Christian Drama

Dramas have always contained religious themes and have been considered a valuable form of religious outreach and a valid form of worship. Christian dramas in particular have held an important place in theatre, making their way from the early Medieval Ages, then surviving through the English Reformation and progressing into modern theatre today. Keep reading to know more about the scripts, types, history and books that fall under Christian dramas!

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    Christian drama scripts

    Christain dramas are works of drama that are based on religious themes found in Christianity. Their scripts usually dramatise stories found within the Bible or depict God's relationship with mankind.

    Drama: The mode of representing fictional or non-fictional narratives through a performance before an audience. Dramas convey stories solely in the form of dialogue, stage directions and acting.

    Christian drama is a play in which there is the manifestation of Christian ethos, and which represents an authentic presentation of the Christian world-view as depicted in the Bible.1

    Christian drama Christian drama script StudySmarterFig. 1 - Performance of Everyman (1500), a famous Christian drama.

    Hardcore Christain dramas explicitly explore the Christian worldview as present in Biblical narratives. Other Christian plays contain themes stemming from Christian beliefs weaved into the plot of the play. Themes of Christian plays include:

    • Suffering

    • Faith

    • Spiritual journey

    • Redemption and salvation

    • Love and forgiveness

    • God's message

    History of Christian drama

    Did you know that Christian dramas date back over 2000 years? Let us look at the origin of Christian dramas, their rise to popularity and how they became what they are today.

    Origin

    Western drama is thought to have first originated in Ancient Greece and Rome around the 5th century BC. Greek and Roman playwrights were known for writing plays that narrated the lives and experiences of Greek and Roman Gods. These plays formed the basis for using dramas as a form of worship.

    In classical Greece, tragedies, comedies, and satirical plays were written to compete in festivals arranged in honour of the Greek Gods and mythological figures such as Athena, Dionysus, Apollo, Artemis, Demeter, Persephone, Hermes, and Herakles.

    Similarly in Rome, following the Roman plague (364 BC), Romans began performing dramas as a part of the Lectisternium ceremonies already being performed, in a stronger effort to pacify the gods.

    Lectisternium: An ancient Roman ceremony where food was offered to Roman gods and goddesses

    Medieval Age

    Christian dramas first surfaced in the early Medieval Ages, starting in the 5th century, where English churches began to dramatise biblical events in the form of Liturgical dramas during religious festivities. An early example of a liturgical drama was 'Quem-Quaeritis' (c. 925) or Whom do you Seek? which was performed as a part of Easter celebrations.

    However, somewhere in the late Medieval Age, around the 11th and 12th centuries, the popularity of Christian liturgical dramas caused them to serve as entertainment, rather than religious practice. This led to its separation from the Church into the public. These were performed in vernacular language and were more accessible to the working classes. The Mystery of Adam (1150) is an example of an early liturgical play that was later translated into vernacular.

    Mystery plays were the first ones to be translated into vernacular, and they were performed by guilds unaffiliated with the church. These guilds were responsible for funding, organising and finding cast members for these plays.

    Guilds: Medieval groups of wealthy and influential merchants and craftsmen who regulated and taught their trades.

    These mystery plays operated in cycles of up to 50 small individual plays (or pageants) that could last for up to a whole day. These cycles of mystery plays were travelled and performed in different towns, performing reenactments of Biblical stories.

    Somewhere in the early Tudor period (1485 to 1603) morality plays gained popularity.

    Famous examples include Everyman (1510) and John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678).

    Tudor period: The period between 1485 and 1603 in England was characterised by the rule of the Tudor dynasty. it included the reign of the following monarchs: Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I.

    Puritan Age

    Puritan Age: The 16th and 17th centuries were characterised by the rise of Puritans or English Protestants, who sought to strip the English Church of its Catholic practices.

    This era saw the English Reformation under King Henry VII, where the pope and Catholic church lost their authority. Instead, the monarch was declared the head of the Church of England.

    The English Reformation greatly targeted theatre. Christian Plays were largely regulated or suppressed due to their ties with Roman Catholicism. At this time, playwrights abandoned religious themes and explored other genres such as tragedy, history, love and comedy. This paved way for Elizabethan theatre (1558-1603), which saw a decline in the production of Christian dramas.

