Rise of Christian theatre in AD 925

From the time of the early church up until the tenth century theatre was rejected as worldly and pagan. After the fall of the Roman Empire theatre was eventually banned by the church. However, paganism began to dwindle so much that by the Middle Ages we see the rise of the Passion Plays, which grew out of the church liturgy. So here we see a strange enigma: the church banned theatre in Europe, but then resurrected it as a means of telling the stories about Christmas and Easter! Stripped of the paganism and debauchery of classical theatre the monks were keen to use the vehicle of acting to spread their message. The earliest liturgical drama was in AD 925, initiated by the Benedictine monks of St Gallen in Switzerland, and it was called Quem Quaeritis? (Whom do you seek?) There are four lines, which are preceded by a choir:

Whom seek ye in the tomb, O Christians?
Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified, O heavenly beings,
He is not here, he is risen as he foretold;
Go and announce that he is risen from the tomb.

In AD 975 Aethelwold of Winchester composed Regularis Concordia (Monastic Agreement) with a play and directions for the performance, and Hrosvitha (AD 935-973), a Roman Catholic canoness in North Germany and the first woman playwright, wrote six plays. Her works were published in 1501 and had a real influence on theatre in the sixteenth century. Hildegard of Bingen, a Benedictine Abbess, wrote a Latin musical drama called Ordo Virtutum in 1155. In 1110 there is the earliest record of a Miracle Play in Dunstable, England, and by 1204 church theatre began to take place outside the church buildings.

By the late Middle Ages there were Passion Plays about the life of Christ being performed in 127 towns, such as York, Chester and Wakefield, and this method of theatre was seen as a wonderful means of educating the masses about the Christian message. This led to the Morality Plays which imparted moral values to the audiences between 1400 and 1550.

In 1430 professional actors begin to reappear and theatre blossomed again outside the church. However, because ‘worldly’ theatre was thriving again some of the church leaders began to have second thoughts about Christian theatre and in 1548 religious drama was banned in Paris. In 1558 Elizabeth I forbade the writing of religious drama, but in 1633 the first performance of the Passion Play of Oberammergau in Germany began. The Puritans in England began to seek reformation in the arts and saw theatre banned there in 1642, but this was short-lived as in 1660 the theatres re-opened in London. During the 18th century there was a huge renaissance of theatre outside the church and this led to our present day cultural view of theatre.