| English Literature for Boys and Girls|
|by H. E. Marshall|
|Delightful introduction to the writers of English literature whose works hold the greatest appeal for the youthful reader. The life and personality of each author is given in outline, with enough material quoted from his works to give an idea of what he wrote. For most authors suggestions for further reading are included. The outline of historical background enables the young reader to grasp the connection between the literature and the life of the time. Excellent as a companion to a chronological study of English literature. Ages 12-15 |
ABOUT THE FIRST THEATERS
 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
 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
 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
 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
 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
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
 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
 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
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
 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
 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:—
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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