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English Literature for Boys and Girls by  H. E. Marshall


 

 

ABOUT THE FIRST THEATERS

[270] IN the beginnings of our literature there were two men who, we might say, were the fountain-heads. These were the gay minstrel abroad in the world singing in hall and market-place, and the patient monk at work in cell or cloister. And as year by year our literature grew, strengthened and broadened, we might say it flowed on in two streams. It flowed in two streams which were ever joining, mingling, separating again, for the monk and the minstrel spoke to man each in his own way. The monk made his appeal to the eye as with patient care he copied, painted and made his manuscript beautiful with gold and colors. The minstrel made his appeal to the ear with music and with song. Then after a time the streams seemed to join, and the monk when he played the miracle-plays seemed to be taking the minstrel's part. Here was an appeal to both the eye and ear. Instead of illuminating the silent parchment he made living pictures illustrate spoken words. Then followed a time when the streams once more divided and church and stage parted. The strolling players and the trade guilds took the place both of the minstrel and of the monkish actors, the monk went back once more to his quiet cell, and the minstrel gradually disappeared.

So year after year went on. By slow degrees times changed, and our literature changed with the times. But looking backward we can see that the poet is the development of the minstrel, the prose writer the development of [271] the monkish chronicler and copyist. Prose at first was only used for grave matters, for history, for religious works, for dry treatises which were hardly literature, which were not meant for enjoyment but only for use and for teaching. But by degrees people began to use prose for story-telling, for enjoyment. More and more prose began to be written for amusement until at last it has quite taken the place of poetry. Nowadays many people are not at all fond of poetry. They are rather apt to think that a poetry book is but dull reading, and they much prefer plain prose. It may amuse those who feel like that to remember that hundreds of years ago it was just the other way round. Then it was prose that was considered dull—hence we have the word prosy.

All poetry was at first written to be sung, sung too perhaps with some gesture, so that the hearers might the better understand the story. Then by degrees poets got further and further away from that, until poets like Spenser wrote with no such idea. But while poets like Spenser wrote their stories to be read, another class of poets was growing up who intended their poems to be spoken and acted. These were the dramatists.

So you see that the minstrel stream divided into two. There was now the poet who wrote his poems to be read in quiet and the poet who wrote his, if not to be sung, at least to be spoken aloud. But there had been, as we have seen, a time when the minstrel and the monkish stream had touched, a time when the monk, using the minstrel's art, had taught the people through ear and eye together. For the idea of the Miracle and Morality plays was, you remember, to teach. So, long after the monks had ceased to act, those who wrote poems to be acted felt that they must teach something. Thus after the Miracle plays came the Moralities, which sometimes were very long and dull. They were followed by [272] Interludes which were much the same as Moralities but were shorter, and as their name shows were meant to come in the middle of something else, for the word comes from two Latin words, "inter" between and "ludus" a play. An Interlude may have been first used, perhaps, as a kind of break in a long feast.

The Miracle plays had only been acted once a year, first by the monks and later by the trade guilds. But the taste for plays grew, and soon bands of players strolled about the country acting in towns and villages. These strolling players often made a good deal of money. But though the people crowded willingly to see and hear, the magistrates did not love these players, and they were looked upon as little better than rogues and vagabonds. Then it became the fashion for great lords to have their own company of players, and they, when their masters did not need them, also traveled about to the surrounding villages acting wherever they went. This taste for acting grew strong in the people of England. And if in the life of the Middle Ages there was always room for story-telling, in the life of Tudor England there was always room for acting and shows.

These shows were called by various names, Pageants, Masques, Interludes, Mummings or Disguisings, and on every great or little occasion there was sure to be something of the sort. If the King or Queen went on a journey he or she was entertained by pageants on the way. If a royal visitor came to the court of England there were pageants in his honor. A birthday, a christening, a wedding or a victory would all be celebrated by pageants, and in these plays people of all classes took part. School-children acted, University students acted, the learned lawyers or Inns of Court acted, great lords and ladies acted, and even at times the King and Queen themselves took part. And although many of these shows, especially the pageants, were merely shows, without any [273] words, many, on the other hand, had words. Thus with so much acting and love of acting it was not wonderful that a crowd of dramatists sprang up.

