morality play

morality play
   Morality plays were popular dramatic entertainments in late medieval England. In contrast with the MYSTERY PLAYS, which retold the universal biblical history of salvation from the Creation of the world to Doomsday, morality plays focused on the salvation of an individual human being (whose name—“Mankind,”“Everyman,” or the like—indicates that he represents all human individuals). Whereas the mystery plays were set in the physical world, including earth, heaven, and hell, the setting of the morality play was most often the individual psyche, and the characters’ personifications of abstract qualities, attributes, sins, and virtues that play a part in the spiritual health and salvation of the individual soul.Where mystery plays took their inspiration from Scripture, morality plays took theirs from sermons and from allegorical texts like PRUDENTIUS’s well-known PSYCHOMACHIA, a fourthcentury poem describing a struggle between personified sins and virtues within the psyche. The medieval morality plays dealt with one of three themes: the psychomachia in which Virtues and Vices vie for the man’s soul; the summoning of Death, wherein the Mankind figure is summoned to his judgment where he must give an accounting of his life; and the debate by the daughters of God—Mercy and Peace against Justice and Truth—over the salvation of the deceased. The earliest extant complete morality play, The CASTLE OF PERSEVERANCE (ca. 1425), contains all three elements in a long script of some 3,600 lines. That play is known to have been performed on a stationary stage made up of separate platforms (as opposed to a movable pageant wagon characteristic of the mystery plays).
   The earliest morality play we have any record of was called Pater Noster and was performed in York in the late 14th century. There is some speculation that it may have been written by John WYCLIFFE, but it has not survived. Five medieval morality plays are extant: The fragmentary Pride of Life (late 14th century) and the well-known EVERYMAN (ca. 1485), both of which concern the confrontation of Death; and the so-called Macro play—named for the owner of their manuscripts — including the aforementioned Castle of Perseverance along with Wisdom (ca. 1460) and MANKIND (ca. 1473), the last two of which essentially follow the psychomachia pattern of temptation and resistance.
   Clearly the purpose of morality plays was didactic and gravely serious, but the plays were also highly theatrical and often entertained their audiences with a folksy kind of humor. Particularly popular was the character called the VICE, a demonic trickster figure who became a favorite stage figure. The pageantry of something like a parade of the Seven Deadly Sins, personified and costumed, was also a popular feature. As morality plays continued to be performed well into the Tudor period, the influence of some of these characters extended to Elizabethan drama:Marlowe includes a pageant of deadly sins in Doctor Faustus, while the Vice character survives in the countless clowns that appear in Elizabethan plays.
   Although the initial impetus of morality plays was the promulgation of orthodox Catholic doctrine, morality plays continued to be written well into Reformation England. Often the subject of these later moralities (or “interludes” as some later allegorical plays were called) was political rather than religious, or had to do with the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism. Some of these later moralities include John Skelton’s Magnyfycence (ca. 1516), Sir David LINDSAY’s Ane Pleasant Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis (1540), and John Bale’s King John (ca. 1548). The late survival and the popularity of the morality play genre made it a vital link in the development of Renaissance drama in England.
   ■ Davenport,W. A. Fifteenth-Century English Drama: The Early Moral Plays and Their Literary Relations. Cambridge, U.K.: Brewer, 1982.
   ■ King, Pamela M.“Morality Plays.” In The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre, edited by Richard Beadle, 240–264. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
   ■ Potter, Robert. The English Morality Play. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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