Fish Eaters: The Whys and Hows of Traditional Catholicism


``Where the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of Antioch, 1st c. A.D



Mystery, Miracle,
and Morality Plays

 







Sadly, the topic of Mystery, Morality, Miracle, and Passion plays is, for the most part, with a few exceptions such as school nativity plays, a matter of historical interest rather than what Catholics are up to today.1 But it's my hope that this will change, and that Catholics will once more use drama to teach and inspire.

Medieval drama sprang from liturgical drama, the foremost of which was the Quem quaeritis? of the 10th c. Easter liturgy -- a brief 3-part dramatic exchange between the women who went to Christ's tomb on Easter Sunday and the Angels they met there:

Interrogatio: Quem quaeritis in sepulchro, o Christicolae?
Responsio: Jesum Nazarenum crucifixum, o caelicolae.
Angeli: Non est hic; surrexit, sicut praedixerat. Ite, nuntiate quia surrexit de sepulchro

Translation:
Angels: Whom do ye seek in the sepulchre, O followers of Christ?
Women: Jesus of Nazareth, the Crucified, O heavenly ones.
Angels: He is not here; He is risen, just as He foretold. Go, announce that He is risen from the sepulchre.

An angelic chorus of alleluias followed this exchange.

There were other such short liturgical dramas, and they later spread to outside of the Church, developing into full-blown Mystery plays, Miracle plays, and Morality plays.

First, a few definitions:
  • Mystery plays are stories from the Bible. Passion plays are a type of Mystery play that focuses on the Passion of Christ.

  • Miracle plays are based on the lives of the Saints, pious legends, stories from the Apocryphal Gospels (such as the Protoevangelium of St. James), etc., and were used to teach historical truths and about the Catholic Faith itself.

  • Morality plays are allegorical dramas in which the characters represent abstractions, such as the vices, virtues, sin, "Everyman," Death, evil, and so on, and their purpose is to teach moral lessons, to help shape Christian character in the audience.
These dramas grew to be staged in three distinct ways. Some were produced in civic cycles by a city's guilds, and used processional staging requiring moving platforms -- stages set on pageant wagons, often with multi-story stages, that would move from place to place. A second type used platea et locus  -- "place-and-scaffold" -- staging in a specific area, with locus (scaffold) staging using a fixed platform, and with platea (place) staging in less defined, stageless settings. The third type of staging would take place in halls.



Left to right: Place-and-scaffold staging, and Hall staging



When produced by cities, each guild would present a different play -- one of a set of plays that were repeated in cycles over the years -- and, oftentimes, the play a guild would put on would have something to do with that guild's business. For ex., in York, it was the guild of shipwrights who'd put on the story of Noe's Ark, goldsmiths who'd portray the adoration of the Magi, and bakers who handled the Last Supper.

These cycles of plays would cover a vast amount of Scripture. Wikipedia gives the N-Town cycle like this:

The Proclamation of the Banns
Play 1: Creation of Heaven & Fall of the Rebel Angels
Play 2: Creation of World & Fall of Adam and Eve
Play 3: Cain and Abel
Play 4: Noah's Flood
Play 5: Abraham's Sacrifice of Isaac
Play 6: Moses and the Ten Commandments
Play 7: The Root of Jesse: Prophecies of the Savior
Play 8: Joachim and Anna & the Conception of Mary
Play 9: Joachim and Anne's Presentation of Mary at the Temple
Play 10: The Marriage of Mary and Joseph
Play 11: The Parliament in Heaven and the Annunciation (the first part being a debate between the Four Daughters of God)
Play 12: Joseph's Doubt About Mary
Play 13: Mary's Visit to Elizabeth
Play 14: The Trial of Mary and Joseph
Play 15: The Nativity
Play 16: The Annunciation to and Visitation of the Shepherds
Play 17: (No play)
Play 18: The Adoration of the Magi
Play 19: The Purification
Play 20: Massacre of the Innocents
Play 21: Christ and the Doctors in the Temple
Play 22: The Baptism of Christ
Play 23: The Parliament in Hell and the Temptation in the Desert
Play 24: The Woman taken in adultery
Play 25: The Raising of Lazarus
Play 26: The First Passion Play: Lucifer and John the Baptist; Conspiracy Against Christ; Entry into Jerusalem
Play 27: The Last Supper
Play 28: Agony in the Garden & the Arrest of Christ
Play 29: Christ's Passion: Herod's Boasting; Trial Before Annas & Caiphas
Play 30: Death of Judas & Trials Before Pilate and Herod
Play 31: Pilate's Wife, and the Second Trial Before Pilate
Play 32: Procession to Calvary & Crucifixion of Christ
Play 33: The Harrowing of Hell
Play 34: Burial of Christ & Guarding of the Sepulchre
Play 35: The Harrowing of Hell, B; Christ's Appearance to Mary; Pilate Berates the Soldiers
Play 36: The Three Marys at the Tomb of Christ
Play 37: Christ's Appearance to Mary Magdalene
Play 38: Christ's Appearance to Cleophas, Luke, and Thomas
Play 39: The Ascension of Christ & the Selection of Matthias
Play 40: Pentecost
Play 41: Assumption of Mary Into Heaven
Play 42: Last Judgment