Then, too, plays began to be divided into tragedies and comedies. A tragedy is a play which shows the sad side of life and which has a mournful ending. The word really means a goat-song, and comes from two Greek words, "tragos" a goat and "ode" a song. It was so called either because the oldest tragedies were acted while a goat was sacrificed, or because the actors themselves wore clothes made of goat-skins. A comedy is a play which shows the merry side of life and has a happy ending. This word too comes from two Greek words, "komos," a revel, and "ode," a song. The Greek word for village is also "komo," so a comedy may at first have meant a village revel or a merry-making. "Tragedy," it has been said, "is poetry in its deepest earnest; comedy is poetry in unlimited jest." But the old Moralities were neither the one nor the other, neither tragedy nor comedy. They did not touch life keenly enough to awaken horror or pain. They were often sad, but not with that sadness which we have come to call tragic, they were often indeed merely dull, and although there was always a funny character to make laughter, it was by no means unlimited jest. The Interludes came next, after the Moralities, with a little more human interest and a little more fun, and from them it was easy to pass to real comedies.

A play named Ralph Roister Doister is generally looked upon as the first real English comedy. It was written by Nicholas Udall, headmaster first of Eton and then of Westminster, for the boys of one or other school. It was probably for those of Westminster that it was written, and may have been acted about 1552.

The hero, if one may call him so, who gives his name to [274] the play, is a vain, silly swaggerer. He thinks every woman who sees him is in love with him. So he makes up his mind to marry a rich and beautiful widow named Christian Custance.

Not being a very good scholar, Ralph gets some one else to write a love-letter for him, but when he copies it he puts all the stops in the wrong places, which makes the sense quite different from what he had intended, and instead of being full of pretty things the letter is full of insults.

Dame Custance will have nothing to say to such a stupid lover, "I will not be served with a fool in no wise. When I choose a husband I hope to take a man," she says. In revenge for her scorn Ralph Roister Doister threatens to burn the dame's house down, and sets off to attack it with his servants. The widow, however, meets him with her handmaidens. There is a free fight (which, no doubt, the schoolboy actors enjoyed), but the widow gets the best of it, and Ralph is driven off.

Our first real tragedy was not written until ten years after our first comedy. This first tragedy was written by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville, Earl of Dorset. It was acted by the gentlemen of the Inner Temple "before the Queen's most excellent Majestie in her highness' Court of Whitehall the 18th day of January, 1561."

Chaucer tells us that a tragedy is a story

"Of him that stood in great prosperitie,

And is yfallen out of high degree

Into miserie, and endeth wretchedly."

So our early tragedies were all taken from sad stories in the old Chronicle histories. And this first tragedy, written by Norton and Sackville, is called Gorboduc, and is founded upon the legend of Gorboduc, King of Britain. The story is told, though not quite in the same way, by Geoffrey of [275] Monmouth, our old friend, by Matthew of Westminster, and by others of the old chroniclers. For in writing a poem or play it is not necessary to keep strictly to history. As Sir Philip Sidney, Spenser's friend, says: "Do they not know that a tragedy is tied to the laws of Poesie and not of History, not bound to follow the story, but, having liberty, either to fain a quite new matter, or to frame the history to the most tragical convenience?"

The story goes that Gorboduc, King of Britain, divided his realm during his lifetime between his sons Ferrex and Porrex. But the brothers quarreled, and the younger killed the elder. The mother, who loved her eldest son most, then killed the younger in revenge. Next the people, angry at such cruelty, rose in rebellion and killed both father and mother. The nobles then gathered and defeated the rebels. And lastly, for want of an heir to the throne, "they fell to civil war," and the land for a long time was desolate and miserable.

In the play none of these fearful murders happen on the stage. They are only reported by messengers. There is also a chorus of old sage men of Britain who, at the end of each act, chant of what has happened. When you come to read Greek plays you will see that this is more like Greek than English tragedy, and it thus shows the influence of the New Learning upon our literature. But, on the other hand, in a Greek drama there was never more than one scene, and all the action was supposed to take place on one day. This was called preserving the unities of time and place, and no Greek drama which did not observe them would have been thought good. In Gorboduc  there are several scenes, and the action, although we are not told how long, must last over several months at least. So that although Gorboduc  owed something to the New Learning, which had made men study Greek, it owed as much to the [276] old English Miracle plays. Later on when you come to read more about the history of our drama you will learn a great deal about what we owe to the Greeks, but here I will not trouble you with it.

