Theater and religion have been closely associated for many hundreds of years. We see, even in nativity plays today, that the association between Christianity and theater is still alive, and yet it is often assumed that, like the Puritans in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Church was more concerned with closing theatres than it was with putting on plays.
Yet, as the morality play shows, the Church did in fact contribute to dramas which could provide moral reassurance and Christian teaching as part of the theatrical event itself. There is no history of religious drama in England prior to the Norman Conquests. To begin with, services were interrupted (on certain festivals, such as Easter or Christmas), and priests would enact the religious event being celebrated, usually in Latin and, initially, not in verse. Gradually, versification crept in, as did vernacular language: so, in the French drama of the “Wise Virgins”, which dates at some point in the first half of the 12th century, the chorus speaks Latin, while Christ and the virgins speak both Latin and French.
Gradually, the vernacular entirely took over the form, and the drama left the Church to take to the streets. Often, as with the English mysteries, plays were performed on wagons in public places, or if following a “Mystery Cycle”, stationary wagons would be stationed around a city, and the audience would move from one play to the next. It became common for major religious festivals to be marked with some sort of dramatic performance.
Mystery plays, of which the best known cycles are the York and Towneley (or Wakefield), dramatized key events in the Bible, often in a humorous or irreverent way, and regularly transposing the characters into a contemporary context. A “miracle play” usually just refers to a play dramatizing a religious event, though it initially was a play dramatizing the life of a saint or martyr. A “mystery play”, usually associated with a mystery cycle, is also a “miracle” play, though often one which dramatizes events from the life of Christ. A “morality play” (see “The Morality Play”) is noted particularly for its use of allegorical characters.
Morality plays (see ‘The Morality Play’) introduced the idea of allegory, which added another, more complex, layer to religious drama – yet both morality and mystery plays alike are notable for their use of humorous means to give a serious message.
At the beginning of the twelfth century, we know that there was a play about St. Catharine performed at Dunstable by Geoffroy (later abbot of St. Albans) and by the mid 1200s, it seems that religious drama was commonplace in England. The trend continued throughout the next four hundred years, though by the Reformation, it seems that the performance of mystery and miracle plays had almost disappeared from popular culture.