Music was involved in these productions, including the use of hymns -- for ex., actors portraying Angels are directed to sing the "Ave Maria" in the Salutation and Conception, the "Veni Creator" in the Marriage of Mary and Joseph, and the "Te Deum Laudamus" at the end of the Mary Magdalene in the N-Town cycle of Mystery plays. Musicians would open, close, and accent action with trumpets, drums, and flutes.

And all this staging involved spectacle! From Folgerpedia online: 2

Medieval dramatic works often took advantage of what we would consider "special effects" today. Perhaps the most famous example is the direction in the staging diagram of the Castle of Perseverance regarding Belial's entrance for the battle scene: he is to have pipes filled with burning gunpowder in his hands, his ears, and his arse. But just as ambitious is the staging of the bleeding Host in the Croxton Play of the Sacrament, the expulsion of the Seven Deadly Sins from Mary Magdalene in the Digby Mary Magdalene, the withering of Salome's hand in the N-Town Nativity, and the use of light in the N-Town Salutation and Conception. There, in a striking visual translation of Mary's impregnation by the Trinity, the Holy Ghost descends to Mary alongside three beams, three beams shine from the Son of the Godhead to the Holy Ghost, and three beams shine from the Heavenly Father to the Son.

Stage properties also contributed to the sense of spectacle. The ship in the Digby Mary Magdalene represents a movable stage that traveled throughout the place, carrying characters between locations. Likewise, a "cloud" is used to allow Christ, Mary Magdalene, and the Virgin Mary to rise into heaven (and in the case of Magdalene, to return to earth) in the Chester Ascension, Digby Mary Magdalene, and N-town Assumption. Both the Chester Last Judgement and Antichrist stage the resurrection of the dead from sepulchers, but the latter also stages the dead rising up from burial mounds in a performative analogue to visuals seen in manuscripts, stained glass, wall paintings on stone or wood, and roof bosses throughout England. Equally impressive would have been the use of reflectors, backed by candles, to represent fire and the visitation of the Holy Spirit; the ability of Hellmouth to open and close to admit or expel devils, Christ, and the souls of the damned; and the use of fire and smoke to represent the burning of the pagan temple in Marseilles in the Mary Magdalene.

To get a feel for medieval drama -- this time, a morality play -- see the script for
Everyman (pdf), written in the 15th c.



Two Special Plays

Oberammergau Passion Play

In 1634, the people who lived in the village of Oberammergau, in Bavaria, made a vow to God that, if He'd spare them from the ravages of the bubonic plague that was devastating Germany, they'd put on a Mystery play once each decade to depict and honor Christ's Passion. God did spare them, and they've kept their promise for almost four centuries as I write. In all years ending in zero, the play is acted out repeatedly, attracting people from all over the world to watch.

The entire town of Oberammergau is involved in the production of this spectacular event, which involves acting, orchestration, choirs, and tableaux vivants 3 that demonstrate Old Testament typology in light of New Testament action.





Scandalously, the Oberammergau play has been edited to appease the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian relations, who found objectionable what they say are Gospel "elements that are historically dubious" -- in other words, those parts of the Gospel that depicted what many Jews at the time of Christ did to bring about His persecution and death. Wikipedia lists the following as parts that have been edited or removed:
  • the role of the Temple traders has been reduced;
  • the character "Rabbi" has been eliminated and his lines given to another character;
  • Jewish priests no longer wear horn-shaped hats;
  • Jesus has been addressed as Rabbi Yeshua;
  • Jesus and others speak fragments of Hebrew prayers in the play;
  • Jews are shown disputing with others about theological aspects of Judaism, not just about Jesus;
  • Pilate has been made to appear more tyrannical and threatens Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest, and it is made clear that Caiaphas does not speak for all the Jews;
  • Romans now stand guard at the gates when Jesus makes his entrance to Jerusalem;
  • Jesus' supporters have been added to the screaming crowd outside Pilate's palace;
  • Judas is portrayed as being duped into betraying Jesus;
  • removing the lines "His blood is upon us and also upon our children's children" (from Matthew 27:25), and "Ecce homo" (Behold a man);
  • Peter, when questioned by Nathaniel regarding abandoning Judaism replies, "No! We don't want that! Far be it from us to abandon Moses and his law"; and
  • at the Last Supper Jesus recites the blessing over the wine in Hebrew.
Remarkable. And typical for how things go and who runs things these days.