You remember that in the Morality plays there was no scenery. And still, although in the new plays which were now being written the scene was supposed to change from place to place, there was no attempt to make the stage look like these places. The stage was merely a plain platform, and when the scene changed a board was hung up with "This is a Palace" or "This is a Street" and the imagination of the audience had to do the rest.

That some people felt the absurdity of this we learn from a book by Sir Philip Sidney. In it he says, "You shall have Asia of the one side, and Affrick of the other, and so many other under kingdoms, that the Player, when he cometh in, must ever begin with telling where he is, or else the tale will not be conceived. Now you shall have three ladies walk to gather flowers, and then we must believe the stage to be a garden. By and by, we hear news of shipwreck in the same place, and then we are to blame if we accept it not for a Rock. Upon the back of that, comes out a hideous Monster, with fire and smoke, and then the miserable beholders are bound to take it for a cave. While in the meantime two Armies fly in, represented with four swords and bucklers, and then what hard heart will not receive it for a pitched field!"

If the actors of the Elizabethan time had no scenery they made up for the lack of it by splendid and gorgeous dressing. But it was the dressing of the day. The play might be supposed to take place in Greece or Rome or Ancient Britain, it mattered not. The actors dressed after the fashion of their own day. And neither actors nor audience saw anything funny in it. To them it was not [277] funny that an ancient British king should wear doublet and hose, nor that his soldiers should discharge firearms in a scene supposed to take place hundreds of years before gunpowder had been invented. But we must remember that in those days dress meant much more than it does now. Dress helped to tell the story. Men then might not dress according to their likes and dislikes, they were obliged to dress according to their rank. Therefore it helped the Elizabethan onlooker to understand the play when he saw a king, a courtier, or a butcher come on to the stage dressed as he knew a king, a courtier, or a butcher dressed. Had he seen a man of the sixth century dressed as a man of the sixth century he would not have known to what class he belonged and would not have understood the play nearly so well.

But besides having no scenery, the people of England had at first no theaters. Plays were acted in halls, in the dining-halls of the great or in the guild halls belonging to the various trades. It was not until 1575 that the first theater was built in London. This first theater was so successful that soon another was built and still another, until in or near London there were no fewer than twelve. But these theaters were very unlike the theaters we know now. They were really more like the places where people went to see cock-fights and bear-baiting. They were round, and except over the stage there was no roof. The rich onlookers who could afford to pay well sat in "boxes" on the stage itself, and the other onlookers sat or stood in the uncovered parts. Part of a theater is still called the pit, which helps to remind us that the first theaters may have served as "cock-pits" or "bear-pits" too as well as theaters. For a long time, too, the theater was a man's amusement just as bear-baiting or cock-fighting had been. There were no actresses, the women's parts were taken by boys, and at first ladies when they came to look on wore masks [278] so that they might not be known, as they were rather ashamed of being seen at a theater.

And now that the love of plays and shows had grown so great that it had been found worth while to build special places in which to act, you may be sure that there was no lack of play-writers. There were indeed many of whom I should like to tell you, but in this book there is no room to tell of all. To show you how many dramatists arose in this great acting age I will give you a list of the greatest, all of whom were born between 1552 and 1585. After Nicholas Udall and Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville, the writers of our first comedy and first tragedy, there came:—

George Peel.

Francis Beaumont.

John Lyly.

John Fletcher.

Thomas Kyd.

John Webster.

Robert Greene.

Philip Massinger.

Christopher Marlowe.

John Ford.

William Shakespeare.

Thomas Heywood.

Ben Jonson.

It would be impossible to tell you of all these, so I shall choose only two, and first I shall tell you of the greatest of them—Shakespeare. He shines out from among the others like a bright star in a clear sky. He is, however, not a lonely star, for all around him cluster others. They are bright, too, and if he were not there we might think some of them even very bright, yet he outshines them all. He forces our eyes to turn to him, and not only our eyes but the eyes of the whole world. For all over the world, wherever poetry is read and plays are played, the name of William Shakespeare is known and reverenced.


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