Scripture tells of the resurrection of Jesus on the third day after his crucifixion, the day we call Easter. The image above portrays a Medieval Feast, such as might happen on an Easter long, long ago. The image below is of the Quem Quaeritis manuscript showing the lines sung during an Easter celebration in a church around the year 1000. Those lines in that brief dramatization of what happened on the morning of the original Easter gave birth, 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. The Greeks of ancient antiquity had a thriving theater in the the 6th and 5th centuries BC and, indeed, the word theater derives from the Greek word theatron.The Romans who succeeded the Greeks also had a lively theatrical tradition, though far fewer of their works survive, and while educated people of Europe should be familiar with at least the names of Greek dramatists (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and many others) they’re forgiven if they haven’t heard of Roman playwrights (Plautus and Terence, mostly) But when the Western Roman Empire fell apart — 476, but empires don’t go to pieces all at once — society broke down here and there into a mess of brutal wars, and the general economy declined, as did culture and the arts. Some historians oppose calling that period The Dark Ages, but it’s a pretty good short-hand term to describe the descent into disorder and deprivation.
Then, around the year 1000 — scholars say around 945 — somebody wrote a small but dramatic bit of dialog in church Latin to be voiced and acted as part of the liturgy during the church’s celebration of Easter. Remember that after the death 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 brief question-and-answer dialog, the portrayal of sacred events grew and became more elaborate. The dramatization of such events was popular; a largely illiterate populace was taught Bible stories this way and enjoyed it. Over time these dramatizations moved from inside the church walls to outside, and the scripts were performed by lay people, not priests or choristers. The performances took place on platforms or wagons around the church, so the actors could be seen and heard more easily by more people. Eventually, the wagons and players began to give performances in towns and rural areas beyond the large cities. When the mobile troupe of players went into a town they’d draw the wagons into a circle, so the players could assemble there, put on their costumes and chose their props inside the circle, hidden from view, then they’d mount the stage and perform their dramas for the audience standing outside the circle. Larger inns that were built at that time were often constructed as a square with a courtyard inside, and players would perform in that space with the audience around them. This happened over a span of 600 years from 1000, so that by 1600 people were building theaters designed around a courtyard, just like those inns where players used to draw up their wagons. The Globe theater where William Shakespeare staged his plays was built that way in 1598. Shakespeare not only wrote for the Globe theater, he also was part owner of it. And all this, a long long way from that little bit of parchment with its brief question and answer about the dead Jesus. [If you’d like a bit on Easter eggs, go to out search box and type in Easter eggs. It’s a brief piece, but with a colorful bowl of Easter eggs.]