This manuscript contains the earliest work of theatre criticism in English. The Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge is a tract written by a religious reformer in the 15th century who took issue with medieval religious drama. In this period almost all drama was religious, and the author of the anonymous treatise was concerned that such plays made a mockery of the work of God and the story of the crucifixion of Jesus. The author’s central objection is this:
Myraclis of Crist and of Hyse seyntis weren þus efectuel as by oure bileve we ben in certeyne no man shulde usen in bourde and pleye þe myraclis and werkes þat Crist so ernystfully wrouȝte to oure helþe
(f. 14r – digitised image 1 – these lines are 19 lines from the top of the page)
[The miracles of Christ and of his saints had a sincere significance, we are certain, so nobody should use these miracles, and the works Christ, which were fulfilled for our benefit, in jest and play]
Although the work is the first surviving piece of theatre criticism in English, it is part of a long tradition of objection to religious drama that goes back to the early Christian writer Tertullian, or Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus (c. 155–c. 240 CE), who wrote a tract called De Spectaculis, in which he was critical of theatre, circus performance and amphitheatre shows.
The Tretise is probably the work of two individuals – it appears to have been composed in two stages. The first part has a more impersonal tone and was written by a scribe from the Huntington area in Cheshire, while the second part is written in a Northamptonshire dialect and is more personal. It is directed towards a ‘friend’.
The Tretise is of great importance to theatre historians because the author lays out six reasons why those who support religious drama view it in a positive light. The author sets out to refute each of these points in turn, but in the process he gives us an insight into what people thought about religious drama in the period. The six reasons given in support of religious drama are:
- that the plays are an aid to worship;
- that they convert audiences from worldliness to true faith;
- that they inspire true compassion;
- that they offer a means to instruct people whom the Church would otherwise be unable to reach;
- that they are a more virtuous form of entertainment than other forms of entertainment available to people at the time; and finally
- that they are an effective way to convey the Christian message to people who are unable to read.
- Article by:
- Hetta Elizabeth Howes
- Faith and religion, Form and genre
The mystery plays and morality plays of the 15th and 16th centuries were very different from modern drama. They were performed in public spaces by ordinary people, and organised and funded by guilds of craftsmen and merchants. Hetta Howes takes us back in time to show how these plays portrayed scenes from the Bible, conveyed religious doctrine and encouraged their audiences to lead Christian lives.