together for merriment and trading. There were bishops who now denounced public plays as instruments of the devil.
Thus the drama, having outgrown its infancy, passed from the care of the Church into the hands of the Laity. It took with it a tradition of careful acting, a store of Biblical subjects, a fair variety of characters—including a thundering Herod and a mischievous Devil—and some measure of freedom in dialogue. It gained a native language and a boundless popularity. But for many long years after the separation the Epiphany Plays continued to be acted in the churches, and by their very existence possibly kept intact the link with religion which preserved for the public Mysteries and Miracles an attitude of soberness and reverence in the hearts of their spectators. The so-called Coventry Play of the fifteenth century is a testimony to the persistence of the serious religious element in the final stage of these popular Bible plays.
[Footnote 1: Mr. E.K. Chambers's translation.]
[Footnote 2: Mr. E.K. Chambers's translation.]
ENGLISH MIRACLE PLAYS
Most of what has been said hitherto has referred to the rise of religious plays on the continent. The first recorded presentation of a play in England occurred in Dunstable—under the management of a schoolmaster, Geoffrey—about the year 1110. Probably, therefore, the drama was part of the new civilization brought over by the Normans, and came in a comparatively well-developed form. The title of Geoffrey's play, St. Katherine, points to its having been of the St. Nicholas type, a true Miracle Play, belonging to a much later stage of development than the early Pastores or Quem Quaeritis?. We need not look, then, for shadowy gropings along the dramatic path. Instead we may expect to find from the very commencement a fair grasp of essentials and a rapidly maturing belief that the people were better guardians of the new art than the Church.
We know nothing of St. Katherine except its name. Of contemporary plays also we know practically nothing. A writer of the late twelfth century tells us that Saint Plays were well favoured in London. This statement, coupled with the fact that all sacred plays, saintly wonder-workings and Bible stories alike, were called Miracles in England, gives a measure of support to Ten Brink's suggestion that the English people at first shrank from the free treatment of Bible stories on the stage, until their natural awe and reverence had become accustomed to presentations of their favourite saints.
Passing over the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, therefore, as centuries in which the idea of the drama was filtering through the nation and adapting itself to its new audiences, we take up the story again in the fourteenth century, before the end of which we know that there were completed the four great plays still preserved to us—the Chester, Wakefield, York, and Coventry Miracles. Early in that century the Pope created the festival of Corpus Christi (about the middle of June). To this festival we must fix most of our attention.
Glancing back a few pages we shall recall the elaboration of the play of the Magi from one bare incident to what was really a connected series of episodes from the scene of the 'Shepherds' to the 'Massacre of the Innocents'. It grew by the addition of scene to scene until the series was complete. But the 'Massacre of the Innocents' only closed the Christmas story. For the festival of Easter fresh ground must be broken in order that the 'Passion' might be fittingly set forth, and, in fact, we know that both stories in full detail eventually found a place in the more ambitious churches, any difficulty due to their length being overcome by extending the duration of the festivals. Then a time came when, even as St. Matthew was anxious to lay the foundations of his Gospel firm and sure in the past, so some writer of Bible plays desired to preface his life of Jesus with a statement of the reason for His birth, and the 'Fall of Man' was inserted. In writing such an introductory play he set going another possible series. To explain the Serpent's part in the 'Fall' there was wanted a prefatory play on 'Satan's Revolt in Heaven', and to demonstrate the swift consequence of the 'Fall', another play on 'Cain and Abel'; the further story of the 'Flood' would represent the spread of wickedness over the earth; in fact, the possible development could be bounded only by the wide limits of the entire Bible, and, of more immediate influence, by the restrictions of time. That this extension of theme was not checked until these latter limits had been reached may be judged from the fact that in one place it was customary to start the play between four or five o'clock in the morning, acting it scene after scene until daylight failed. But this was when the Corpus Christi festival had become the chief dramatic season, combining in its performances the already lengthy series associated respectively with Christmas and Easter. Between the 'Massacre of the Innocents' and the 'Betrayal' (the point at which the Easter play usually started) a few connecting scenes were introduced, after which the Corpus Christi play could fairly claim to be a complete story of 'The Fall and Redemption of Man'. Admittedly of crude literary form, yet full of reverence and moral teaching, and with powers of pathos and satire above the ordinary, it became one single play, the sublimest of all dramas. To regard it as a collection of separate small plays is a fatal mistake—fatal both to our understanding of the single scenes and to our comprehension of the whole.
Yet the space at our disposal forbids our dealing here with every scene of any given play (or cycle, as a complete series is commonly called). The most that can be done is to give a list of the subjects of the scenes, and specimens of the treatment of a selected few. This list, however, should not be glanced through lightly and rapidly. The title of each scene should be paused over and the details associated with the title recalled. In no other way can the reader hope to comprehend the play in its fullness.
Here are the scenes of the Coventry Play.
1. The Creation. 2. The Fall of Man. 3. Cain and Abel. 4. Noah's Flood. 5. Abraham's Sacrifice. 6. Moses and the Two Tables. 7. The Prophets. 8. The Barrenness of Anna. 9. Mary in the Temple. 10. Mary's Betrothment. 11. The Salutation and Conception. 12. Joseph's Return. 13. The Visit to Elizabeth. 14. The Trial of Joseph and Mary. 15. The Birth of Christ. 16. The Adoration of the Shepherds. 17. The Adoration of the Magi. 18. The Purification. 19. The Slaughter of the Innocents. 20. Christ Disputing in the Temple. 21. The Baptism of Christ. 22. The Temptation. 23. The Woman taken in Adultery. 24. Lazarus. 25. The Council of the Jews. 26. The Entry into Jerusalem. 27. The Last Supper. 28. The Betraying of Christ. 29. King Herod. 30. The Trial of Christ. 31. Pilate's Wife's Dream. 32. The Condemnation and Crucifixion of Christ. 33. The Descent into Hell. 34. The Burial of Christ. 35. The Resurrection. 36. The Three Maries. 37. Christ Appearing to Mary. 38. The Pilgrim of Emaus. 39. The Ascension. 40. The Descent of the Holy Ghost. 41. The Assumption of the Virgin. 42. Doomsday.
One dominant characteristic is observed by every student of the original play, namely, the maintenance of a lofty elevation of tone wherever the sacredness of the subject demands it. The simple dramatic freedom of that day brought God and Heaven upon the stage, and exhibited Jesus in every circumstance of his life and death; yet on no occasion does the play descend from the high standard of reverence which such a subject demanded, or derogate from the dignity of the celestial Father and Son. That this was partly due to the Bible will be admitted at once. But there is great credit due to the writer (or writers) who could keep so true a sense of proportion that in scenes even of coarse derision, almost bordering on buffoonery, the central figure remained unsoiled and unaffected by his surroundings. A writer less filled with the religious sense must have been strongly tempted to descend to biting dialogue, in which his hero should silence his adversaries by superiority in the use of their own weapon. A truer instinct warned our author that any such scene must immediately tend to a lowering of character. He refused, and from his pen is sent forth a Man whose conduct and speech are unassailably above earthly taint, who is, amongst men, Divine.
Observe the impressive note struck in the opening verse. God stands amidst his angels, prepared to exercise his sovereign wisdom in the work of creation.
