Fish Eaters: The Whys and Hows of Traditional Catholicism

``Where the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of Antioch, 1st c. A.D

Mystery, Miracle,
and Morality Plays


Sadly, the topic of Mystery, Morality, Miracle, and Passion plays is, for the most part, with a few exceptions such as school nativity plays1, a matter of historical interest rather than what Catholics are up to today.2 But it's my hope that this will change, and that Catholics will once more use drama to teach and inspire.

Medieval drama sprang from liturgical drama, the foremost of which was the Quem quaeritis? of the 10th c. Easter liturgy -- a brief 3-part dramatic exchange between the women who went to Christ's tomb on Easter Sunday and the Angels they met there:

Interrogatio: 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

Angels: Whom do ye seek in the sepulchre, O followers of Christ?
Women: Jesus of Nazareth, the Crucified, O heavenly ones.
Angels: He is not here; He is risen, just as He foretold. Go, announce that He is risen from the sepulchre.

An angelic chorus of alleluias followed this exchange. The Festum Asinorum, or "Feast of the Ass," was another such liturgical drama, and it must've been colorful. The Catholic Encyclopedia describes it like this:

The procession filed into the choir. On the one side were seated Moses, Amos, Isaias, Aaron, Balaam and his Ass, Zachary and Elizabeth, John the Baptist and Simeon. The three Gentile prophets sat opposite. The proceedings were conducted under the auspices of St. Augustine, whom the presiding dignitary called on each of the prophets, who successively testified to the birth of the Messiah.

When the Sibyl had recited her acrostic lines on the Signs of Judgment (Du Méril, 186), all the prophets sang in unison a hymn of praise to the long-sought Saviour. Mass immediately followed. In all this the part that pleased the congregation was the roe of Balaam and the Ass; hence the popular designation of the "Processus Prophetarum" as "the Feast of the Ass."

The part of Balaam was soon dissociated from its surroundings and expanded into an independent drama. The Rouen rubrics direct that two messengers be sent by King Balaak to bring forth the prophet. Balaam advances riding on a gorgeously caparisoned ass (a wooden, or hobby, ass, for the rubric immediately bids somebody to hide beneath the trappings—not an enviable position when the further direction to the rider was carried out—"and let him goad the ass with his spurs")... Then follows the scene in which the ass meets the angered angel and protests at length against the cruelty of the rider.

There were other such short liturgical dramas, and they later spread to outside of the Church, developing into full-blown Mystery plays, Miracle plays, and Morality plays.

First, a few definitions:
  • Mystery plays are stories from the Bible. Of special note, Passion plays are a type of Mystery play that focuses on the Passion of Christ, and the origin of the custom of putting up nativity scenes at Christmas is a Mystery play put on by St. Francis of Assisi in A.D. 1223 -- the first Mystery play performed in Italy, and an event which led to the revival of drama there.

  • Miracle plays are based on the lives of the Saints, pious legends, stories from the Apocryphal Gospels (such as the Protoevangelium of St. James), etc., and were used to teach historical truths and about the Catholic Faith itself.

  • Morality plays are allegorical dramas in which the characters represent abstractions, such as the vices, virtues, "Everyman," Death, evil, and so on, and their purpose is to teach moral lessons, to help shape Christian character in the audience.
These dramas grew to be staged in three distinct ways. Some were produced in civic cycles by a city's guilds, and used processional staging requiring moving platforms -- stages set on pageant wagons, often with multi-story stages, that would move from place to place. A second type used platea et locus  -- "place-and-scaffold" -- staging in a specific area, with locus (scaffold) staging using a fixed platform, and with platea (place) staging in less defined, stageless settings. The third type of staging would take place in halls.

Left to right: Place-and-scaffold staging, and Hall staging

When produced by cities, each guild would present a different play -- one of a set of plays that were repeated in cycles over the years -- and, oftentimes, the play a guild would put on would have something to do with that guild's business. For ex., in York, it was the guild of shipwrights who'd put on the story of Noe's Ark, goldsmiths who'd portray the adoration of the Magi, and bakers who handled the Last Supper.

