ABOUT THE BEGINNING OF THE THEATER
 MANY of you have, no doubt, been to the theater. You have seen
pantomimes and Peter Pan, perhaps; perhaps, too, a play of
Shakespeare,—a comedy, it may be, which made you laugh, or even
a tragedy which made you want to cry, or at least left you sad.
Some of you, too, have been to "Pageants," and some may even have
been to an oratorio, which last may have been sung in a church.
But did you ever wonder how plays and theaters came to be? Did
you ever think that there was a time when in all the length and
breadth of the land there was no theater, when there were no
plays either merry or sad? Yet it was so. But at a very early
time the people of England began to act. And, strange as it may
seem to us now, the earliest plays were acted by monks and took
place in church. And it is from these very early monkish plays
that the theater with its different kinds of plays, that pageants
and even oratorios have sprung.
In this chapter I am going to talk about these beginnings of the
English theater and of its literature. All plays taken together
are called the drama, and the writers of them are called
dramatists, from a Greek word dran, to act or do. For dramas are
written not to be read merely, but also to be acted.
To trace the English drama from its beginnings we must go a long
way back from the reigns of Henry VII and of Henry VIII, down to
which the life of Dunbar has brought us. We must go back to the
 the priests were the only learned people in the land,
when the monasteries were the only schools.
If we would picture to ourselves what these first English plays
were like, we must not think of a brilliantly lighted theater
pranked out and fine with red and gold and white such as we know.
We must think rather of some dim old church. Stately pillars
rise around us, and the outline of the arches is lost in the high
twilight of the roof. Behind the quaintly dressed players gleams
the great crucifix with its strange, sad figure and outstretched
arms which, under the flickering light of the high altar candles,
seems to stir to life. And beyond the circle of light, in the
soft darkness of the nave, the silent people kneel or stand to
It was in such solemn surroundings that our first plays were
played. And the stories that were acted were Bible stories.
There was no thought of irreverence in such acting. On the
contrary, these plays were performed "to exort the mindes of
common people to good devotion and holesome doctrine."
You remember when Caedmon sang, he made his songs of the stories
of Genesis and Exodus. And in this way, in those bookless days,
the people were taught the Bible stories. But you know that what
we learn by our ears is much harder to remember than what we
learn by our eyes. If we are only told a thing we may easily
forget it. But if we have seen it, or seen a picture of it, we
remember it much more easily. In those far-off days, however,
there were as few pictures as there were books in England. And
so the priests and monks fell upon the plan of acting the Bible
stories and the stories of the saints, so that the people might
see and better understand.
These plays which the monks made were called Mystery or Miracle
plays. I cannot tell you the exact date of our first Miracle
plays, but the earliest that we know of certainly was acted at
the end of the eleventh or beginning
 of the twelfth century. It
is not unreasonable to suppose, however, that there had been
still earlier plays of which we know nothing. For the Miracle
plays did not spring all at once to life, they began gradually,
and the beginnings can be traced as far back as the ninth
century. In an old book of rules for Winchester Cathedral,
written about 959, there are directions given for showing the
death and resurrection of Christ in dumb show chiefly, with just
a few Latin sentences to explain it. By degrees these plays grew
longer and fuller, until in them the whole story of man from the
Creation to the Day of Judgment was acted in what was called a
cycle or circle of short acts or plays.
But although these plays were looked upon as an act of religion,
they were not all solemn. At times, above the grave tones of the
monks or the solemn chanting of the choir, laughter rang out.
For some of the characters were meant to be funny, and the
watching crowd knew and greeted them as such even before they
spoke, just as we know and greet the jester or the clown.
The demons were generally funny, and Noah's wife, who argued
about going into the ark. The shepherds, also, watching their
flocks by night, were almost sure to make the people laugh.
But there were solemn moments, too, when the people reverently
listened to the grave words of God the Father, or to those,
tender and loving, of Mary, the Virgin Mother. And when the
shepherds neared the manger where lay the wondrous Babe, all
jesting ceased. Here there was nothing but tender, if simple and
In those early days Latin was the tongue of the Church, and the
Miracle plays were at first said in Latin. But as the common
folk could not understand what was said, the plays were chiefly
shown in dumb show. Soon, however, Latin was given up, and the
plays were acted in English. Then by degrees the churches grew
too small to hold the
 great crowds of people who wished to see
the plays, and so they were acted outside the church door in the
churchyard, on a stage built level with the steps. The church,
then, could be made to represent heaven, where God and the angels
dwelt. The stage itself was the world, and below it was hell,
from out of which came smoke and sometimes flames, and whence
might be heard groans and cries and the clanking of chains.