My name is knowyn, God and kynge, My werk for to make now wyl I wende, In myself restyth my reynenge, It hath no gynnyng ne non ende; And alle that evyr xal have beynge, It is closyd in my mende, Whan it is made at my lykynge, I may it save, I may it shende, After my plesawns. So gret of myth is my pouste, Alle thyng xal be wrowth be me, I am oo God in personys thre, Knyt in oo substawns.
But before the world can be made, a rebellion has to be stamped out, and the same scene presents the overthrow of Satan—not after days of doubtful battle as Milton later pictured it, but in a moment at the word of the Almighty, 'I bydde the ffalle from hefne to helle'. At once follows the creation of the world and man.
Scene 2 brings Adam and Eve before us, rejoicing in the abundant delights of Eden. The guiding principle of the scene is the folly and wickedness of the Fall. Here is no thought of excuse for silly Eve. With every good around her, and with God's prohibition unforgotten, she chooses disobedience, and drags Adam after her. But Adam's guilt is no less than hers. The writer had not Milton at his elbow to teach him how to twist the Bible narrative into an argument for the superiority of man. Adam yields to the same sophistry as led Eve astray; and sin, rushing in with the suddenness of swallowed poison, finds its first home not in her breast but in his. The awful doom follows. In the desolation that succeeds, the woman's bitter sorrow is allowed to move our pity at last. Eating at her heart is the thought, 'My husbond is lost because of me', so that in her agony she begs Adam to slay her.
Now stomble we on stalk and ston, My wyt awey is fro me gon, Wrythe on to my necke bon, With hardnesse of thin honde.
Adam says what he can to console her, but without much success. The scene ends with her lamenting.
The foul contagion, spreading over the earth, has been washed out in the Flood and a fresh start made before Scene 5 introduces Abraham. In an earlier paragraph we have spoken of the pathos of which these plays were capable. Here in this scene it may be found. Abraham is, before all things else, a father; Isaac is the apple of his eye. When as yet no cloud fills the sky with the gloom of sacrifice, the old man exults in his glorious possession, a son. Isaac is standing a little apart when his father turns with outstretched arms, exclaiming
Now, suete sone, ffayre fare thi fface, fful hertyly do I love the, ffor trewe herty love now in this place, My swete childe, com, kysse now me.
Holding him still in his arms the fond parent gives him good counsel, to honour Almighty God, to 'be sett to serve oure Lord God above'. And then, left alone for a while, Abraham, on his knees, thanks God for His exceeding favour in sending him this comfort in his old age.
Ther may no man love bettyr his childe, Than Isaac is lovyd of me; Almyghty God, mercyful and mylde, ffor my swete son I wurchyp the! I thank the, Lord, with hert ful fre, ffor this fayr frute thou hast me sent. Now, gracyous God, wher so he be, To save my sone evyr more be bent.
'To save my sone'—that is the petition of his full heart on the eve of his trial. Almost at once the command comes, to kill the well-beloved as an offering to his Giver. And Abraham bows low in heartbroken obedience. Well may the child say, as he trots by the old man's side with a bundle of faggots on his shoulder, and looks up wonderingly at the wrinkled face drawn and blanched with anguish, 'ffayr fadyr, ye go ryght stylle; I pray yow, fadyr, speke onto me.' At such a time a man does well to bind his tongue with silence. Yet when at last the secret is confessed, it finds the lad's spirit brave to meet his fate. Perhaps the writer had read, not long before, of the steadfastness with which children met persecution in the days of the Early Christian Church. For he gives us, in Isaac, a boy ready to die if his father wills it so, happy to strengthen that will by cheerful resignation if God's command is behind it. At the rough altar's side Abraham's resolution fails him; from his lips bursts the half-veiled protest, 'The ffadyr to sle the sone! My hert doth clynge and cleve as clay'. But the lad encourages him, bidding him strike quickly, yet adding sympathetically that his father should turn his face away as he smites. The conquest is won. Love and duty conflict no longer. Only two simple acts remain for love's performance: 'My swete sone, thi mouth I kys'; and when that last embrace is over, 'With this kerchere I kure (cover) thi face', so that the priest may not see the victim's agony. Then duty raises the knife aloft, and as it pauses in the air before its fearful descent the Angel speaks—and saves.
The moving character of the opening, leading up to the sudden catastrophe and, by its tragic contrast with what follows, throwing a vivid ray into the very centre and soul of that wonderful trial of faith; the natural sequence and diversity of emotions, love, pride, thankfulness, horror, submission, grief, resolution, and final joy and gratitude following each other like light and shadow; the little touches, the suggestion to turn the face aside, the last kiss, the handkerchief to hide the blue eyes of innocence; these are all, however crude the technique, of the very essence of the highest art.
As will be seen from the list, only two scenes more refer to Old Testament history, and then Jesus, whom the author has already intended to foreshadow in Isaac (whence the lad's submission to his father's will), begins to loom before us. The writer's religious creed prompted him to devote considerable space to Mary, the mother of Jesus; for she is to be the link between her Son and humanity, and therefore must be shown free from sin from her birth. The same motive gives us a clue to the character of Joseph. That nothing may be wanting to give whiteness to the purity of Mary, she is implicitly contrasted with the crude rusticity and gaffer-like obstinacy of her aged husband. He is just such an old hobbling wiseacre as may be found supporting his rheumatic joints with a thick stick in any Dorsetshire village. He is an old man before he is required to marry her, and his protests against the proposed union, accompanied with many a shake of the head, recall to modern readers the humour of Mr. Thomas Hardy. This is how he receives the announcement when at length his bowed legs have, with sundry rests by the wayside, covered the distance between his home and the Temple where Mary and the Priest await him:
What, xuld I wedde? God forbede! I am an old man, so God me spede, And with a wyff now to levyn in drede, It wore neyther sport nere game.
He is told that it is God's will. Even the beauty of the bride-elect is delicately referred to as an inducement. In vain. To all he replies:
A! shuld I have here? ye lese my lyff: Alas! dere God, xuld I now rave? An old man may nevyr thryff With a yonge wyff, so God me save! Nay, nay, sere, lett bene, Xuld I now in age begynne to dote, If I here chyde she wolde clowte my cote, Blere myn ey, and pyke out a mote, And thus oftyn tymes it is sene.
Eventually, of course, he is won over; but the author promptly packs him into a far district as soon as the ceremony is over, nor does he permit him to return to Mary's side until long after the Annunciation.
'The Adoration of the Magi' (Scene 17) introduces us to a very notable person, no other than Herod, the model of each 'robustious periwig-pated fellow' who on the stage would 'tear a passion to tatters, to very rags', and so out-herod Herod. He is of old standing, a veteran of the Church Epiphany plays, and has already learnt 'to split the ears of the groundlings' with the stentorian sound of his pompous rhetoric. Hear him declaim:
As a lord in ryalte in non regyon so ryche, And rulere of alle remys, I ryde in ryal aray; Ther is no lord of lond in lordchep to me lyche, Non lofflyere, non lofsumere,—evyr lestyng is my lay: Of bewte and of boldnes I bere evermore the belle; Of mayn and of myght I master every man; I dynge with my dowtynes the devyl down to helle, ffor bothe of hevyn and of herthe I am kynge sertayn.
In Scene 19 we hear him issuing his cruel order for the killing of the children. But when the foul deed is done there await the murderer two kings whom he cannot slay, Death and the Devil. A banquet is in full swing, Herod's officers are about him, the customary rant and bombast is on his lips when those two steal in. 'While the trumpets are sounding, Death slays Herod and his two soldiers suddenly, and the Devil receives them'—so runs the terse Latin stage-direction.