St. Hildegard of Bingen's Ordo Virtutum

In around 1151, St. Hildegard of Bingen wrote a five-act morality play called Ordo Virtutum (Order of the Virtues) which focuses on a struggle between the Devil and the Virtues for possession of a soul. Dramatically, all of the parts are sung -- with the exception of the Devil's part, since, according to St. Hildegard, he is not capable of melody and harmony. You can read the text of this drama (pdf), and below you can watch it brought to life. Listen for the last line -- genua vestra ad patrem vestrum flectite ut vobis manum suam porrigat (bend your knee to the Father so that He might reach out His Hand to you). The last word stretches out in a thirty-nine note melisma, meant to indicate God's divine patience with us.






My Hope


My hope is that the Catholic extra-liturgical tradition of drama is restored -- and not just in terms of plays, but it terms of other dramatic media, such as film and video. I'd love to see a great Catholic resurgence in all of the arts! I would love to see Catholics writing new plays, putting on old ones, engaging in street theater, making not just pedagogical, but dramatic or pure entertainment Youtube videos, and forming flash mobs that demonstrate the beauty of the Holy Faith. Can you imagine a group of twenty young men appearing seemingly randomly in a busy mall and, "out of nowhere," singing Gregorian and other Western chant (especially ones with long ison notes)? The beauty of chant is something that shoots past arguments and nasty attitudes and goes straight to the soul. Imagine blessing the world in this way!

Imagine a group of young women doing the same with St. Hildegard's works!

And, hey, we don't need dance at the liturgy, but there's a place for those blessed with "body genius" and who are enchanted with movement to "do their thing" outside of the Mass!

I'd like to see Catholics do more writing, acting, comedy, dancing, painting, sculpting, making music, and film-making! Our spiritual heritage should compel us; we are heirs of the greatest artists the world has ever known -- Giotto, Fra Angelico, Raphael, Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Beethoven, Dante, Shakespeare -- the list of greats goes on and on, and that's in addition to the myriad anonymous craftsmen who built the cathedrals, made the stained glass for their windows, and carved gargoyles and grotesques to keep the demons away from them (and who put on Mystery plays in their spare time!).

Come on, creative, artistic Catholics! Get busy!





Footnotes:

1 Some English towns have revived some of these drama. For ex., York and Chester revived their towns' cycles of Mystery plays in 1951; the N-Town cycle was revived in 1978 as the Lincoln Mystery plays; the Lichfield Mysteries were revived in 1994, etc. But these are not Catholic productions; they're entirely secular and performed for historic interest rather than religious. I have no idea how or if they've been toyed with to appease the world. A trailer for the Mystery plays performed in York:



2 Source: https://folgerpedia.folger.edu/Medieval_Drama:_Staging_Contexts

3 A "tableau vivant" is the recreation of a painting, scene from History, scene from a drama, etc., through costume, lighting, set, and posing. There is no movement and no speaking; they're more like "living paintings" or "living snapshots." The Victorians were very big on tableaux vivants, and I have a fascination for how the folks of that era entertained themselves (they were wildly creative!). I also have a passion for old newspapers, and going through them, have discovered lots of descriptions of the Victorian use of tableaux vivants. To see a small sampling of the many articles I've saved about Victorian entertainments, check these links to graphics I've kept:

Society Poses in Picture Tableaux, New York Times, January 16, 1914
Tableaux in Home of Mrs. Vanderbilt, New York Times, April 26, 1916
Tableaux Vivants of Other Days in Which New York Society Beauties Have Posed, New York Times, Februrary 23, 2908
Tableaux Vivants for Charity, New York Times, May 10, 1893
Tableaux-Fancy Dress Ball - Preparations - Who Looked Well - Gayety and People at the Springs New York Times, August 26, 1856



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