History Of Morality Play

Figures from the Morality plays
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Definition and Features of a Morality Play

Morality plays were a genre of medieval drama that employed the use of allegorical figures in order to convey a religious or moral idea.  These allegories dramatized a human character’s journey through life, his temptations and sins, his encounter with death, and finally his pursuit of salvation.  The main character symbolizes the entirety of the human race and usually has a name like “Everyman” or “Mankind.”  The other character’s that “Everyman” meets have names such as “Pleasure,” “Good Deeds,” or “Beauty.”  These characters personify the features that they were named for.  For instance:  “Beauty” would be an attractive woman, who would carry a mirror and be engrossed in herself, and he by her prettiness.  Yet ultimately Beauty would turn away when asked for help by Everyman on his journey.

The Predecessors of “Everyman”

The Liturgical Drama in the Catholic Church

The roots of the morality play lie in the liturgical drama: a drama that was in all ways connected to the Catholic church’s rites and celebrations.  The priest and the choir, or two parts of the choir would chant back and forth having a dialogue of sorts.  This form gradually became more sophisticated when employing the use of two or more characters to act out a specific bible story.   The first dialogue recorded from a tenth century Easter dramatization was of the three Marys' at Jesus Christ’s tomb asked by an angel “Quem Quaeritis?” or “Whom do you seek?”  It is the earliest trope – dramatization of the liturgy – in history.    These dramas, which acted out the liturgy, were special events that were held to commemorate Christ’s birth, death, and other important Catholic holy days.  Eventually the language of these dramas changed from Latin to the vernacular.  With the first passion play – A dramatization of Christ’s crucifixion – the staging for the dramas became more complicated and took up more space within the church.  This began to push the plays out of the church and into the streets of the cities.

The Mystery or Miracle Play

Once the dramas were moved outdoors it was impractical to hold them on Christmas or Easter because of unpleasant weather conditions.  So the plays were moved to the feast of Corpus Christi – a holiday to honor the Body of Christ in the form of the consecrated host – celebrated in the month of May or June.  These new plays took on the names of  “mystery plays” – the dramatization of the life and martyrdom of a saint – and “miracle plays”  - stories based on the New Testament.   The dramas soon fell out of control of the Catholic Church and were sponsored by professional guilds (Tailors, Bakers, Carpenters, etc.) that took great pride in producing, and often acting in, an impressive biblical scene.  Moving farther away from the solemn acting of the church, the main concern became entertainment.  There were characters added into the stories for entertainment value as well as silly physical comedy and dialogue. The plays were presented in chronological order from Creation to the Judgment Day.  There would be as many as forty plays or “scenes” presented.  The guild would have a “pageant cart” and would be placed in a procession according to the scene that they would be performing.  They would move to different locations in the city, within the parade, and perform their scene repeatedly on their wagon.  The miracle/mystery play was developed in the thirteenth century and continued into the sixteenth century.

Morality Plays

While miracle/mystery plays were still popular the morality play came into existence.  It was first seen in the fourteenth century and thrived in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  Unlike the fairly simple miracle/mystery plays, which told a straightforward story about biblical characters, the morality play had allegorical characters, which symbolized man’s virtues and vices and man’s quest to find salvation.  The actors of the morality play were probably local groups of amateurs.  The staging was simple and could be performed anywhere there was room for an audience.  The morality play had few props and specific locations within the play would often be left to the audience’s imagination.   

Two Forms of Morality Plays

There were two forms of morality plays.  There were episodic versions in which the audience could see the main character go from his birth, through the trials and tribulations of his life, and on to face death and the Judgment Day, as seen in the morality play “The Castle of Perseverance.” (Pictured right) “The Castle of Perseverance” is a drama in which Mankind’s Good Angel is struggling against his Bad Angel who is backed by Seven Deadly Sins.  Mankind’s journey goes from the cradle to his Day of Judgment.  

The second type of morality play deals with a specific journey or age in a character’s life, as seen in “Everyman.”  Everyman is summoned by Death to make his final Book of Accounts in order to present it before God.  Facing the fear of eternal damnation Everyman is abandoned by his untrue friends (Kinship, Beauty, Strength, etc.).  His salvation lies only in his own Good Deeds.


Castle of Perseverance

 Stage directions for the production of   “The Castle of Perseverance”










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