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The moral-plays are traced back to the early part of the reign of Henry VI., and they appear to have gradually arisen out of the miracle-plays, in which, of course, characters very nearly approaching in their nature to the impersonated vices and virtues of the new species of drama must have occasionally appeared. The Devil of the Miracles, for example, would very naturally suggest the Vice of the Morals; which latter, however, it is to be observed, also retained the Devil of their predecessors, who was too amusing and popular a character to be discarded. Nor did the moral-plays altogether put down the miracle-plays: in many of the provincial towns, at least, the latter continued to be represented almost to as late a date as the former. Finally, by a process of natural transition very similar to that by which the sacred and supernatural characters of the religious drama had been converted into the allegorical personifications of the moral-plays, these last, gradually becoming less and less vague and shadowy, at length, about the middle of the sixteenth century, boldly assumed life and reality, giving birth to the first examples of regular tragedy and comedy.
Both moral-plays, however, and even the more ancient miracle-plays, continued to be occasionally performed down to the very end of the sixteenth century. One of the last dramatic representations at which Elizabeth was present, was a moral-play, entitled ‘The Contention between Liberality and Prodigality,’ which was performed before her majesty in 1600, or 1601. This production was printed in 1602, and was probably written not long before that time: it has been said to be the joint production of Thomas Lodge and Robert Greene,” the last of
* By Edward Phillips, in his “Theatrum Poetarum,' 1675. whom died in 1592. The only three manuscripts of the Chester miracle-plays now extant were written in 1600, 1604, and 1607, most probably while the plays still continued to be acted. There is evidence that the ancient annual miracle-plays were acted at Tewkesbury at least till 1585, at Coventry till 1591, at Newcastle till 1598, and at Kendal down even to the year 1603.”
As has been observed, however, by Mr. Collier, the latest and best historian of the English drama, the moralplays were enabled to keep possession of the stage so long as they did, partly by means of the approaches they had for some time been making to a more improved species of composition, “and partly because, under the form of allegorical fiction and abstract character, the writers introduced matter which covertly touched upon public events, popular prejudices, and temporary opinions.”f He mentions, in particular, the moral entitled ‘The Three Ladies of London,’ printed in 1584, and its continuation, “The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London,’ which appeared in 1590 (both by R. W.), as belonging to this class.
* The “Towneley Mysteries' (so called after the MS. containing them, belonging to Mr. P. Towneley), which are supposed to have been acted at Widkirk Abbey in Yorkshire, have been printed for the Surtees Society, under the care of the Rev. Joseph Hunter and J. Stevenson, Esq., 8vo. Newcastle, 1831; the ‘Coventry Mysteries, under the care of J. O. Halliwell, Esq., for the Shakespeare Society, 8vo. London, 1841; and the “Chester Mysteries,’ for the same Society, under the care of Thomas Wright, Esq., vol. i. 8vo. London, 1843.
+ Hist of Dramatic Poetry, ii. 413.
INTERLUDES OF JOHN HEYWOOD.
Meanwhile, long before the earliest of these dates, the ancient drama had, in other hands, assumed wholly a new form. Mr. Collier appears to consider the interludes of John Heywood, the earliest of which must have been written before 1521, as first exhibiting the moral-play in a state of transition to the regular tragedy and comedy. “John Heywood's dramatic productions,” he says, “almost form a class by themselves: they are neither miracle-plays nor moral-plays, but what may be properly and strictly called interludes, a species of writing of which he has a claim to be considered the inventor, although the term interlude was applied generally to theatrical productions in the reign of Edward IV.” A notion of the nature of these compositions may be collected from the plot of one of them, ‘A Mery Play betwene the Pardoner and the Frere, the Curate and neighbour Pratte, printed in 1533, of which Mr. Collier gives the following account:-‘‘A pardoner and a friar have each obtained leave of the curate to use his church,-the one for the exhibition of his relics, and the other for the delivery of a sermon—the object of both being the same, that of procuring money. The friar arrives first, and is about to commence his discourse, when the pardoner enters and disturbs him; each is desirous of being heard, and, after many vain attempts by force of lungs, they proceed to force of arms, kicking and cuffing each other unmercifully. The curate, called by the disturbance in his church, endeavours, without avail, to part the combatants; he the fore calls in neighbour Pratte to his
*assistance, and, while the curate seizes the friar, Pratte
undertakes to deal with the pardoner, in order that they may set them in the stocks. It turns out that both the friar and the pardoner are too much for their assailants; and the latter, after a sound drubbing, are glad to come to a composition, by which the former are allowed quietly to depart.” Here, then, we have a dramatic fable, or incident at least, conducted not by allegorical personifications, but by characters of real life, which is the essential difference that distinguishes the true tragedy or comedy from the mere moral. Heywood’s interludes, however, of which there are two or three more of the same description with this (besides others partaking more of the allegorical character), are all only single acts, or, more properly, scenes, and exhibit, therefore, nothing more than the mere rudiments or embryo of the regular comedy.
UDALL's RALPH ROISTER DoISTER.
The earliest English comedy, properly so called, that has yet been discovered, is commonly considered to be that of Ralph Roister Doister, the production of Nicholas Udall, an eminent classical scholar in the earlier part of the sixteenth century, and one of the masters, first at Eton, and afterwards at Westminster. Its existence was unknown till a copy was discovered in 1818, which was perhaps not printed earlier than 1566 (for the title-page was gone); but the play is mentioned in Thomas Wilson's ‘Rule of Reason,’ first printed in 1551, and other considerations make it probable that it may have been written some fifteen or twenty years before..t
* Hist. of Dramatic Poetry, ii. 386.
This hypothesis would carry it back to about the same date with the earliest of Heywood's interludes; and it certainly was produced while that writer was still alive and in the height of his popularity. It may be observed that Wilson calls Udall's play an interlude, which would therefore seem to have been at this time the common name for any dramatic composition, as, indeed, it appears to have been for nearly a century preceding. The author himself, however, in his prologue, announces it as a “Comedy, or Interlude,” and as an imitation of the classical models of Plautus and Terence. And, in truth, both in character and in plot, Ralph Roister Doister has every right to be regarded as a true comedy, showing, indeed, in its execution, the rudeness of the age, but in its plan, and in reference to the principle upon which it is constructed, as regular and as complete as any comedy in the language. It is divided into acts and scenes, which very few of the moral-plays are; and, according to Mr. Collier's estimate, the performance could not have been concluded in less time than about two hours and a half, while few of the morals would require more than about an hour for their representation.* The dramatis personae are thirteen in all, nine male and four female; and the two principal ones at least—Ralph himself, a vain, thoughtless, blustering fellow, whose ultimately baffled pursuit of the gay and rich widow Custance forms the action of the piece; and his servant, Matthew Merrygreek, a kind of flesh-and-blood representative of the Vice of the old moral-plays—are strongly discriminated, and drawn altogether with much force and spirit. The story is not very ingeniously involved, but * See Collier, ii. 45.