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Easter, which for Christians marks the resurrection of Jesus, also resurrected theatrical drama. The fall and fragmentation of the Roman empire brought Roman stage plays, and their Greek predecessors, to an end. Theatrical production ceased, fell out of memory, and there were no stage dramas as Europe entered the Middle Ages. There was pageantry, yes, but not theatrical dramas and plays as we know them today. Much of the Medieval Christian Mass was — in addition to its sacred ritual — an occasion of pageantry, and the church knew the uses of such displays.
Sometime in the 10th century, certain Easter services began to incorporate a bit of drama.The plot was simple:On the third day after the crucifixion of Jesus, the three Marys go to the tomb in search of the body of Jesus and find there an angel who asks who they are looking for. (You can see them in the Medieval illustration at the top of this post.) They say they’re looking for Jesus Christ who was crucified. The angel replies that Jesus has risen, as he had foretold he would. Go an announce that he has risen from the grave.
Here in Latin and English are the alternating questions and answers by the angel and the three Marys. The angel speaks first, asking the Marys who they are looking for:
- Quem quaeritis in sepulchro, o Christicolae? Whom do you seek in the grave, o followers of Christ?
- Jesum Nazarenum crucifixum, o caelicolae.
- Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified, o heavenly one.
- Non est hic; surrexit, sicut praedixerat. Ite, nuntiate quia surrexit de sepulchro. He is not here. He has risen, as he foretold. Go out and announce that he has risen from the grave.
No one can say whether it began by having a single speaker, a priest or cantor, ask the question “Who do you seek?” and other speaker, or singer, replying, or whether it was a whole chorus. In any case, the little exchange became more elaborate and other crucial turns in the life of Jesus were dramatized. Soon these little plays, or skits, were performed outside the church and eventually scenes from the old testament were added. The dramas were originally intended as lessons from the Bible, but they soon became enjoyable plays that were mounted on wheeled platforms — carts that could be taken from town to town and arranged in a circle so the spectators could move easily from one skit to another. Eventually, the playhouse was born, drama as we know it today was born. It all began at Easter.
Scripture tells of the resurrection of Jesus on the third day after his crucifixion, the day we call Easter. And the celebration of Easter in the church gave birth to, or resurrected, theatrical drama in the western world. Drama as a living art had perished with the collapse and break up of the Christianized Roman Empire. But at an Easter service which took place in the decades shortly before the year 1000 the people in charge devised a very brief skit to dramatize the events of that third day. After the execution of Jesus, when “the three Marys” went to the tomb to anoint the body, they found an angel seated on the edge of the tomb. The little drama, enacted by church singers, went like this —
[Angeli]: Quem quaeritis in sepulchro, o Christicolae?
Responsio: Jesum Nazarenum crucifixum, o caelicolae.
Angeli: Non est hic; surrexit, sicut praedixerat. Ite, nuntiate quia surrexit de sepulchro.
Or in English —
Angels: Whom do you seek in the tomb, O followers of Christ?
Response: The crucified Jesus of Nazareth, O heavenly beings.
Angels: He isn’t here; he’s risen, as he foretold. Go and announce that he has risen from the tomb.
From this slight beginning, drama was reborn.