Of the Devil we have more than enough in Scene 22, for it opens with an infernal council, Sathanas, Belyalle, and Belsabub debating the best means of testing the divinity of Jesus and of thereby making sure whether or no another lord has been placed over them. The plan decided upon is the Temptation. But great is Satan's downfall. 'Out, out, harrow! alas! alas!' is the cry (one that had become very familiar to his audience) as he hastens back to Hell, leaving the Heavenly Hero crowned with glorious victory. This is one of several scenes chosen by the author for the glorifying of his central character. Perhaps they culminate in 'The Entry into Jerusalem'.
The scenes that now succeed each other, marking each stage of the sorrowful descent to death, are notable chiefly for that quality to which attention has already been drawn, namely, the dignity which surrounds the character of the Hero. This dignity is not accidental. On the contrary it would have been easy to fall into the error of exciting so much compassion that the sufferer became a pitiably crushed victim of misfortune. With much skill the writer places his most pathetic lines in the mouths of the two Maries, diverts upon them the sharpest edge of our pity, and never for a moment allows Jesus to appear overwhelmed. When a Jew, in 'The Trial of Christ', speaks in terms of low insolence, addressing him as 'thou, fela (fellow)' and striking him on the cheek, Jesus replies:
Yf I have seyd amys, Thereof wytnesse thou mayst bere; And yf I have seyd but weyl in this, Tho dost amys me to dere.
Again, in answer to Cayphas's outrageous scream of fury, 'Spek man, spek! spek, thou fop!... I charge the and conjure, be the sonne and the mone, that thou telle us and (if) thou be Goddys sone!', Jesus says calmly, 'Goddys sone I am, I sey not nay to the!' Still later in the same scene, the silence of Jesus before Herod (sustained through forty lines or more of urging and vile abuse, besides cruel beatings) lifts Him into infinite superiority over the blustering, bullying judge and his wretched instruments. It is true that the Bible gives the facts, but with the freedom allowed to the dramatist the excellence of the original might have been so easily spoilt.
To Mary is reserved perhaps the deepest note of pathos within the play. The scene is 'The Crucifixion of Christ', and she is represented lying at the foot of the Cross. Jesus has invoked God's forgiveness for His murderers, He has promised salvation to the repentant thief, but to her He has said nothing, and the omission sends a fear to her heart like the blackness of midnight. Has she, unconsciously, by some chance word or deed, lost His love at the close of life? The thought is too terrible.
O my sone! my sone! my derlyng dere! What have I defendyd the? Thou hast spoke to alle tho that ben here, And not o word thou spekyst to me!
To the Jewys thou art ful kende, Thou hast forgeve al here mysdede; And the thef thou hast in mende, For onys haskyng mercy hefne is his mede.
A! my sovereyn Lord, why whylt thou not speke To me that am thi modyr in peyn for thi wrong? A! hert! hert! why whylt thou not breke? That I were out of this sorwe so stronge!
The remaining scenes bring on the final triumph of the Hero over Death and Hell, and the culmination of the great theme of the play in the Redemption of Man. Adam is restored, not indeed to the Garden of Eden, but to a supernal Paradise.
Certain common features of the Miracles remain to be pointed out before we close our volume of the Coventry Play, for it will provide us with examples of most of them.
One of the first things that strike us is the absence of dramatic rules. Not an absence of dramatic cohesion. To its audience, for whom the story of the Mission of Jesus still retained its freshness, each scene unfolded a further stage in the rescue of man from the bondage of Hell. It is not a mere matter of chronology. The order may be the order of the sacred chronicle, but to these early audiences it was also the order of a sacred drama. The 'Sacrifice of Isaac' is not merely the next event of importance after the 'Flood': it is a dramatic forecast of the last sacrifice of all, the Sacrifice of Christ. Even though we admit, as in some cases we must, that the Plays are heterogeneous products of many hands working separately, and therefore without dramatic regard for other scenes, it is not unreasonable to suppose that when the official text was decided upon, the several scenes may have been accommodated to the interests of the whole. Moreover, the innate relationship of scenes drawn from the Bible gives of itself a certain dramatic cohesion. Of the so-called Dramatic Unities of Time and Place, however, there is no suggestion; there is no unity of characters; there is no consideration of what may be shocking, what pleasing as a spectacle. Whoever saw the whole play through was hurried through thousands of years, was carried from heaven to earth and down to hell; he beheld kings, shepherds, high priests, executioners, playing their parts with equal effect and only distinguished by the splendour or meanness of their apparel; he was a witness to Satan's overthrow, to Abel's death, and was a spectator at the flogging and crucifixion of Jesus. It is easy for those acquainted with the later drama (of Greene especially) to see the direct line of descent from these Miracles to the Shakespearian stage.
One interesting feature of these plays is the frequent appearance of Angels and Devils on the stage. This accustomed the audience to the entrance of the supernatural, in solid form, into the realm of the natural; and paved the way for those most substantial ghosts which showed themselves so much at home on the Elizabethan stage. We should be not far wrong, perhaps, in describing the later introduction of the Senecan Ghost into English drama as an innovation only in name: the supernatural had been a familiar factor in heightening dramatic interest long before The Misfortunes of Arthur or The Spanish Tragedy were written.—Of the Devils even more may be said. Their picturesque attire, their endless pranks (not set down in the text), their reappearance and disappearance at the most unexpected times, their howls and familiar 'Harrow and owt! owt and alas!' were a constant delight, and preserved their popularity unexhausted for two hundred years, securing for them a place in the later forms of drama when the Miracles were supplanted by Moralities and Interludes. The Devil's near cousin, Herod, attained to a similar reputation and longevity. Has even modern melodrama quite lost that immortal type of the ranting, bombastic tyrant and villain?
The women in the play deserve notice. With the exception of Noah's wife, who was commonly treated in a broadly humorous vein, the principal female characters possess that sweet naturalness, depth and constancy of affection, purity and refinement which an age that had not yet lost the ideals of chivalry accepted as the normal qualities of a good woman. The mothers, wives, and daughters of that day would appear to have been before all things womanly, in an unaffected, instinctive way. Isaac (in the Chester Miracle Play), thinking, in the hour of death, of his mother's grief at home, says, 'Father, tell my mother for no thinge.' When Mary is married (Coventry Play) and must part from her mother, they bid farewell in this wise:
Anna. I pray the, Mary, my swete chylde, Be lowe and buxhum, meke and mylde, Sad and sobyr and nothyng wylde, And Goddys blessynge thou have....
Goddys grace on you sprede, ffarewel, Mary, my swete fflowre, ffareweyl, Joseph, and God you rede, ffareweyl my chylde and my tresowre, ffarewel, my dowtere yyng.
Maria. ffarewel, fadyr and modyr dere, At you I take my leve ryght here, God that sytt in hevyn so clere, Have you in his kepyng.
The heartbroken words of Mary at the foot of the Cross have already been quoted. In the reconciliation between Joseph and Mary (Scene 12), in Mary's patient endurance of Joseph's bad temper on the journey to Bethlehem (Scene 15), in the mother's unrestrained misery at the loss of the boy Jesus and rapture on finding Him in the Temple (Scene 20), in the two sisters' forced cheerfulness by the bedside of the dying Lazarus and their sorrow at his death—nor do these by any means exhaust the number of favourable instances—there may be seen the basic elements, as it were, which, more deftly handled and blended, gave to the English stage the world's rarest gallery of noble women.
