The history of the English drama takes us back to the century succeeding the coming of the Normans. By the time of the Norman Conquest a form of religious drama, which in the first instance had evolved out of the rich symbolic liturgy (a religious ceremony) of the Church, had already established itself in France, and as a matter of course it soon found its way into England.
These early plays were, broadly, of two types : The Mysteries based upon subjects taken from the Bible, and The Miracles dealing with the lives of saints. The best of the extant groups of Miracle and Mystery plays belong to the 15th century. Abraham and Isaac is one of the most remarkable of these early plays.
To begin with, the church had this early drama under complete control. It was written by the clergy, and acted by the clergy within the church; and its language was the Latin of the church service. But as its popularity increased, and larger and larger crowds thronged to the church, the place of performance was first shifted to the church porch and then to some village field. Laymen now began to take part in the performances and write the plays, while the Latin language was replaced by English, the native tongue was generally used. The increase in the number of fairs, the increase in wealth, power and prestige of the merchant guilds did much for the development of the drama.
When the drama was freed from the hold of the clergy it was staged in the form of pageants. Pageants were originally platforms on which plays were staged. Sometimes the audience would move from one platform to another to see the whole play, and at other times the plays would be mounted on moving platforms and brought to them. Sometimes the performances continued for several days.
The growth of the drama was hampered as there were no professional actors and playhouses. The authors had no freedom of invention. They could introduce only brief comic episodes here the there. They had to follow closely their source. As the story was known, the effect depended entirely on spectacle. These early plays were, of course crude and poor in literary quality, but they lasted well on into the 16th century.
The Morality Plays
“The Morality” plays mark the next stage in the growth of the drama in England. These plays were also moral and religious in nature, but the characters were not drawn from the Bible or the lives of saints, but were personified abstract qualities. Through such personifications were represented the conflict in the human soul. All sorts of virtues and vices were personified there was generally a place for the Devil also.
A character introduced at a later stage was the Vice, the humorous incarnation of Evil, and the recognised fun maker of the piece. This character is specially interesting, for he is the direct forerunner of the Shakespearean clown. ‘Everyman’ (1490) is the finest extant example of this type of play.
Interludes or farces (humorous plays) mark the next stage in the development of the English drama. They are the forerunners of the artistic comedy which was soon to appear. They are brief comic dialogues without any action or development. Thus the best of them the Four P’s is merely a competition among four characters — the Palmer, the Pardoner, the Potycary and the Pedlar as to who would tell the biggest lie. There is no plot but the characters are life-like and interesting.
Comedy and Tragedy
The influence of the classical drama too was felt about the middle of the century. Ralph Roisier Doister (1533) of Nicholas Udall has the credit of being the first English comedy of the classical school. It is the first English play to be divided into Acts and Scenes.
Grammar Hurton’s Needle (Published in 1575), from the pen of an unknown writer, is another comedy of the Classical style. It marks a further development. Its characters are all real English rutics. Its aim is purely recreative.
The first classical tragedy to be written in England is Gorboduc or Ferrex and Porrex (1562) of Thomas Sackvile and Thomas Norton. In it, appear the main features of the Senecan tragedy. It is the direct forerunner of Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, in it blank verse is used for the first time for dramatic purposes. No doubt, the blank verse is rigid and stiff, it lacks the flexibility necessary for its success on the stage.
Christopher Marlowe is the greatest figure in pre-Shakespearean drama. He has left behind him four powerful tragedies. Each one of these tragedies revolves round one central personality who is consumed by the lust for power, beauty or knowledge. Marlowe’s tragedies are all one man tragedies in which the tragic hero dominates over the rest of the characters and dwarfs them by his towering personality. He is the greatest of the university wits. He made significant advances in the field of tragedy and modified the conception of tragedy popular upto the time.
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