Liturgical drama

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This article focuses on the technical term liturgical drama; for general aspects of medieval performance, see the article on Medieval theatre.

A Mosaic of Theatrical Forms[edit]

Premodern performance took place on a flowing border between more or less institutionalized forms; rites and plays existed among other public ceremonies such as royal publicity, religious penance, or legal punishment. It is therefore necessary to speak of a mosaic of medieval theatricality.[1]

Since the 10th Century, Easter liturgies have contained early forms of performance and role play. Some are short text passages, others are quite long and developed. In the 15th and 16th Centuries, Passion Plays and Corpus Christi plays grew into highly developed performances, which in some localities existed until the 17th Century.

The premodern combination of liturgy, ritual and performance makes it especially difficult to apply the term "Drama". It is not always possible to understand the relationship between written text, staging and performance. The texts themselves are often part of a liturgical rite, making it difficult to locate a beginning or an end of the play within the liturgical or paraliturgical context.

The Quem Quaeritis? ("Whom do you seek?" ) segment of the Easter liturgy was an exchange of one question, one answer, and one command between the Angels at Christ's tomb and the three Marys (Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Mary, the sister of Lazarus). Yet the concept of drama cannot adequately be used to describe the Quem Queritis, since drama as a concept is not found in the medieval sources themselves; using the term drama opens up a vast field of anachronistic misunderstandings.[2]

The Easter Plays were the core of medieval performance within the liturgy, but there were additional forms such as saints' plays, miracle stories, legends, and apocalyptic plays. The largest part of plot material is taken from the Bible or Christian legend.

Contrary to earlier theories tracing the development of European theatre from the Catholic liturgy, there is no logical or chronological development in the various play texts from the Middle Ages; the scope of the text, its complexity, and its dramatic structure of the many sources known today [3] do not develop in a systematic manner. Another widespread misunderstanding of medieval performance forgets that music always played an important part in liturgical rites and plays.

Forms of Performance[edit]

The rites in Latin were always performed in a church, in the context of a liturgical ceremony. Since they are so strongly integrated into the liturgy (Mass or Liturgy of the Hours), it is questionable whether or not they count as performance. Latin-language plays were also performed in churches without a liturgical context. Vernacular plays were most often performed in public spaces outside of the church, usually on mansion stages on the public square. Stage sets representing heaven, hell, Pontius Pilate's house or the Holy Sepulcher were erected on the stages.

To speak of actors is only pertinent to the plays; in the church, the rites were performed by clerics and monks who did not consider themselves to be acting in any amateur or professional sense. A director of sorts arbitrated between the stage and the audience; he commented upon the scene, narrated passages and kept order.

While most performances were limited to a few hours, some plays could reach monumental proportions: The Passion-Play of Bolzano took seven days in 1514, and the one staged at Valenciennes in 1547, a total of 25.

Social Context[edit]

While liturgical rites are a constant in Christian life, plays are not. There are passages of European history in which plays are all but unknown. The medieval city was a performance-friendly culture. Clerics and trade fraternities encouraged stage performance in the church and outside of it. Amateur actors were recruited among the ranks of schoolboys and trade apprentices. Topics performed were predominantly taken from Christian sources, yet comic and contemporary topics were omnipresent in almost all performance, in a more or less discreet manner. Improvisation was a crowd-pleaser.

Since Christian liturgy is the re-enactment of crucial moments in Christ's life, it comes as no surprise that medieval performance blurs the distinction between reality and the fiction being presented to the audience. Antisemitic violence could occur after the crowds had witnessed a Passion-Play; sometimes members of the audience would interrupt the performance by jumping into the scene in order to "save" the suffering Christ.[4]

List of liturgical dramas[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Vicki Ann Cremona, Theatrical Events. Borders, Dynamics, Frames (Amsterdam 2004).
  2. ^ Nils Holger Petersen, The Representational Liturgy of the Regularis Concordi, in: The white mantle of churches, ed. Nigel Hiscock (International medieval research 10, Turnhout 2003), pp. 107-117.
  3. ^ Clifford Flanigan, Liturgical Drama and Its Tradition: A Review of Scholarship 1965–1975, in: Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama 18 (1975) 81–102 und 19 (1976) 109–136.
  4. ^ John Harris, Medieval Theatre in Context: An Introduction (Routledge 1992).


  • Olivia Robinson and Aurélie Blanc, 'The Huy Nativity from the Seventeenth to the Twenty-First Century: Translation, Play-Back, and Pray-Back', Medieval English Theatre 40 (2019) [1]
  • Benjamin Hunningher, The Origin of the Theater (The Hague, 1955).
  • Walther Lipphardt: Lateinische Osterfeiern und Osterspiele, 9 volumes (Berlin, 1976–1990).
  • Michael Norton, Liturgical Drama and the Reimagining of Medieval Theater (Kalamazoo, 2017).