Darkness and grief are so woven into the substance of the Bible narrative that we should indeed have been surprised if the tragic note had not been sounded often throughout the play. That it could be sounded well, too, will have been seen from various references and from the Scene of Abraham's Sacrifice. Nevertheless, tragedy is a less interesting, less original, less English element than the comedy which pops up its head here, there, and everywhere. It is really a part of that absence of dramatic rules already indicated, this easy conjunction of tragedy and comedy in the same scene. English audiences never could be persuaded to forgo their laugh. After all, it was near neighbour to their tears throughout life; then why not on the stage? A funeral was not the less a warning to the living because it was rounded off with a feast. Nor was Jesus on the Cross robbed of any of the majesty and silent eloquence of vicarious suffering by the vulgar levity of those who bade him 'Take good eyd (heed) to oure corn, and chare (scare) awey the crowe'. The strong sentiment of reverence set limits to the application of this humour. Only minor characters were permitted to express themselves in this way. The soldiers at the Sepulchre, the Judaeans at the Cross, the 'detractors' in Scene 14, certain mocking onlookers in Scene 40, these and others of similar stage rank spoke the coarse jests that set free the laugh when tears were too near the surface.—These common fellows, by the way, are the prototypes of the familiar Citizens, Soldiers, Watch, of a later date: the Miracles were fertile in 'originals'.—Some characters there were, however, more individual, more of consequence than these, who attained to an established reputation for their humour. The Devil's pranks have been referred to; Joseph's rusticity also; and the obstinacy of Noah's wife has been obscurely hinted at. Her gift lay in preferring the company of her good gossips to the select family gathering assembled in the Ark, and in playing with Noah's ears very soundingly when at length she was forcibly dragged into safety. Two short extracts from the Chester Miracle will illustrate her humour.
Noye. Wyffe, in this vessel we shall be kepte, My children and thou; I would in ye lepte.
Noyes Wiffe. In fayth, Noye, I hade as leffe thou slepte! For all thy frynishe fare, I will not doe after thy reade.
Noye. Good wyffe, doe nowe as I thee bydde.
Noyes Wiffe. Be Christe! not or I see more neede, Though thou stande all the daye and stare.
Noye. Lorde, that wemen be crabbed aye, And non are meke, I dare well saye; This is well seene by me to daye, In witnesse of you ichone.
Jeffate. Mother, we praye you all together, For we are heare, youer owne childer, Come into the shippe for feare of the weither, For his love that you boughte!
Noyes Wiffe. That will not I, for all youer call, But I have my gossippes all.
Sem. In faith, mother, yett you shalle, Wheither thou wylte or [nought].
Noye. Welckome, wiffe, into this botte.
Noyes Wiffe. Have thou that for thy note!
Noye. Ha, ha! marye, this is hotte! It is good for to be still.
[The reader will easily supply for himself appropriate stage-directions.]
But of all these comic characters none developed so excellent a genius for winning laughter as the Shepherds who 'watched their flocks by night, all seated on the ground'. To see them at their best we must turn to the Wakefield (or Towneley) Miracle Play and read the pastoral scene (or, rather, two scenes) there. Here we come face to face with rustics pure and simple, downright moorland shepherds, homely, grumbling, coarsely clad, warm-hearted, abashed by a woman's tongue, rough in their sports. The real old Yorkshire stock of nearly six hundred years ago rises into life as we read.
In the first scene a beginning is made by the entrance of a single shepherd, grumpy, frost-bitten, and growling rebelliously against the probably widely resented practice of purveyance whereby a nobleman might exact from his farm-tenantry provisions and service for his needs, even though the farmer's own land should suffer from neglect in consequence. Thus he says,
No wonder, as it standys, if we be poore, For the tylthe of oure landys lyys falow as the floore, As ye ken. We ar so hamyd, For-taxed and ramyd, We ar mayde hand-tamyd, Withe thyse gentlery men. Thus they refe us oure rest, Oure Lady theym wary! These men that ar lord-fest, thay cause the ploghe tary. That men say is for the best we fynde it contrary. Thus ar husbandys opprest, in pointe to myscary, On lyfe.
By way of excuse for his grumblings he adds in conclusion,
It dos me good, as I walk thus by myn oone, Of this warld for to talk in maner of mone.
The second shepherd, who enters next, has other grounds for discontent. He, poor man, has a vixen for a wife.
As sharp as thystille, as rugh as a brere, She is browyd lyke a brystylle, with a sowre loten chere; Had she oones well hyr whystyll she couth syng fulle clere Hyr pater noster. She is as greatt as a whalle She has a galon of galle.
Conversation opens between the two, but rapidly comes to a dispute. Fortunately the timely arrival of a third shepherd dissipates the cloud, and they are quite ready to hear his complaints—this time of wide-spreading floods—coupled with further reflections on the hard conditions of a shepherd's lot. By this time the circle is complete, and a good supper and song are produced to ratify the general harmony. But now enters the element of discord which forms the pivot of the second scene. Mak, a boorish fellow shrewdly suspected of sheep stealing, joins them, and, after some chaffing, is allowed to share their grassy bed. In the night he rises, picks out the finest ram from the flock, drives it home, and hides it in the cradle. He then returns to his place between two of the shepherds. As he foresaw, morning brings discovery, suspicion and search. The three shepherds proceed to Mak's home, only to be confronted with the well concocted story that his wife, having just become the mother of a sturdy son, must on no account be disturbed. On this point apparently a compromise is effected, the search to be executed on tip-toe, for the shepherds do somewhat poke and pry about, yet under so sharp a fire of abuse as to render them nervous of pressing their investigations too closely. Thus they pass the cradle by, and all would have gone well with Mak but for that same warm-heartedness of which we spoke earlier. They are already out of the house when a true Christmas thought flashes into the mind of one of them.
1st Shepherd. Gaf ye the chyld any thyng?
2nd Shepherd. I trow not oone farthyng.
3rd Shepherd. Fast agayne wille I flyng, Abyde ye me there.
[He returns to the house, the others following.]
Mak, take it no grefe if I com to thi barne.
Mak. Nay, thou dos me greatt reprefe, and fowlle has thou farne.
3rd Shepherd. The child wille it not grefe, that lytylle day starne? Mak, with youre leyfe, let me gyf youre barne Bot vj pence.
Mak. Nay, do way: he slepys.
3rd Shepherd. Me thynk he pepys.
Mak. When he wakyns he wepys. I pray you go hence.
3rd Shepherd. Gyf me lefe hym to kys, and lyft up the clowtt. What the dewille is this? he has a long snowte.
The cat is out of the bag. Mak, with an assurance worthy of a better cause, declines to believe their report of the cradle's contents, and his wife comes nimbly to his aid with the startling explanation that it is her son without doubt, for she saw him transformed by a fairy into this misshapen changeling precisely on the stroke of twelve. Not so, however, are the shepherds to be persuaded to disbelieve their eyes. Instead Mak gets a good tossing in a blanket for his pains, the exertion of which sentence reduces the three to such drowsiness that soon they are fast asleep again. From their slumber they are awakened by the Angel's Song; upon which follows their journey with gifts to the newborn King.