These cycles of plays would cover a vast amount of Scripture. As an example, below is the Chester Cycle, and the guild that would perform each play:   
The Fall of Lucifer
The Creation of the World, Adam and Eve, and how Cain Slew Abel
The Ark and the Flood
The Histories of Lot and Abraham, the Sacrifice of Isaac, and the Offering of Melchizedek Barbers and Wax Chandlers
The Story of Balaam and Balak Cappers and Linen Drapers
The Nativity Wrights and Slaters
The Shepherd's Play
Painters and Glaziers
The Visit of the Three Kings Vintners
The Offerings of the Three Kings and their
Return to their Own Countries
Mercers (cloth merchants)
The Massacre of the Innocents Goldmiths and Masons
Christ in the Temple Smiths
The Temptation in the Wilderness
The Raising of Lazarus and the Healing of the Blind Man
The Journey of Our Savior to Jerusalem Corvisors (leather-workers, shoemakers)
The Last Supper and Betrayal Bakers
The Passion and Crucifixion Fleshers, Bowyers (bow-makers), Coopers (barrel-makers), Stringers, and Ironmongers
The Harrowing of Hell Cooks
The Resurrection Skinners
The Appearance of Christ after His Resurrection Saddlers and Saddletree Makers
The Ascension
The Descent of the Holy Spirit
The Prophecies of the Coming of Anti-Christ Sherman (sheep-shearers, cloth finishers)
Anti-Christ Dyers and Hewsters (I have no idea what "hewsters" did. I asume they were lumberjacks.)
The Last Judgment  Weavers

Music was involved in these productions, including the use of hymns -- for ex., actors portraying Angels are directed to sing the "Ave Maria" in the Salutation and Conception, the "Veni Creator" in the Marriage of Mary and Joseph, and the "Te Deum Laudamus" at the end of the Mary Magdalene in the N-Town cycle of Mystery plays. Musicians would open, close, and accent action with trumpets, drums, and flutes.

And all this staging involved spectacle! From Folgerpedia online: 3

Medieval dramatic works often took advantage of what we would consider "special effects" today. Perhaps the most famous example is the direction in the staging diagram of the Castle of Perseverance regarding Belial's entrance for the battle scene: he is to have pipes filled with burning gunpowder in his hands, his ears, and his arse. But just as ambitious is the staging of the bleeding Host in the Croxton Play of the Sacrament, the expulsion of the Seven Deadly Sins from Mary Magdalene in the Digby Mary Magdalene, the withering of Salome's hand in the N-Town Nativity, and the use of light in the N-Town Salutation and Conception. There, in a striking visual translation of Mary's impregnation by the Trinity, the Holy Ghost descends to Mary alongside three beams, three beams shine from the Son of the Godhead to the Holy Ghost, and three beams shine from the Heavenly Father to the Son.

Stage properties also contributed to the sense of spectacle. The ship in the Digby Mary Magdalene represents a movable stage that traveled throughout the place, carrying characters between locations. Likewise, a "cloud" is used to allow Christ, Mary Magdalene, and the Virgin Mary to rise into heaven (and in the case of Magdalene, to return to earth) in the Chester Ascension, Digby Mary Magdalene, and N-town Assumption. Both the Chester Last Judgement and Antichrist stage the resurrection of the dead from sepulchers, but the latter also stages the dead rising up from burial mounds in a performative analogue to visuals seen in manuscripts, stained glass, wall paintings on stone or wood, and roof bosses throughout England. Equally impressive would have been the use of reflectors, backed by candles, to represent fire and the visitation of the Holy Spirit; the ability of Hellmouth to open and close to admit or expel devils, Christ, and the souls of the damned; and the use of fire and smoke to represent the burning of the pagan temple in Marseilles in the Mary Magdalene.

The Catholic Encyclopedia also gives us a description of the "the manner of representation and technic" found in these medieval Mystery plays: 

Places were indicated by vast scenery, rather than really represented. Two or three trees, for example, represented a forest, and although the action often changed from place to place the scenery did not change, for it showed simultaneously all the various localities where the characters successively appeared in the course of the drama, and which were thus in close proximity, even though in reality they were often far removed from each other.

For the rest nothing was neglected to attract the eye. If the scenery was immovable, it was very rich and secrets of theoretical mechanism often produced surprising and fairy-like effects. The actors were richly dressed, each defrayed the cost of his own costume and looked more for beauty than for truth.

Brilliant! To get a feel for medieval drama, see these pdf files of the script for
Everyman, written in the 15th c., and Medieval Mystery Plays, Morality Plays, and Interludes.

Two Special Plays

Oberammergau Passion Play

In 1634, the people who lived in the village of Oberammergau, in Bavaria, made a vow to God that, if He'd spare them from the ravages of the bubonic plague that was devastating Germany, they'd put on a Mystery play once each decade to depict and honor Christ's Passion. God did spare them, and they've kept their promise for almost four centuries as I write. In all years ending in zero, the play is acted out repeatedly, attracting people from all over the world to watch.

The entire town of Oberammergau is involved in the production of this spectacular event, which involves acting, orchestration, choirs, and tableaux vivants 4 that demonstrate Old Testament typology in light of New Testament action.

