Historical Plays: Medieval Passion and Morality Plays

Figure 1.--

Passion Plays are medieval dramatizations of Christ's Passion. Traditionally Christ's Passion is seen as the last few day's of Christ's life, the period of intense suffering from the Garden of Gethsemane to his Crucifixion. The medieval passion plays gradually grew in length and commnly included Old Testament scenes as well as the Resurection. They evolved from the religious fest days and varied in content because of a wide range of local influences. They began to appear in the 10th century in a basic form and had reached their peak of development n the 14th century. There were regional differences as the the style and content. In addition to the cycle plays (based on Biblical stories), there were also Morality Plays (allegorical plays in which personified virtues and vices competed for the soul of man. These medieval dramas are of considerable historic importance because they represent an expression of the fervent religious belief of medieval Europe. They were also the first appearance of formal drama in Europe since classical times. Althoug the Church had played a role in the evolution of Passion Plays, they wereunable to mantain control of these productions which over time became more popular entertaiment than religious celebration. Ecclesiastical (Catholic and Protestant) and civil authorities acted to supress the productions in the 16th century. The Oberammergau Passion Play is the most important one to survive.

Classical Drama

While Western drama began in ancient Greece, there was no direct link between clasical drama (Greek and Roman) and medieval drama. The fall of Rome and the advent of the Dark Ages ended drama as an art form in Western Europe. I'm not sure about Byzantium, but I know of no important works of Byzantine drama. Presumably classical drama as an art form was suppressed by the Church. Drama did not reappear in the West until the high medieval era and appeared in the form of the Passion Play. Medieval drama, which grew out of the liturgy of the Church, knew nothing of the earlier classical tradition. This is not to say that classical drama did not influence modern drama. Dramacists like Shakespeare as a result of the Renaisance which recovered many classical texts did learn about classical works. At first it was primarily Roman drama, because so few Renaisance scholars were familiar with Greek, the Greek dramas took longer to be translated and studied.

Medieval Art

Like other art forms at the time, drama reappeared in a religious form--Passion Plays. The medieval world was very god-centered. This can be seen in medieval art which was often commissioned by the Church and commonly focused on decorating churches and cathedrals. Almost all medieval art was a religious piece with the purpose of glorifying God.

The Mass

Of course the Catholic Mass itself was higly dramatic so this might be thought of as a form of drama and it was accompaied by music--often boy choirs. But as the Mass was celebrated in Latin it was largely not understood by the vast majority of celebrants.


Another important medieval religious celebration was the many feast days. Each church had a patron saint and the annual celebration of that day was an important local event. And these celebrations were much more focused on the layity. They were much less standardized bythe Vatican. There was both poetry and music, much of it in the developing vernacular langague which the general population could understand. The population at the time was generally iliterte and Bibles were enormously expensive. And at any rate the Catholic Church did not see it advisable to encourage ordinary people to read the Bible. Thus much popular understanding of Biblical stories and their importance came through these celebrations. It is believed that the medieval passion plays evolved from the celebrations associated with feast days.

Origins: Benedictines of St. Gall

A detailed story of this evolution does not exist. Catholic historians believe that the Benedictines of St. Gall (Switzerland) played a major role in this evolution (10th century). They composed sequences, hymns, litanies, and tropes (a literary device) and set them to music. These original tropes were actually elaborations of selecte sections of the Liturgy. These works were performed with musical acompanyment, often including boy choristers. An actual manuscript of a trope associated with the St. Gall monk Tutilo survives from the 10th century. It was sung with the Mass on Easter Sunday. Gradually these celebrations developed into the medieval passion playw which focused on the suffering, death, and Resurrection of Christ. Early Passion plays were largely written by monks and priests and were thus performed in Latin.


Gradually as the laity began to assume more of a role in producing the plays, the vernacular came into common use. Traditionally Christ's Passion is seen as the last few day's of Christ's life, the period of intense suffering from the Garden of Gethsemane to his Crucifixion. The medieval passion plays gradually grew in length and commnly included Old Testament scenes as well as the Resurection.The passion plays used various formats. The passion plays would include Biblical readings, primarily from the Gospels. Mixed in with the Gospel readings might be poetical pieces on Jesus, mostly the events of the final days--commonly referred to as the Passion of Christ. The appearance of the vernacular in these productins proved very popular and gradually became increasingly important. And actual plays began to be written, mostly from lay sources. The earliest surviving examples are in German. At first the plays were more of an introduction to the overall production, but gradually the plays increased in length and importance. They were produced in many different areas and those productions were affected by a wide range of local influences.

Cyclic Plays

While the origins of the passion plays were within the Church gradually the Church lost control over the productions. Old testmaent scenes were introduced at the productions became cyclic plays. The Corpus Christi cycles became popular in the 14th century. There were many examples of this including the Celtic Passion cycles (Cornwall and Brittany) and the Passion play at St. Gall. In Englandduring the 15th century there was a tradition of presenting an entire cycle of biblical plays that took into account the entire span of history (from the Catholic theological point of view), beginning with the Creation of the World (from Genesis) and extending throughout major events of the Old and New Testaments (including, of course, the Passion of Christ) and ending with the Last Judgement at the end of time (based on the Book of Revelation). Some examples of these plays survive and are referred to by historians of the drama as the York, Chester, and Wakefield cycles (named of course for the towns in England where they were annually performed, usually in the late Spring around the Feast of Corpus Christi.

French and Flemish Plays

A dectincr style of passion plays evolved in France and Flanders. Here the the narrative poem, the "Passion des jongleurs" (13th century). These plays gradually grew in complexity and length. Eventuall the perfomances grew to over a week in length.

