Liturgical Dramas

Liturgical drama is a term that refers to a kind of early Medieval drama that performed stories and scenes from the Bible as part of religious services. The term liturgical drama has come under scrutiny by critics, and it is often confused with other kinds of performances that developed during this time.

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Table of contents

    Liturgical dramas: meaning

    Liturgical dramas are religious plays that were performed in medieval Europe during Christian religious services. These dramas typically depicted stories from the Bible, such as the life of Christ, the Passion, and the Resurrection.

    They were performed by priests and members of the church, often in the language of the people, rather than in Latin. Liturgical dramas were designed to teach and inspire the faithful, and to bring the stories of the Bible to life in a way that was accessible and engaging for the audience.

    The Middle Ages, also known as the Medieval period, was a historical period in Europe that lasted from the 11th century to the 14th century.

    Origins and development

    Liturgical dramas began as a part of Medieval Christian liturgy (forms of worship). In standard Medieval church services, chanted call-and-response dialogues were commonly performed between priests and the congregation in Latin.

    There is some debate amongst scholars about the validity of the term, however, especially regarding these chants and whether they can accurately be described as dramas. It is noted that Medieval mass services functioned as a kind of ritual drama, arguably with relevant characteristics including dramatic exposition, setting, character and dialogue, which was often chanted to simple melodies.

    However, liturgy in the Middle Ages is also known to have included other elements, like lyrics, visual impressions, and tableaux vivants of Biblical scenes, and so the dramatic label can seem rather limiting.

    A tableau vivant is a still scene in which actors, models and props depict a moment or image. The term is French for 'living picture'.

    Nevertheless, it is known that the Catholic Church and accompanying services were naturally dramatic and performative. Liturgical dramas functioned as a manner of worship during these services, deeply integrated within the Church.

    Liturgical dramas progressively grew in length and sophistication, reaching a height during the 12th and 13th centuries, seeming, by this point, to more accurately match the dramatic label. Most depicted various tales from the Bible, including the resurrection of Christ, the Nativity, Daniel in the lion's den, amongst others, as well as stories about Saints, particularly St. Nicholas and the Virgin Mary.

    Liturgical dramas, religious services, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Liturgical dramas were performed in the medieval period during religious services.

    Liturgical drama vs vernacular drama

    As liturgical plays became more popular, they started to serve as entertainment, becoming distanced from their liturgical origins.

    Eventually, dramas began to explore secular themes and were performed in the vernacular (local, spoken languages) rather than in Latin. As this occurred, many began to lose the Church's sponsorship and instead started to become publicly funded. These became known as vernacular dramas.

    Three major types of vernacular drama developed:

    1. Morality plays: these dramas focused on conveying religious messages that intended to teach audiences how to make moral choices in their lives, using stories from the Bible.

    2. Mystery plays: collections of smaller religious plays depicting Biblical tales that were performed as part of celebrations on holy days, often lasting a whole day.

    3. Miracle plays: plays chronicling the lives of saints, particularly showing their miracles and martyrdom, and often transposing them into other stories about everyday people.

    All of these find their origins in liturgical dramas. Once they ceased to be performed in Latin and began to be performed outside of Church events, due to increased secular support, they came to be called vernacular dramas.

    Liturgical dramas: types

    Types of liturgical plays and dramas include Corpus Christi plays, Christmas plays, and Easter plays. Liturgical dramas were intended to enhance Mass services, especially on Christian holidays, such as Easter and Christmas.

    We can consider some early examples found in manuscripts that date back to the 10th century. These included chants and small scenes depicting Biblical scenes, particularly those relating to the celebrating of corresponding holy days.

    Easter liturgical dramas

    One of the most famous chants was 'Quem quaeritis', meaning 'Whom do you seek?', which can perhaps be considered the genesis of liturgical drama.

    It was performed as a short, staged Latin dialogue during the Introit of the Matins service on Easter morning.

    The Introit is the accompanying psalm that is sung or spoken whilst the priest approaches the altar for the Eucharist (the church service commemorating the Last Supper).

    Matins is the term for the morning prayer.

    The scene dramatically re-enacted the Biblical scene of two Angels and the three Marys at Jesus' tomb, questioning the body's disappearance after his burial, and subsequently proclaiming his resurrection, the reason for the celebration of Easter Sunday.

    The first three lines can be interpreted:

    Angels: ''Whom do you seek in the tomb?''

    Three Marys: ''Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.''

    Angels: ''He is not here. He has risen, just as foretold. Go! Say that he is risen.''

    The dialogue was originally sung in Latin and eventually developed into short plays which formed the foundation of liturgical dramas. The earliest record of the 'Quem quaeritis' chant performed as a drama dates to the 10th century, preserved in the Regularis Concordia (c. 965-975).

    By the 11th century, this dialogue had developed further, even beyond Easter liturgy. It became adapted into other services, incorporating other Biblical tales and events, particularly those relating to Christmas.

    Christmas liturgical dramas

    In the Middle Ages, Christmastide involved multiple liturgical practices, including Masses, musical call-and-response antiphons, plays and celebratory feast days.

    Christmastide is a term used to refer to the period immediately before and after Christmas Day, the 25th of December.

    Antiphons are short sentences that are chanted or recited before the reading of a psalm or canticle (a kind of hymn typically with a Biblical text).