Peculiar to the Coventry Miracle Play is the introduction of a new type of character, unhuman, unreal, a mere embodied quality. In Scene 9, where Mary is handed over by her parents to the care of the High Priest at the Temple, she finds provided for her as companions the five maidens, Meditation, Contrition, Compassion, Cleanness and Fruition, while near by await her seven teachers, Discretion, Devotion, Dilection, Deliberation, Declaration, Determination and Divination, a goodly company of Doctors indeed. Of all these intangible figures one only, Milton's 'cherub Contemplation', speaks, but the rest are quite obviously represented on the stage, though whether all in flesh and blood may be matter for uncertainty. Much more talkative, on the other hand, are similar abstractions in Scene 11. Here, in the presence of God, Contemplation and the Virtues having appealed for an extension of mercy and forgiveness to man, Truth, Pity and Justice discuss the question of Redemption from their particular points of view until God interposes with his decision in its favour. Mention of this innovation in the Miracle Play seems advisable at this point, though its bearing on later drama will be more clearly seen in the next chapter.
Little need be said of the verse commonly used in Miracles, save to point out the preference for stanzas and for triple and quadruple rhymes. An examination of the verses quoted will reveal something as to the variety of forms adopted. Those cited from Scenes 1, 4, and 32 illustrate three types, while another favourite of the Coventry author takes the following structure (A), with a variant in lines of half the length (B):
Wendyth fforthe, ye women thre, Into the strete of Galyle; Your Savyour ther xul ye se Walkynge in the waye. Your ffleschely lorde now hath lyff, That deyd on tre with strook and stryff; Wende fforthe, thou wepynge wyff, And seke hym, I the saye. (Scene 36.)
(B) Senescallus (to Herod).
Sere kyng in trone, Here comyth anone By strete and stone Kynges thre. They bere present,— What thei have ment. Ne whedyr they arn bent, I cannot se. (Scene 17.)
Reference to the quotation from the Wakefield Play will discover in the north country author an even greater propensity to rhyme.
There remains to be discussed the method of production of these plays. Fortunately we have records to guide us in our suppositions. These date from the time when the complete Miracle Play was a fully established annual institution. It is of that period that we shall speak.
Plays had from the first been under official management. When, therefore, the Church surrendered control it was only natural that secular officialdom should extend its protection and guidance. Local corporations, recognizing the commercial advantages of an attraction which could annually draw crowds of country customers into the towns, made themselves responsible for the production of the plays. While delegating all the hard work to the trade guilds, as being the chief gainers from the invasion, they maintained central control, authorizing the text of the play, distributing the scenes amongst those responsible for their presentation, and visiting any slackness with proper pains and penalties. Under able public management Miracle Plays soon became a yearly affair in every English town.
When the time came round for the festival to be held—Corpus Christi Day being a general favourite, though Whitsuntide also had its adherents, and for some Easter was apparently not too cold—the manuscript of the play was brought forth from the archives, the probable cost and difficulties of each scene were considered, the strength or poverty of the various guilds was carefully weighed, and finally as just an allocation was made as circumstances would permit. If two guilds were very poor they were allowed to share the production of one scene. If a guild were wealthy it might be required to manage two scenes, and those costly ones. For scenes differed considerably in expense: such personages as God and Herod, and such places as Heaven or the Temple, were a much heavier drain on the purse than, say, Joseph and Mary on their visit to Elizabeth. Where there was no difficulty on the score of finance, a guild might be entrusted with a scene—if there was a suitable one—which made special demands on its own craft. Thus, from the York records we learn that the Tanners were given the Overthrow of Lucifer and his fellow devils (who would be dressed in brown leather); the Shipwrights, the Building of the Ark; the Fishmongers and Mariners jointly, the scene of Noah and his family in the Ark; the Goldsmiths, the Magi (richly oriental); the Shoers of Horses, the Flight into Egypt; the Barbers, the Baptism by John the Baptist (in camel's hair); the Vintners, the Marriage at Cana; the Bakers, the Last Supper; the Butchers and Poulterers, the Crucifixion.
As soon as a Guild had been allotted its scene it appointed a manager to carry the matter through. The individual expense was not great, somewhere between a penny and fourpence for each member. Out of the sum thus raised had to be paid the cost of dresses and stage-scenery, and the actors' remunerations (which included food during the period of rehearsals as well as on the actual playing days). No such crude simplicity as is made fun of in the Midsummer Night's Dream was admitted into the plays given in the towns, however natural it may have been to villages. Training and expense were not spared by rival guilds. As we saw in the directions for the acting of the old play of Adam, propriety in diction and behaviour on the part of the actors was insisted upon as early as the tenth century. An interesting record (dated 1462) in the Beverley archives states that a certain member of the Weavers' Guild was fined for not knowing his part. It would be quite a mistake, therefore, to suppose that fifteenth-century acting was an unstudied art. Similarly, caution must be used in ridiculing the stage-properties of that day. One has only to peruse intelligently one of the bald lists of items of expenditure to discover that a placard bearing such an inscription as 'The Ark' or 'Hell' was not the accepted means of giving reality to a scene. The Ark was an elaborate structure demanding a team of horses for its entrance and exit; while Hell-mouth, copying the traditional representations in mediaeval sculpture, was a most ingenious contrivance, designed in the likeness of gaping jaws which opened and shut in fearful style, emitting volumes of sulphurous smoke, not to mention awesome noises. The 'make-ups' too were far from being the arbitrary fancies of the wearers. True, they possibly bore no great resemblance to the originals. But that was due to an ignorance of history rather than to carelessness about truth. The probability is that in many cases the images and paintings in the churches were imitated, as being faithful likenesses. One has merely to call to mind certain stained-glass windows to guess what sort of realism was reached and to understand how it came about that Herod appeared in blue satin, Pilate and Judas respectively in green and yellow, Peter in a wig of solid gilt (with beard to match), and Angels in white surplices.
For the stage a high platform was used, beneath which, curtained off from sight, the actors could dress or await their cues. Above the stage (open on all four sides) was a roof, on which presumably an 'angel' might lie concealed until the moment arrived for him to descend, when a convenient rope lent aid to too flimsy wings. Contrariwise, the devil would lurk in the dressing-room, if Hell-mouth were out of repair, until the word came for him to thrust the curtains aside, dart out, pull his victim off the stage and bear him away to torment. The street itself was quite freely used whenever conditions seemed to require it: messengers, for example, pushed their way realistically through the crowd; devils ran merrily about in its open space; and when Herod felt the whole stage too narrow to contain his fury he sought the ampler bounds of the market-place to rage in. Sometimes two or more stages were placed in proximity to accommodate actions that must take place at the same time. Thus we read in Scene 25 ('The Council of the Jews') of the Coventry Play, 'Here xal Annas, shewyn hymself in his stage, be seyn after a busshop of the hoold lawe, in a skarlet gowne, and over that a blew tabbard furryd with whyte, and a mytere on his hed, after the hoold lawe' (the dress is interesting); and a little further on, 'Here goth the masangere forth, and in the mene tyme Cayphas shewyth himself in his skafhald arayd lyche to Annas'; while yet a little later appears this, 'Here the buschopys with here (their) clerkes and the Phariseus mett, and (? in) the myd place, and ther xal be a lytil oratory with stolys and cusshonys clenly be-seyn, lyche as it were a cownsel-hous'. Again, in Scene 27 ('The Last Supper') will be found this direction: 'Here Cryst enteryth into the hous with his disciplis and ete the Paschal lomb; and in the mene tyme the cownsel-hous beforn-seyd xal sodeynly onclose, schewyng the buschopys, prestys, and jewgys syttyng in here astat, lyche as it were a convocacyon.' This last is quoted for the additional inference that the Coventry stage remained in one place throughout the play; for the previous reference to the 'cownsel-hous' is that quoted, two scenes earlier. There was another custom, practised in Chester, and probably in other towns where the crowd was great. There the whole stage, dressing-room and all, was mounted on wheels and drawn round the town, pausing at appointed stations to present its scene. By this means the crowd could be widely scattered (to the more equitable advantage of shopkeepers), for a spectator had only to remain at one of these stations to behold, in due order of procession, the whole play acted. Thus mounted on wheels the stage took the name of a pageant (or pagond, in ruder spelling),—a name soon extended to include not only a stage without wheels but even the stage itself. It is used with the latter meaning in the Prologue to the Coventry Play.