    Contemporary Christian dramas

    Christain dramas were revived in the twentieth century as a form of religious outreach, particularly by evangelical churches.

    In the United Kingdom, mystery plays saw a comeback in the late 20th century, with the York and Chester cycles resurfacing in 1951.

    Christian Drama History of Christian Drama StudySmarterFig. 2 - The stage for The York Mystery Plays in 2012.

    Murder in the Cathedral (1935) by T. S. Eliot is an example of a modern Christain drama as it contains Christian themes and church history. The play narrates the assassination of Saint Thomas Becket of Canterbury, following his power struggle with King Henry II. The play details the loyalty and love Becket possessed for his faith, and the sacrifice he willingly made whilst defending the rights and powers of the Catholic Church.

    Types of Christian drama

    Here are some of the different types of Christian dramas throughout the years.

    Type of Christain DramaExample

    Liturgical drama

    Officium Pastorum (10th century)

    Mystery play

    York Corpus Christi Plays (14th century - present)

    Morality plays

    Everyman (1510)

    Miracle plays

    The Digby Conversion of Saint Paul (15th century)

    Here are more detailed definitions of each of these types of Christian dramas listed above.

    Liturgical drama

    Liturgical dramas: early dramas from the Medieval era that dramatise Biblical narratives and stories of saints. They were dramas performed as a part of Church services, especially on during the Christmas holidays.

    Medieval era: a historical period in Europe that lasted from the 5th to the 15th century, beginning with the fall of the Roman Empire (500 CE) all the way till the start of The Renaissance (1400)

    Liturgical dramas included Latin dialogues that were chanted to simple melodies before a congregation. The priest or the congregation would usually chant back dialogues in response, thereby making liturgical plays a form of worship.

    Liturgical dramas also contained something known as the tableau vivant, which is the French word meaning 'living picture'. This refers to a still static scene (most often, from the Bible) presented by live actors and models on stage.

    Liturgical dramas dramatised stories from the Bible, particularly the resurrection of Christ, the Nativity, Daniel in the lion's den, the foolish virgins, etc. Some even depicted stories of Saints like St. Nicholas and the Virgin Mary.

    The high demand for liturgical dramas led to its move beyond the Church, as it reached public audiences in vernacular (spoken languages) rather than in Latin. This severed the connection between Christian dramas and the Church, as these plays now came under public sponsorship.

    Mystery plays

    The first type of vernacular plays to be adapted from liturgical plays were mystery plays.

    Mystery play: A collection of plays that each performed popular stories from within the Bible in vernacular language, usually on religious festivals and celebrations.

    Most mystery plays are concerned with spiritual stories of Mankind and its creation and dramatised events such as the Creation, the Fall of Man, Adam and Eve, the murder of Abel, and the Last Judgment.

    The most famous cycle of mystery plays was the York Corpus Christi Plays, which consisted of 48 smaller individual plays that were performed in multiple locations, typically on the day of the feast of Corpus Christi.

    Morality play

    Morality plays are a type of vernacular play that came somewhere in the late Medieval Age, around the 14th - 15th centuries.

    Morality plays were plays that personified Christian values (vices and virtues as found within the Bible) that were presented by allegorical characters.

    Personification: Attributing human characteristics, feelings or behaviours to an otherwise non-human object or entity, or the representation of abstract ideas in human forms.

    Allegory: A literary device where a symbolic character, place or event or anything that has a physical form represents a hidden moral (or sometimes political) meaning or idea.

    Morality plays personified Christian concepts of Death, Mercy, Greed, and Justice by using actors to act these abstract concepts. These actors, therefore, played an allegorical role in the play, by physically embodying Christian values. These characters often interacted with the protagonist throughout the course of the play, determining their fate. A story arc commonly followed by morality plays is the temptation, fall and redemption of the hero.

    The protagonists' journey would usually serve as a moral lesson that would teach the audience the difference between right and wrong or good and evil. Most of these moral lessons were based on the religious reasonings in the Bible.

    Miracle plays

    Miracle plays are another type of vernacular drama that developed during the Middle Ages. They are often placed under the category of Mystery plays, as they both gained popularity around the same time.