Scandalously, the Oberammergau play has been edited to appease the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian relations, who found objectionable what they say are Gospel "elements that are historically dubious" -- in other words, those parts of the Gospel that depicted what many Jews at the time of Christ did to bring about His persecution and death. Wikipedia lists the following as among the parts that have been edited or removed:
  • the role of the Temple traders has been reduced;
  • the character "Rabbi" has been eliminated and his lines given to another character;
  • Jewish priests no longer wear horn-shaped hats;
  • Jesus has been addressed as Rabbi Yeshua;
  • Jews are shown disputing with others about theological aspects of Judaism, not just about Jesus;
  • Pilate has been made to appear more tyrannical and threatens Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest, and it is made clear that Caiaphas does not speak for all the Jews;
  • Romans now stand guard at the gates when Jesus makes his entrance to Jerusalem;
  • Jesus' supporters have been added to the screaming crowd outside Pilate's palace;
  • Judas is portrayed as being duped into betraying Jesus;
  • removing the lines "His blood is upon us and also upon our children's children" (from Matthew 27:25), and "Ecce homo" (Behold a man);
  • Peter, when questioned by Nathaniel regarding abandoning Judaism replies, "No! We don't want that! Far be it from us to abandon Moses and his law"
Remarkable. And sadly typical in our times.

St. Hildegard of Bingen's Ordo Virtutum

In around 1151, St. Hildegard of Bingen wrote a five-act morality play called Ordo Virtutum (Order of the Virtues) which focuses on a struggle between the Devil and the Virtues for possession of a soul. Dramatically, all of the parts are sung -- with the exception of the Devil's part, since, according to St. Hildegard, he is not capable of melody and harmony. You can read an English translation of the text of this drama (pdf), and below you can watch it brought to life in its original Latin. Listen for the last line -- genua vestra ad patrem vestrum flectite ut vobis manum suam porrigat (bend your knee to the Father so that He might reach out His Hand to you). The last word stretches out in a thirty-nine note melisma, meant to indicate God's divine patience with us.

My Hope

My hope is that the Catholic extra-liturgical tradition of drama is restored -- and not just in terms of plays, but it terms of other dramatic media, such as film and video. I'd love to see a great Catholic resurgence in all of the arts! I would love to see Catholics writing new plays, putting on old ones, engaging in street theater, making not just pedagogical works, but dramatic ones and those for pure entertainment. I want Catholics making Youtube videos and forming flash mobs that demonstrate the beauty of the Holy Faith. Can you imagine a group of twenty young men appearing seemingly randomly in a busy mall and, "out of nowhere," singing Gregorian and other Western chant (especially ones with long ison notes)? The beauty of chant is something that shoots past arguments and nasty attitudes and goes straight to the soul. Imagine blessing the world in this way!

Imagine a group of young women doing the same with St. Hildegard's works!

And, hey, we don't need dance at the liturgy, but there's a place for those blessed with "body genius" and who are enchanted with movement to "do their thing" outside of the Mass!

I'd like to see Catholics do more writing, acting, comedy, dancing, painting, sculpting, making music, and film-making! Our spiritual heritage should compel us; we are heirs of the greatest artists the world has ever known -- Giotto, Fra Angelico, Raphael, Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Beethoven, Dante, Shakespeare -- the list of greats goes on and on, and that's in addition to the myriad anonymous craftsmen who built the cathedrals, made the stained glass for their windows, and carved gargoyles and grotesques to keep the demons away (and who put on Mystery plays in their spare time!).

Come on, creative, artistic Catholics! Get busy!


1 Enjoy this pdf of a Nativity play for schools, and use it as you like.

2 Some English towns have revived some of these drama. For ex., York and Chester revived their towns' cycles of Mystery plays in 1951; the N-Town cycle was revived in 1978 as the Lincoln Mystery plays; the Lichfield Mysteries were revived in 1994, etc. But these are not Catholic productions; they're entirely secular and performed for historic interest rather than religious. I have no idea how or if they've been toyed with to appease the world. A trailer for the Mystery plays performed in York:

3 Source:

4 A "tableau vivant" is the recreation of a painting, scene from History, scene from a drama, etc., through costume, lighting, set, and posing. There is no movement and no speaking; they're more like "living paintings" or "living snapshots." The Victorians were very big on tableaux vivants, and I have a fascination for how the folks of that era entertained themselves (they were wildly creative!). I also have a passion for old newspapers, and going through them, have discovered lots of descriptions of the Victorian use of tableaux vivants. To see a small sampling of the many articles I've saved about Victorian entertainments, check these links to graphics I've kept:

Society Poses in Picture Tableaux, New York Times, January 16, 1914
Tableaux in Home of Mrs. Vanderbilt, New York Times, April 26, 1916
Tableaux Vivants of Other Days in Which New York Society Beauties Have Posed, New York Times, Februrary 23, 1908
Tableaux Vivants for Charity, New York Times, May 10, 1893
Tableaux-Fancy Dress Ball - Preparations - Who Looked Well - Gayety and People at the Springs New York Times, August 26, 1856

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