But the playing of Mysteries and Miracles at the church doors had
soon to be given up. For the people, in their excitement, forgot
the respect due to the dead. They trampled upon the graves and
destroyed the tombs in their eagerness to see. And when the play
was over the graveyard was a sorry sight with trodden grass and
broken headstones. So by degrees it came about that these plays
lost their connection with the churches, and were no more played
in or near them. They were, instead, played in some open space
about the town, such as the market-place. Then, too, the players
ceased to be monks and priests, and the acting was taken up by
the people themselves. It was then that the playing came into
the hands of the trade guilds.
Nowadays we hear a great deal about "trades unions." But in
those far-off days such things were unknown. Each trade,
however, had its own guild by which the members of it were bound
together. Each guild had its patron saint, and after a time the
members of a guild began to act a play on their saint's day in
his honor. Later still the guilds all worked together, and all
acted their plays on one day. This was Corpus Christi Day, a
feast founded by Pope Urban IV in 1264. As this feast was in
summer, it was a very good time to act the plays, for the weather
was warm and the days were long. The plays often began very
early in the morning as soon as it was light, and lasted all day.
The Miracles were now acted on a movable stage.
 This stage was
called a pageant, and the play which was acted on it was also in
time called a pageant. The stage was made in two stories. The
upper part was open all round, and upon this the acting took
place. The under part was curtained all round, and here the
actors dressed. From here, too, they came out, and when they had
finished their parts they went back again within the curtains.
The movable stages were, of course, not very large, so sometimes
more than one was needed for a play. At other times the players
overflowed, as it were, into the audience. "Here Herod rages on
the pageant and in the street also" is one stage direction. The
devils, too, often ran among the people, partly to amuse them and
partly to frighten and show them what might happen if they
remained wicked. At the Creation, animals of all kinds which had
been kept chained up were let loose suddenly, and ran among the
people, while pigeons set free from cages flew over their heads.
Indeed, everything seems to have been done to make the people
feel the plays as real as possible.
The demons were generally funny.
The pageants were on wheels, and as soon as a play was over at
the first appointed place, the stage was dragged by men to the
next place and the play again began. In an old MS. we are told,
"The places where they played them was in every streete. They
begane first at the abay gates, and when the first pagiante was
played, it was wheeled to the highe crosse befor the mayor, and
soe to every streete. And soe every streete had a pagiant
playinge before them at one time, till all the pagiantes for the
daye appoynted weare played. And when one pagiante was neare
ended worde was broughte from streete to streete, that soe they
mighte come in place thereof, exceedinge orderly. And all the
streetes have theire pagiantes afore them all at one time
 Thus, if a man kept his place all a long summer's day, he might
see pass before him pageant after pageant until he had seen the
whole story of the world, from the Creation to the Day of
In time nearly every town of any size in England had its own
cycle of plays, but only four of these have come down to us.
These are the York, the Chester, the Wakefield, and the Coventry
cycles. Perhaps the most interesting of them all are the
Wakefield plays. They are also called the Townley plays, from
the name of the family who possessed the manuscript for a long
Year after year the same guild acted the same play. And it
really seemed as if the pageant was in many cases chosen to suit
the trade of the players. The water-drawers of Chester, for
instance, acted the Flood. In York the shipwrights acted the
building of the ark, the fishmongers the Flood, and the gold-
beaters and money-workers the three Kings out of the East.
The members of each guild tried to make their pageant as fine as
they could. Indeed, they were expected to do so, for in 1394 we
find the Mayor of York ordering the craftsmen "to bring forth
their pageants in order and course by good players, well arrayed
and openly speaking, upon pain of losing of 100 shillings, to be
paid to the chamber without any pardon."
So, in order to supply everything that was needful, each member
of a guild paid what was called "pageant silver." Accounts of
how this money was spent were carefully kept. A few of these
have come down to us, and some of the items and prices paid sound
very funny now.
"Paid for setting the world of fire 5d.
For making and mending of the black souls hose 6d.
For a pair of new hose and mending of the old for the white souls 18d.
Paid for mending Pilate's hat 4d."
The actors, too, were paid. Here are some of the prices:—
"To Fawson for hanging Judas 4d.
Paid to Fawson for cock crowing 4d."
Some got much more than others. Pilate, for instance, who was an
important character, got 4s., while two angels only got 8d.
between them. But while the rehearsing and acting were going on
the players received their food, and when it was all over they
wound up with a great supper.