With regard to the time occupied by the play, it is not possible to do much more than guess, since plays varied considerably in the number of their scenes. In one town, as we have said, the whole performance was crowded into a single day, starting as early as 4.30 a.m. Chester, on the other hand, devoted three days to its festival, while at Newcastle acting was confined to the afternoons. Humane consideration for the actors forbade that they should be required to act more than twice a day. They were well paid, as much as fourpence being given for a good cock-crower (in 'The Trial of Christ'), while the part of God was worth three and fourpence: no contemptible sums at a time when a quart of wine cost twopence and a goose threepence. A little uncertainty exists as to the professional character of the actors, but the generally approved opinion seems to be that they were merely members of the Guilds, probably selected afresh each year and carefully trained for their parts. The more professional class, the so-called minstrels or vagrant performers (descendants of the Norman jongleurs), possibly provided the music, which appears to have filled a large and useful part in the plays.
* * * * *
The Saint-plays, the original miracle-plays, continued, and doubtless were staged in the same way as the Bible-plays. But the latter so completely eclipsed them in popularity that they appear never to have attained to more than a haphazard existence. Their nature was all against a dramatic subordination of the different plays to each other. Their subject was fundamentally the same; placed in a series, they could unroll no larger theme, as could the individual scenes of a Bible-play. For ambitious town festivals, therefore, they were too short. Few public bodies considered it worth their while to adopt them; and as a consequence only one or two have been preserved for our reading.
Those that remain with us, however, contain qualities which may make us wonder why they did not receive greater recognition. It may be that we misjudge the extent of their popularity, though survival is usually a fairly good guide. Certainly they shared, or borrowed, some of the 'attractive' features of their rivals: there was not lacking a liberal flavour of the horrible, the satanic, the coarse and the comical. Moreover, they possessed much greater possibilities for purely dramatic effect. The cohesion of incidents was firmer, the evolution of the plot more vigorous, the crisis more surprising, the opportunities for originality more plentiful. The very fact that they could not easily be welded together as scenes in a larger play is a testimonial to their art. They are more complete in themselves. They are, that is to say, a further stage on the way to that Elizabethan drama which only became possible when all idea of a day-long play had been discarded in favour of scenes more single and self-contained. The sacredness, also, of the saintly narrative was less binding than that of the Bible story. Those who had a compunction in caricaturing or coarsening the unholy or nameless people of the Scriptures would feel their liberty immensely widened in a representation of the secular and heathen world which surrounded their saint. This is clearly seen in the Miracle of the Sacrament, where the figure of Jonathas the Jew is portrayed with distinct originality. His long recital of his wealth in costly jewels, and the equally lengthy statement by Aristorius, the corruptible Christian merchant, of his numerous argosies and profitable ventures, are early exercises in the style perfected by Marlowe's Barabas. The whole story, from the stealing of the Sacred Host by Aristorius and its sale to Jonathas, right on through the villainous assaults, by the Jew and his confederates, upon its sanctity, and the miraculous manifestations of its power, to Jonathas's final conversion and the restoration of the sacrament, is a very fair example of the power which these Saint Plays possessed in the structure of plots.
[Footnote 3: go.]
[Footnote 4: being.]
[Footnote 5: destroy.]
[Footnote 6: pleasure.]
[Footnote 7: might.]
[Footnote 8: power.]
[Footnote 9: wrought.]
[Footnote 10: one.]
[Footnote 11: realms.]
[Footnote 12: more worthy.]
[Footnote 13: injure.]
[Footnote 14: how.]
[Footnote 15: offended.]
[Footnote 16: those.]
[Footnote 17: their.]
[Footnote 18: sorrow.]
[Footnote 19: See the stage-direction at the end of 'The Trial of Christ', 'Here enteryth Satan into the place in the most orryble wyse, and qwyl (while) that he pleyth, thei xal don on Jhesus clothis'.]
[Footnote 20: lowly.]
[Footnote 21: obedient.]
[Footnote 22: counsel.]
[Footnote 23: young.]
[Footnote 24: courtly.]
[Footnote 25: counsel.]
[Footnote 26: each one.]
[Footnote 27: crippled.]
[Footnote 28: overtaxed.]
[Footnote 29: overreached.]
[Footnote 30: rob.]
[Footnote 31: curse.]
[Footnote 32: done.]
[Footnote 33: star.]
MORALITIES AND INTERLUDES
Miracle (Bible) Plays had three serious faults, not accidental, but inherent in them. They were far too long. Their story was well known and strictly confined by the two covers of the Bible. Their characters were all provided by the familiar narrative. It is true that a few additions to the canonical list were admitted, such as Cain's servant Garcio, Pilate's beadle, and Mak the sheep-stealer. Lively characters were also created out of nonentities like the various Judaeans and soldiers, and the shepherds. But these were all minors; they had no influence on the course of the action, and the smallness of their part made anything like a full delineation impossible. They were real men, recognizable as akin to local types, but no more; one never knew anything of them beyond their simplicity or brutality. Meanwhile their superiors, clothed in the stiff dress of tradition and reverence, passed over the stage with hardly an idea or gesture to distinguish them from their predecessors of three centuries before.
The English nation grew tired of Bible Plays. There can be no doubt of this if we consider the kind of play that for a time secured the first place in popularity. Only audiences weary of its alternative could have waxed enthusiastic over The Castell of Perseverance or Everyman. Something shorter was wanted, with an original plot and some fresh characters. To some extent, as has been shown, the Saint Plays supplied these requirements, and one is tempted to suspect that in the latter part of their career there was some subversion of the relative positions of the two rival types of Miracle. But what was asked for was novelty. Both forms of the Miracle were hundreds of years old, and both had to suffer the same fate, of relegation to a secondary place in the Drama. In letting them pass from our notice, however, we must not exaggerate their decline. The first Moralities appeared as early as the fifteenth century, but some of the great Miracles (e.g. of Chester and York) lasted until near the end of the sixteenth century. For some time, therefore, the latter must have held their own. Indeed the former probably met with their complete success only when they had become merged in the Interludes.
In its purest form the Morality Play was simply the subject of the Miracle Play writ small, the general theme of the Fall and Redemption of Man applied to the particular case of an individual soul. The central figure was a Human Being; his varying fortunes as he passed from childhood to old age supplied the incidents, and his ultimate destiny crowned the action. Around him were grouped virtues and vices, at his elbows were his good and his bad angel, while at the end of life waited Heaven or Hell to receive him, according to his merits and the mercy of God. The merits were commonly minimized to emphasize the mercy, with happy results for the interest of the play.