    Masses were not just called on Christmas day but also on the days surrounding it, including the commemoration of Saint Stephen on Boxing Day, Saint John the Evangelist on the 27th, The Holy Innocents on the 28th, and finally the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus on New Year's Day.

    Liturgical drama: example

    An example of the liturgical drama includes the Officium Pastorum, which is the name given to the liturgical drama that was performed on Christmas Day as part of Medieval Church celebrations.

    Usually, it was performed at the end of the Matins service, which, on Christmas Day, occurred at midnight. Some sources note that it also could have been performed before the Matins to lead into the main Christmas liturgy and to introduce actors that would continue to actively perform as their characters throughout the service.

    The Officium Pastorum, as you may expect, depicts the Nativity story, as told by Saint Luke, in which shepherds travelled to Bethlehem to visit a newborn Jesus after being informed by Angels. Their accounts show them witnessing the infant lying in a manger, accompanied by Mary, her husband Joseph and the midwives who assisted in the birth.

    The Christmas liturgical drama also incorporated a version of 'Quem quaeritis', adapting the dialogue to include conversations between the midwives and the shepherds. This was likely something to the effect of:

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

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

    In this depiction of the well-known and sacred tale, the performance not only included actors but probably also costumes, sets and props, as provided by the local community. For Medieval European congregations, liturgical dramas were musical and visual spectacles put together in their own local churches.

    Liturgical dramas, Local church services as performing spaces, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Churches were transformed into intimate performance spaces for Liturgical dramas and their lessons.

    Congregations were able to experience these stories in new ways via the mediums of music and dramatics, creating a performance housed in the Church, which functioned as a kind of performance venue.

    Out of this, a sense of intimacy and immediacy formed, bringing these miraculous, biblical tales to life before their very eyes, but also as a result of efforts made by the community.

    The following are some further examples of Liturgical dramas performed in the medieval period.

    Examples of Liturgical playsOriginTime periodDescription
    The Play of AdamFrance12th centuryTells the story of Adam and Eve, their fall from grace, and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
    The York Cycle of Mystery PlaysEngland14th-16th centuriesConsists of 48 individual plays, telling the story of the Bible from Creation to the Last Judgment.
    The Chester Mystery PlaysEngland14th-16th centuriesSimilar to the York Cycle, consisting of 24 individual plays depicting stories from the Old and New Testaments.
    El Misteri d'Elx (The Mystery Play of Elche)Spain15th centuryTells the story of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven.
    The Ludus Coventriae (The Play of Coventry)England14-15th centuriesConsists of 42 individual plays, including the story of Adam and Eve, the Nativity, and the Passion of Christ.
    EverymanEngland16th centuryAn allegorical play depicting the life of Everyman, and the moral choices he must make as he faces death and judgment.

    Renaissance liturgical dramas

    The Renaissance was the period in Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries that marked the transition from the Middle Ages to the beginning of modernity.

    Ideas spread throughout the continent, especially those calling for a revival and improvement of classical theories. The movement encompassed culture, art, music, literature, politics, philosophy, and drama.

    During this time, new philosophies began to spread, particularly a type called humanism, which underscored the entire period. Humanism encouraged tolerance and celebrated human accomplishments and qualities. This helped to remove Medieval social hierarchies that had existed before.

    By the end of the Medieval period, the late 14th century, plays were no longer liturgical. They were now called vernacular dramas, as discussed previously. Public support, especially from wealthy patrons, led to the emergence of professional actors and playwrights. The dramatic arts continued to flourish into the Renaissance as a new era of thought developed.

    It can be said that liturgical dramas did not really exist during the Renaissance, as plays were almost all secular and privately funded. They no longer relied on the Church for funding and now did not exist solely as part of ritual services. Christian liturgical activities still continued; however, the dramatic genre expanded beyond its religious origins, beginning to encompass further complex themes that developed out of new ideas in the Renaissance period.

    Liturgical Dramas - Key takeaways

    • Liturgical drama is a term that refers to various early Medieval plays that were performed as part of Church services, particularly on holidays.
    • Liturgical dramas depicted scenes or stories from the Bible with dialogue, and later, costumes, sets and props.
    • They usually incorporated chants and music into performances.
    • Some examples include the Easter liturgical dramas, Christmas liturgical dramas, the Officium Pastorum, and The Play of Adam.
    • These formed an important foundation for the development of the dramatic arts, particularly in the late Middle Ages and into the Renaissance.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Liturgical Dramas

    What are liturgical dramas?

    Liturgical dramas were plays performed as part of ritual worship in the Medieval Church. They depicted scenes from the Bible or Christian stories, incorporating dialogue, music, sets and props into performances.

    What are examples of liturgical dramas?

    An important example to consider was the Officium Pastorum, which was the liturgical drama performed as part of Church Christmas Day service.

    Who introduced liturgical drama?

    Liturgical dramas were first introduced into the Church as part of religious celebrations and rituals.

    Why were liturgical plays performed outside?

    As liturgical dramas developed, set pieces became too large and extravagant to fit inside local churches. Therefore, they began to be performed outside, and soon developed into pageants.

    What are the characteristics of liturgical dramas?

    Liturgical dramas depicted stories from the Bible, usually including dialogue, music and chanting. They existed as part of proceedings involved in the liturgy of Christian holidays and other services.

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