Medieval Drama, which flourished in the 15th century and paved the way for the great Elizabethian theatre, developed out of liturgical cerimonies. It is in the Church, in fact, and in its rituals that we can find the origin of medieval plays. The Clergy had always tried to teach to unlettered people the chief events of the Christian religion through dramatic performances. In Italy, for instance, St. Francis used to represent Christ’s nativity with a real child in the cradle and real people and animals around. Even more impressive were Easter performances.
After the use of music was introduced into churches, in the 6th century, and words were later fitted to the melodies, a dramatic dialogue began to take place in the form, at first, of an alternation of chants between the priest and the choir. Little by little processional and scenic effects were added, which, by increasing dramatic action, also required more complicated stage properties. All this give life to the gradual evolution from liturgical drama to Miracles and Mistery Plays. [ Even if there is no sharp distinction between Miracles and Mysteries, some critics say that Mysteries usually deal with Gospel events, their main object being the Redemption of Man, while Miracles are concerned with episodes from the lives of Saints]. Latin was slowly replaced by vernacular, and secular elements became more and more frequent. As the Miracles Plays grew in popularity, performances inside churches became more and more difficult because of the increasing size of the audience. So the plays left the precints of the Church and began to be performed out of the doors, first in the church yard, then in other open spaces of the town. In order to enable as many people as possible to see it, each play was repeated several times in different parts of the town, with the help of a movable structure called a “ pageant “. It was a carriage in the form of a small house with two vertical rooms : in the lower room actors prepared themselves, and in the upper one, which was open on four sides, they played their parts. As to the performance itself, at first it took place under the management and supervision of the Clergy, but later on it was taken over by the Trade Guilts [some critics say that the word Mystery derives from the Latin “ ministerium “ = trade, and means a play acted by craftsmen. ( the middle-class decided to protect its rights by establishing trade organizations called guils)] under the management of the municipal authorities. It was also stated that, as far as possible, each guild should act a pageant ( originally it was also the name of any individual play in a Miracle Cycle ). Miracle Plays were a form of popular art characterized by realism, simplicity of diction, absence of metaphors and of sentimentalism.
For the first time dramatists invented a plot, though stereotyped, which was didactic in content and allegorical in form.The lines were rhymed, as in the Miracles, but the atmosphere was more melancholy. Sometimes it was enlivened by the presence of some characters, especially the Vice who, with his rather clownish behaviour, may be considered the forerunner of the future Shakesperian “ fool “ ( la figua del fool in King Lear, per esempio, non ha il compito di divertire il re con lazzi e arguzie, egli allevia con le sue parole le sofferenze del suo signore, e con le sue frasi ambigue moralizza sulle sventure di Lear, dando consigli di prudenza e saggia virtù.)
Moralities continued to be performed for a great part of the century and were gradually replaced by interludes. Though they became popular by the middle of the 16th century, the origin of interludes can be traced back to previous centuries, when, now and then, independent comic dialogues began to be inserted into Miracle Plays ( “ inter-ludos “ ), to enliven their atmosphere. They were short, made very little use of allegories, usually replaced abstractions with real characters, introduced humour and satire and had little, if any, didactic purpose. They represented a great advance upon moralities and, with their new realistic elements, became the bridge that linked Medieval Drama to the future Elizabethian Theatre.