It is easy to see how all this harmonized with the mediaeval allegorical element in religion and literature. A century earlier Langland had scourged wickedness in high places in his famous allegory, Piers Plowman. A century later Spenser was to weave the most exquisite verse round the defeats and triumphs of the spirit of righteousness in man's soul. Nor had allegory yet died when Bunyan wrote, for all time, his story of the battling of Christian against his natural failings. After all, a Morality Play was only a dramatized version of an inferior Pilgrim's Progress; and those of us who have not wholly lost the imagination of our childhood still find pleasure in that book. In judging the Moralities, therefore, we must not forget the audience to which they appealed. We shall be the more lenient when we discover how soon they were improved upon.
Influenced at first by the comprehensiveness of the plot in the Miracle Play, the writers of the early Moralities were satisfied with the compression of action effected by the change from the general to the particular theme. This had brought about a reduction in the time required for the acting; and along with these gains had come the further advantages of novelty and originality. Accordingly the author of The Castell of Perseverance (almost the only true Morality handed down to us) was quite content to let his play run to well over three thousand lines, seeing that within this space he set forth the whole life of a man from the cradle to the grave and even beyond. But later writers were quick to see that this so-called particular theme was still a great deal too general, leaving only the broadest outlines available for characters and incidents. By omitting the stages of childhood and early manhood they could plunge at once into the last stage, where, beneath the shadow of imminent destiny, every action had an intensified interest. Moreover, within such narrowed boundaries each incident could be painted in detail, each character finished off with more realistic traits. It was doubtless under such promptings that the original Dutch Everyman was written, and the alacrity with which it was translated and adopted among English Moralities shows that its principle was welcomed as an artistic advance. An almost imperceptible step led straight from the Everyman type of Morality to the Interludes.
Before tracing further changes, however, it might be well to have before us a more definite notion of the contents of The Castell of Perseverance and Everyman than could be gathered from these general remarks. For a summary of the former we shall be glad to borrow the outline given by Ten Brink in his History of English Literature.
'Humanum Genus appears as a new-born child, as a youth, as a man, and as a graybeard. As soon as the child appears upon the stage we see the Angel of Good and the Angel of Evil coming and speaking to him. He follows the Evil Angel and is led to Mundus (the World), who gives him Joy and Folly, and very soon also Slander, for his companions. By the latter—or, to stick to the literal expression of the poet, by this latter female personage—Humanum Genus is introduced to Greed, who soon presents to him the other Deadly Sins. We see the hero, when a young man, choosing Lust as his bed-fellow; and, in spite of the endeavours of his Good Angel, he continues in his sinful career until at length Repentance leads him to Confession. At forty years of age we see him in the Castle of Constancy [or Perseverance], whither he has been brought by Confession, surrounded by the seven most excellent Virtues.... The castle is surrounded by the three Evil Powers and the Seven Deadly Sins, with the Devil at their head, and with foot and horse is closely besieged. Humanum Genus commends himself to his general, who died on the cross; but the Virtues valiantly defend the Castle; and Love and Patience and their sisters cast roses down on the besiegers, who are thereby beaten black and blue, and forced to retire. But Humanum Genus in the meantime has become an old man, and now yields to the seductions of Greed, who has succeeded in creeping up to the castle walls. The old man quits the Castle and follows the seducer. His end is nigh at hand. The rising generation, represented by a Boy, demands of him his heaped-up treasures. And now Death and Soul appear upon the scene. Soul calls on Mercy for assistance; but the Evil Angel takes Humanum Genus on its back and departs with him along the road to Hell. In this critical position of affairs the well-known argument begins, where Mercy and Peace plead before God on the one side, and Justice and Truth on the other. God decides in favour of Mercy; Peace takes the soul of Humanum Genus from the Evil Angel, and Mercy carries it to God, who then pronounces the judgment—and afterwards the epilogue of the play.'
The plot of Everyman is as follows.
Everyman, in the midst of life's affairs, is suddenly summoned by Death. Astonished, alarmed, he protests that he is not ready, and offers a thousand pounds for another twelve years in which to fill up his 'Account'. But no delay is possible. At once he must start on his journey. Can he among his friends find one willing to bear him company? He tries. But Fellowship and Kindred and Cousin, willing enough for other services, decline to undertake this one. Goods (or Wealth) confesses that, as a matter of fact, his presence would only make things worse for Everyman, for love of riches is a sin. Finally Everyman seeks out poor forgotten Good-Deeds, only to find her bound fast by his sins. In this strait he turns to Knowledge, and under her guidance visits Confession, who prescribes a penance of self-chastisement. The administration of this has so liberating an effect on Good-Deeds that she is able to rise and join Everyman and Knowledge. To them are summoned Discretion, Strength, Beauty and Five-Wits—friends of Everyman—and all journey together until, as they draw near the end, the last four depart. At the grave Knowledge stays outside, but Good-Deeds enters with Everyman, whose welcome to Heaven is announced directly afterwards by an angel. The epilogue, spoken by a Doctor, supplies a pious interpretation of the play.
Such are the stories of the two best known Moralities. From them we can judge how great a change had come over the drama. Nowhere is there any incident approaching the nature of 'The Sacrifice of Isaac', nowhere is there any character worthy to stand beside the Mary of the Miracle Play. Those are the losses. On the other hand, we perceive a new compactness—still loose, but much in advance of what existed before—whereby the central figure is always before us, urged along from one act and one set of surroundings to another, towards a goal which is never lost sight of. Also there is the invention which provides for these two plays different plots, as well as some diversity of characters. The superiority of the shorter play—Everyman contains just over nine hundred lines—to the older one is less readily detected in a comparison of bare plots, though it becomes obvious as soon as one reads the plays. It lies in a more detailed characterization, in a deliberate attempt to humanize the abstractions, in the substitution of something like real conversation for the orderly succession of debating society speeches. The following extracts will illustrate this difference.
(1) From The Castell of Perseverance.
[GOOD ANGEL and BAD ANGEL, in rivalry, are trying to secure the adherence of the juvenile HUMANKIND: GOOD ANGEL has already spoken.]
Bad Angel. Pes aungel, thi wordes are not wyse, Thou counselyst hym not a-ryth. He schal hym drawyn to the werdes servyse, To dwelle with caysere, kynge and knyth, That in londe be hym non lyche. Cum on with me, stylle as ston: Thou and I to the werd schul goon, And thanne thou schalt sen a-non Whow sone thou schalt be ryche.
Good Angel. A! pes aungel, thou spekyst folye! Why schuld he coveyt werldes goode, Syn Criste in erthe and hys meynye All in povert here thei stode? Werldes wele, be strete and stye, Faylyth and fadyth as fysch in flode, But hevene ryche is good and trye, Ther Criste syttyth, bryth as blode, Withoutyn any dystresse. To the world wolde he not flyt, But forsok it every whytt; Example I fynde in holy wryt, He wyl bere me wytnesse.
[BAD ANGEL replies, and then HUMANKIND speaks.]
Humankind. Whom to folwe wetyn I ne may, I stonde in stodye and gynne to rave: I wolde be ryche in gret aray, And fayn I wolde my sowle save. As wynde in watyr I wave. Thou woldyst to the werld I me toke, And he wolde that I it forsoke, Now so God me helpe, and the holy boke, I not wyche I may have.
(2) From Everyman.
[EVERYMAN has just met FELLOWSHIP.]
