We all expect a bit of pageantry at Easter: flowers, candles, incense, joyous choirs, radiant vestments, extra musical instruments.
But would you expect the priest to perform a play?
That’s what happened around the fifth century. For over 1,000 years after that, Easter Sundays were filled with liturgical drama that eventually led to elaborate productions that spilled out of the churches into the streets.
By the 16th century, these “mystery plays” had become so secularized that they were curtailed by church and government leaders. In some places, they were banned entirely. Simpler church versions remained in use until the 18th century. In between, though, these plays brought Easter to life in a way that could only be called block-buster.
“The Catholic Encyclopedia” notes that, in the fifth century, living tableaux (similar to modern-day “living Last Suppers”) were introduced into liturgical services. Before long, these became tropes: prose and poetry that built upon the liturgical readings of the day.
Most of these tropes began in monasteries. Early Easter morning, during or right after morning prayer, monks would reenact the story of the three holy women arriving at Christ’s tomb. This soon evolved into the “Quem quaeritis” play (Latin: “Whom do you seek”), based on the angel’s words to the women.
All the roles were played by clerics. The angel, or sometimes angels, would go early to “the tomb” — which might be set up in the church — wearing white albs. The women then arrived, each wearing a cope (a vestment cape) and carrying incense burners to represent the ointment the women carried to anoint Jesus’ body. Everything ended with the choir singing the Te Deum hymn in praise of God. Mass followed. (Women playing the female roles did not become common for several centuries.)
By the 10th century, the four sentences of the early “Quem quaeritis” play had expanded into more dialog and added characters. More choral pieces were added. Before long, the drama included Good Friday events — the first being Jesus’ deposition from the cross. To represent this, at first, was a crucifix wrapped in cloth and laid in a tomb near the altar, until Easter morning’s “Quem quaeritis.”
Evolution continued and Jesus soon became the central figure. Still more characters were added — such as Peter and John running to the tomb. Later, Pilate, the Jewish authorities and Judas were added. By the 11th century, true full-scale Easter plays had developed. These became too long and broad in scope for the Mass setting.
This was especially true after the entire Passion was added to the plays by the 12th century. “The Catholic Encyclopedia” notes that, by the 15th century, some representations of the Passion lasted as long as the actual event and some of those who portrayed Christ on the cross had to be revived.
Once out of the church venue, local communities took over responsibility for the plays that then moved into public squares. New scenes, and even entire new plays, developed, based on Bible stories: from Daniel in the lions’ den to the wise and foolish virgins. These became known as “mystery plays” — “mystery” referring to the mystery of God’s work in history.
Latin was used less as more plays were performed in local languages — especially German, French, English and Spanish. Troops of professional actors traveled circuits through towns to perform the plays. In 1887, German medieval drama scholar Carl Lange recorded 224 different Easter dramas, more than half of them in German.
The thirst for new plays continued. Creation plays, that covered events from Adam and Eve to the Last Judgment, developed. Parts of these creation plays were performed at various times of the year. However, on the feast of Corpus Christi in summer, many cities put on pageants with the entire salvation sequence performed at church sites and in public squares throughout the day. Various guilds provided funds and sponsored performances: such as goldsmiths sponsoring a play about the Magi and the mariners’ guilds sponsoring “Jonah and the Whale.”
The scope became more elaborate and, in some cases, had a cast of hundreds. However, sets remained simple and there was no movable scenery. Instead, there were many creative elements: Judas being taken over by Satan was portrayed by black feathers waved in front of Judas’ mouth and a mountain was a cask for the actor to stand upon.
The material for the dramas even moved from biblical events to lives of saints, with the Virgin Mary and St. Nicholas among the most popular. Dramas about saints are more correctly called “miracle plays.”
Once the plays became local events, they began to lose connection to the liturgy and even their theological context. Some became definitely ribald and the church withdrew its support. In the early 13th century, Pope Innocent III banned clergy from performing in the plays and, a few years later, banned the plays from church property entirely. In the 16th century, Protestant reformers increasingly opposed mystery and miracle plays and, instead substituted schools dramas. Secular theater, such as the plays of Shakespeare, supplanted the dramas as well.
As the “Encyclopedia Britannica” notes, “The church no longer supported (mystery plays) because of their dubious religious value, Renaissance scholars found little of interest in their great rambling texts, and the general public preferred professional traveling companies that were beginning to arrive from Italy.”
By the time of the “Age of Enlightenment” in the late 18th century, most vestiges of liturgical drama were gone. The only remnant remained in Passion plays, which found renewed interest at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The most famous, dating to 1633, is the Oberammergau Passion Play, performed every 10 years in Bavaria. (It, too, has a cast of hundreds.)
Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; “Encyclopedia Britannica”; fullhomelydivinity.org; oxfordbiliographies.com; bartleby.com; and wikipedia.org.