    Miracle play: Plays that narrated tales of martyrdom and miracles performed by Catholic saints. Usually, they depict the intervention of these saints in the lives of ordinary people, rather than following their Biblical narratives.

    Saints are individuals who are able to perform miracles throughout their lives due to their divine connection with God, and usually sacrifice their life for the greater good.

    The only two surviving English miracle plays are those based on Mary Magdalene and The Conversion of Saint Paul. This is because, in the 16th century, Henry VIII began the English Reformation by stripping the authority of the pope and the Catholic Church. Due to their links with Catholicism, miracle plays were banned from being produced and performed, causing many to be either lost or forgotten over time.

    Christian drama books

    Even though Christain dramas were mainly performed before a live audience, here are a few examples of Christian drama books, that can be read or acted out!

    Officium Pastorum (10th century)

    Officium Pastorum is one of the earliest examples of liturgical dramas that was said to have been written in the 10th century. It was primarily performed on Christmas Day, during the Church's Christmas Mass service which was celebrated at midnight.

    Officium Pastorum dramatises the Nativity story, which depicts the moment of Jesus' birth. The story shows shepherds travelling to Bethlehem after receiving instruction from the Angels of the birth of Christ. There they find Jesus in a manger, being tended to by Joseph and Mary and the midwives.

    Midwives: ''Whom do you seek in the manger?''

    Shepherds: ''The saviour, Christ the Lord, the child wrapped in swaddling clothes, as the Angel said''

    Although the original script is in Latin, English translations have allowed for Officium Pastorum to survive throughout the modern age.

    Christian Drama Christian Drama books StudySmarterFig. 3 - The Nativity, the focus of Officium Pastorum (10th century).

    Everyman (1510)

    Everyman is a morality play written by an anonymous playwright somewhere in the 15th century.

    In this drama, the protagonist Everyman is summoned by Everyman by Death who asks him to account for his life's actions which would be presented before God on the Day of Judgement. Fearing eternal damnation in Hell, the protagonist embarks on a journey of good deeds in hopes of finding salvation.

    Through his journey, he is guided by many allegorical characters representing the Christian values of Beauty, Fellowship, Strength and Wisdom.

    Modern adaptations of Everyman are still being performed in the 21st century, on stages like the American Broadway, the Salzburg Festival in Austria and the National Theatre in the UK.

    The first modern stage production of Everyman appeared in 1901 and was performed outdoors three times by The Elizabethan Stage Society in London. These gradually spread to the American Broadway stage from 1902 to 1918. The play is still performed every year as a part of the Salzburg Festival since 1920 in Austria, by the name Jedermann.

    Christian Drama - Key takeaways

    • Christain dramas are works of drama that are based on religious themes found in Christianity. They usually dramatise stories found within the Bible or depict God's relationship with mankind.
    • Christian dramas first surfaced in the early Medieval Ages, starting in the 5th century, where English churches began to dramatise biblical events in the form of Liturgical dramas during religious festivities.
    • Types of Christian dramas include:
      • Liturgical drama

      • Mystery play

      • Morality play

      • Miracle play

    • Examples of Christian dramas include:

      • Officium Pastorum (10th century)

      • Everyman (1510)

    References

    1. Saviour Nathan A. Agoro, 'Definition of Christian Drama and Theatre' (2002)
    2. Fig. 2 - The stage for The York Mystery Plays 2012 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_stage_for_The_York_Mystery_Plays_2012_-_geograph.org.uk_-_3086813.jpg) by Rich Tea is licensed by Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en)
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Christian Drama

    What is Christian drama?

    Christain Dramas are works of drama that are based on religious themes found in Christianity. 

    What was the point of Christian Drama?

    Christian dramas usually dramatise stories found within the Bible or depict God's relationship with mankind. They have always been considered a valuable form of religious outreach and a valid form of worship.

    What is an example of Christian Drama?

    Examples of Christian dramas include:

    • Officium Pastorum (10th century) 

    • Everyman (1510)

    Who performed Christian Drama?

    Christian dramas were performed by the Church. Later, they were performed by guilds unaffiliated with the church. These guilds were responsible for funding, organising and finding cast members for these plays. 

    Where were Christian Drama performed ?

    Early liturgical dramas were performed in and around the church as a part of the Mass service. Later, vernacular plays were performed in public across different cities and towns.

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