Felawshyp. My true frende, shewe to me your mynde, I wyll not forsake the to thy lyves ende, In the way of good company.
Everyman. That was well spoken and lovyngly.
Felawshyp. Syr, I must nedes knowe your hevynesse. I have pyte to se you in ony dystresse. If ony have you wronged ye shall revenged be, Though I on the grounde be slayne for the, Though that I knowe before that I sholde dye.
Everyman. Veryly, Felawshyp, gramercy.
Felawshyp. Tusshe, by thy thankes I set not a strawe, Shewe me your grefe and saye no more.
Everyman. If I my herte sholde to you breke, And than you to tourne your mynde fro me, And wolde not me comforte whan ye here me speke, Then sholde I ten tymes soryer be.
Felawshyp. Syr, I saye as I wyll do in dede.
Everyman. Than be you a good frende at nede, I have founde you true herebefore.
Felawshyp. And so ye shall evermore, For, in fayth, and thou go to hell I wyll not forsake the by the waye.
[EVERYMAN now explains his need for a companion along the road to the next world.]
Felawshyp. That is mater in dede! Promyse is duty, But and I sholde take suche vyage on me, I knowe it well, it sholde be to my payne; Also it make me aferde, certayne. But let us take counsell here as well as we can, For your wordes wolde fere a stronge man.
Everyman. Why, ye sayd, yf I had nede, Ye wolde me never forsake, quycke ne deed, Though it were to hell, truely.
Felawshyp. So I sayd certaynely, But suche pleasures be set a syde, the sothe to saye; And also, yf we toke suche a journaye, Whan sholde we come agayne?
Everyman. Naye, never agayne, tyll the daye of dome.
Felawshyp. In fayth, than wyll not I come there. Who hath you these tydynges brought?
Everyman. In dede, deth was with me here.
Felawshyp. Now, by God that all hathe bought, If deth were the messenger, For no man that is lyvynge to daye I wyll not go that lothe journaye, Not for the fader that bygate me.
Everyman. Ye promysed other wyse, parde.
Felawshyp. I wote well I say so, truely, And yet yf thou wylte ete and drynke and make good chere, Or haunt to women, the lusty company, I wolde not forsake you whyle the day is clere, Trust me veryly.
Everyman. Ye, therto ye wolde be redy: To go to myrthe, solas and playe Your mynde wyll soner apply Than to bere me company in my longe journaye.
The difference between the plays is clearer now. Somewhere we have met such a fellow as Fellowship; at some time we have taken part in such a conversation, and heard the gushing acquaintance of prosperous days excuse himself in the hour of trouble. But never in daily life was met so dull a creature as one of those angels, nor ever was heard conversation like theirs.
Let us return to trace the change to the Interlude. Quite a short step will carry us to it.
We have said that Moralities gave to the drama originality in plot and in characters. This statement invites qualification, for its truth is confined to rather narrow limits, in fact, to the early days of this new kind of play. Let a few Moralities be produced and the rest will be found to be treading very closely in their footsteps. For there are not possible many divergent variations of a story that must have for its central figure Man in his three ages and must express itself allegorically. Nor is the list of Virtues and Vices so large that it can provide an inexhaustible supply of fresh characters. However ingenious authors may be, the day is quickly reached when parallelism drives their audience to a wearisome consciousness that the speeches have all been heard before, that the next step in the plot can be foretold to a nicety. Something of this was perceived by the author of Everyman. With bold strokes of the pen he drew a line through two-thirds of the orthodox plot, crossed off from the list of characters the hackneyed Good and Bad Angels, and, against the old names that must still remain, seems to have jotted for himself this reminder, 'Try human types.' So, at least, we may imagine him doing. The figures that occupy the stage of the old Morality are for the most part, like the two Angels, mere mouthpieces for pious or wicked counsels. Fellowship and his companions, on the other hand, are selected examples from well-known and clearly-defined classes of mankind. They are not more than that. All we know of Fellowship is his ready faculty for excusing himself when help is needed. He has no traits to distinguish him from others of his kind. If we describe to one another the men or women whom he recalls to our memory we find that the descriptions differ widely in all but the one common characteristic. In other words, he is a type. The step which brings us to the Interludes is the conversion of the type into an individual with special marks about him peculiar to himself. It is an ingenious suggestion, that the idea first found expression in an attempt to excite interest by adding to a character one or two of the peculiarities of a local celebrity (miser, prodigal, or beggar) known for the quality typified. If this was so, it was an interesting reversion to the methods of Aristophanes. But it is only a guess. What is certain is that in the Interludes we find the 'type' gradually assuming a greater complexity, a larger measure of those minor features which make the ordinary man interesting. Significantly enough, the last thing to be acquired was a name such as ordinary men bear. A few characters attained to that certificate of individuality, but even Heywood, the master of the Interlude, preferred class names, such as Palmer, Pardoner, or Pedlar. This should warn us not to expect too much from the change. To the very end some features of the earliest Moralities are discernible: we shall meet Good Angel and Bad Angel in one of Marlowe's plays. After all, the interval of time is not so very great. The Castell of Perseverance was written probably about the middle of the fifteenth century; Everyman may be assigned to the close of that century or the beginning of the next; one of the earliest surviving Interludes, Hick Scorner, has been dated 'about 1520-25'; and Marlowe's Doctor Faustus belongs probably to the year 1588.
Let us turn to Hick Scorner and see the new principle of characterization at work. How much of the old is blended with it may be seen in the opening speech, which is delivered by as colourless an abstraction as ever advocated a virtuous life in the Moralities. A good old man, Pity, sits alone, describing himself to his hearers. To him comes Contemplation, and shortly afterwards Perseverance, both younger men but just as undeniably 'Virtues'. Each explains his nature to the audience before discovering the presence of Pity, but they quickly fall into a highly edifying conversation. Fortunately for us Contemplation and Perseverance have other engagements, which draw them away. Pity relapses into a corner and silence. Thereupon two men of a very different type take the boards. The first comer is Freewill, a careless, graceless youth by his own account; Imagination, who follows, is worse, being one of those hardened, ready-witted, quick-tempered rogues whom providence saves from drowning for another fate. He is sore, this second fellow, with sitting in the stocks; yet quite unrepentant, boasting, rather, of his skill in avoiding heavier penalties. That others come to the gallows is owing to their bad management. As he says,
For, and they could have carried by craft as I can, In process of years each of them should be a gentleman. Yet as for me I was never thief; [i.e. was never proved one.] If my hands were smitten off, I can steal with my teeth; For ye know well, there is craft in daubing: I can look in a man's face and pick his purse, And tell new tidings that was never true, i-wis, For my hood is all lined with lesing.
Nevertheless once he was very nearly caught. And he narrates the incident with so much circumstantial detail that it would be a pity not to have his own words.
Imagination. Yes, once I stall a horse in the field, And leapt on him for to have ridden my way. At the last a baily me met and beheld, And bad me stand: then was I in a fray. He asked whither with that horse I would gone; And then I told him it was mine own. He said I had stolen him; and I said nay. This is, said he, my brother's hackney. For, and I had not excused me, without fail, By our lady, he would have lad me straight to jail. And then I told him the horse was like mine, A brown bay, a long mane, and did halt behine; Thus I told him, that such another horse I did lack; And yet I never saw him, nor came on his back. So I delivered him the horse again. And when he was gone, then was I fain: For and I had not excused me the better, I know well I should have danced in a fetter.