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The Medieval drama: the Miracle and the Morality Plays

During the Middle Ages, the Church was of the utmost importance for people. Although there had been voices about corruption among the clergy, in the Church people could find assistance and consolation, the weary and homeless could find food and the hungry could find food. Moreover, being people mostly uneducated, the priest was for many the only reference and advisor. Thus, the Church became also a place where people could learn, meet others, explore art and find amusement and the “Liturgical Drama” became the way how Christian events were commemorated. Liturgical Drama was a form of a sung conversation between the celebrants and usually took place in the nave. Soon the performances were moved outside, the vernacular replaced the Latin language and the laity took the place of priests in the performances. The Bible was given a dramatic shape and the “Corpus Christi festival” was established to be held every year. Between the 13th and 15th century the “Miracle Plays” were also born and their characters were given individuals names setting the foundations for a drama embedded in reality.

The Miracle Plays were performed outdoors on movable stage wagons called “pageants” that were open on all sides and shaped as a two room house; actors were dressing in the lower room and the acts were played on the upper one. Each pageant would show an episode of a complete story and the viewers would move from one to the other, stopping at the episode they wanted to see. The actors were amateurs that were generally paid for their performances and were usually members of the “trade guilds” or companies.
In the 15th century the Miracle Plays developed in the “Morality Plays”. In this new form of drama the characters were no more taken from the Bible but were personifications of abstractions such as human vices and virtues. The Morality Plays used invented plots and were not any more part of a larger cycle. From stories of ancient history they thus moved to story set in a more contemporary environment. The actors were no more amateurs who had left they labor for a while in order to perform in the sacred mysteries, but were professionals working for associations that had formed with the specific purpose of acting. Many of these put themselves under the patronage of worthy lords.
At the end of the 15th century short plays that were performed by a small company at a lord’s place were given the name of “Interlude”. And Interlude would try to combine serious aspects with humor and in them two technical expedients were implemented: the “disguise” and the “Vice”. The latter was usually applied to characters which had no vices at all, but its purpose was that to raise laughter among the audience.

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