Other Passion Plays

Passion plays appeared throughout Europe. There are noticeable examples in Spain and Italy and other locations.

Morality Plays

In addition to the cycle plays (based on Biblical stories), there were also Morality Plays (allegorical plays in which personified virtues and vices competed for the soul of man. Plays such as "Mankind" and "Humanum Genus" were such moralities. Often a central character representing humanity in general was tempted by vices on the one hand and urged by virtues (leading to salvation) on the other. A famous stock character called "the Vice" was a representation of pure evil (often represented as the Devil himself) and was hugely popular because, in addition to being evil, he was also highly comic and engaged directly in jokes with the audience. This kind of conflict in which contrary forces compete for the salvation or damnation of the central character is often referred to as the "psychomachia" (meaning "battle for the soul"). Medieval drama also developed special plays on the lives of the saints or plays anchored in some symbolic way to the sacraments (such as the Eucharist). Early Renaissance drama (in England) often modified the traditions of the religious drama of the Middle Ages to make the moral and social implications more secular or political, but one can see the great plays of the Renaissance (Shakespeare included) emerging from the medieval plays. Thus Shakespeare's most famous comic character, Falstaff, is really, in part at least, a development from the medieval character of the Vice.


The medieval passion plays grew into very substantial productions. This required both resources and organization. As a result the Confraternity appeared to provide the needed organizational framework. The best known was the Confrérie de la Passion (1402).


These plays were performed, not by profesional actors, but by local townspeople, many of them connected with the various crafts or guilds of the period. The carpenters, for instance, would usually perform the play on the Crucifixion, because carpenters had a special association with wood-working and with hammers and nails. The cooks would sometimes perform the play on the Harrowing of Hell because of their professional association with fire, etc.


Passion plays might be composed of separte brirf productions of specific scenes which were structured essentially as short plays. These scenes tended to last about 15 minutes and were performed on wagons that could be moved to various parts of the town so that people along the streets could watch. The plays were performed in sequence so that the audience could go through the entire sequence of events from Creation to Last Judgement in a single day. The writers of the scripts were often local clerics (anonymous, of course, like the artisans of the great cathedrals), and they sometimes introduced extraneous bits of comedy into the biblical stories to give them popular appeal. In the York Crucifixion play, for instance, there is some crude and highly ironic comedy about the executioners having trouble getting Christ in the correct position to be nailed to the cross and the executioners quarreling with each other (as workers sometimes do) about the problem of raising the cross up after Jesus is nailed down and jolting it painfully into the pre-dug hole. The drama is complex because it exists on two different levels. The audience would identify with the practical problems of the workers cruficying Our Lord--their back pains, their difficulties of cooperating in the manual task because the audience would recognize their neighbors as performers (e.g., John Doe, who lived in the house just down the street, and suffered from a chronic bad back). But of course, from a religious perspective, their identification was also with the sufferings of their Savior whose excruciating pain was being made worse by all those (like themselves) enagaged in the perpetual crucifixion of Christ because of their sinful lives. Entertainment and spirituality thus cross-fertilized each other in these dramas.


Many of the productions were stridently anti-Semetic. Given that the plays focused on Christ;s final days in ehich he was betrayed by Judas and Jewish clerics demanded that Pilate execute him, there was considerable oppotunity to unfavorably depict Jews. This occurs evn in pfoductions such as Mel Gibson's "The Passion of Christ" which attempte to fairly depict the historical events.


The original passion places were devout expressions of religious feeling. This had changed substantially by the 16th century. The Church had begun losing control of the various passion plays as the layity began to write and produce the various productions. This created some tensions as the Church generally wanted to mintain control over all expressions of religious faith. Gradually along with lay control the passion plays gradually evolved into populasr entertainment rather than expressions of religious devotion. This included both slapstick commedy and out and out buffoonery. While this acceptable in opular entertainment, the Church began to object. As a result both ecclesiastical and state authorities began banning the plays. This process took on great force during the Reformation.

Drama History

The tradition of these plays survived in some rural and local areas into the 16th century, and Shakespeare shows some general familiarity with the dramatic tradition. We can point to certain elements of Shakespearean plays that seem to derive in part from the tradition of the cycle plays.


Oberammergau is a Bavarian village notable for woodcarving. It is often world famous for the traditional Passion Play, the most important one to survice. The Ommeramagau Passion Play is actually a fairly late survival of a tradition that is fundamentally medieval. Medieval passion plays depicting the life and death of Jesus were a form of both popular religion and theatrical entertainment. The Oberammergau Passion Play is the most well-know surviving passion play and dates to the 17th century. At that time the villagers who were terrified of an outbreak of bubonic and pledged that they would organize a production of a passion play every 10 years. After the plague seems to have subsided in 1633, the village held their first production of the Passion Play in 1634. This was a time that authorities had supressed most surviving medieval Passion plays. The village now produces it Passion Play during the first year of each decade and more than 2,000 village residents participate. The Oberammergau Passion Play now includes spoken drama, musical and choral accompaniment, as well as a Biblical tableaux vivants, including Old Testament scenes presented as background for the appearance of Christianity.

Modern Plays

Traditional Passion plays have also been revived in villages in the Austrian Tirol. In northern Spain, during Lent and Holy Week, a Catalan Passion play is performed by villagers. In Tegelen, in The Netherlands, a modern play by the Dutch poet Jacques Scheurs is given every five years.


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Created: 10:55 PM 6/19/2006
Last updated: 4:06 PM 6/20/2006