From Mimicry to Drama

More cribbings from my tome on St Bartholomew’s Fair:

“The  first power of the mind revealed in every child is that of mimicry. The majority of me  go to the grave mimics; in religion, manners, language they have learnt their parts, and acquitted themselves in them more or less respectably. Nearly all child’s play is essentially dramatic. wherever there have been men, therefore, there have been mimics., and some rude  kind of dramatic sport over affairs of life has been a favourite amusement. The church, seizing upon this element of human character as means of laying a firm hold upon the people, made of Divine worship a show, established a repertory of tales for the enlivenment of sermons, and taught scripture history and scripture mysteries – afterwards even preached sermons on abstract morality – in plays.”

These were the origins of the modern plays, and it is possible that the last of the mystery plays was performed at Bartholomew Fair.

The  parish clerks of London formed a harmonic guild, chartered in 1233 and they played music at funerals and entertainments for the wealthy. In 1409, the reign of Henry IV, the clerks played at Skinner’s Well for 8 days, “Matter from the Creation of the World” for a great assembly of the English  nobility. These performances were later replaced by wrestling.

“The matter from the Creation of the World” shows they followed the pattern of the sets for the Miracle plays performed at York, chester and Conventry. From the earliest times, monks acted scripture stories in their church. 3 plays by a disciple of Abelard survive and are contemporary with the founding of St Bartholomew’s priory. They were the drama of the 12th and 13th centuries, entertaining princes and peasants, and had been brought to England with the Normans so passed from Latin to French for the court, then into English for the rest of the population.

Legend of the saints were the main subjects treated, so were the true Miracle Plays. Truths of Revelation, told by dramatic stories taken out of scripture were the Mysteries, and later came the Moralities, which discussed moral truths on a stage by the character of the virtue, and examples from history.

All these developed rapidly, and in the absence of any  influence  from the classics. “So it happened that, before King Herod, Pilate and the medieval devil had been fairly banished from West Smithfield, Shakespear had written, and Ben Johnson was among the booths, turning Bartholomew Fair itself into a comedy.

TRade Guilds acted these mystery plays, initially on a church pavement, as part of a religious service to awaken zeal, then they moved out doors on festival or fair days.

“The stages used by the Coventry guilds were moveable vans, drawn from street corner to street corner, so that, during the feast, the platys, which represented a complete cycle of Scripture history, followed each other in every querter of the town.

It is probable that the first dramas were of local saints, to celebrate their feast days, and much allowance made for improvising additions, and humour. The monks put life upon a stage into the pictures with which they adorned their books, so  he monks were multimedia  artists long before the term was coined. These are copies of some of the St Bartholomew’s images that may show real plays.

“In some, if not al these representation,s separate stages or levels indicated the abodes of the Heavenly Father, of angels and glorified saints, and of men. In a corner of man’s stage was Hell-mouth, through which fiends came up and down. It was  grotesque head, which might vary in design, but of which the general character is shown in this sketch.

In a manuscript note to a Mystery of the Passion in the Royal Library of Paris … it is recorded that, at the representing of such a play in 1437 on the plain of Veximiel, when the chaplain of Metrange played Judas (and was nearly dead while hanging, for his heart failed him, wherefore he was very quickly unhung, and carried off) that he “Mouth of Hell” was very well done; for it opened and shut whent he devils requried to enter and come out and had two large eyes of steel.

In 1174 Fitzstephens wrote “London for its theatrical spectacles, for it scenic plays, has plays more sacred, representations of miracles which have been worked by the holy confessors, or representations of passions in which shone the constancy of Martyrs”

“Thus we have in the most ancient times of the Fair, a church full of worshippers among whom were the sick and maimed, praying for health about  its altar; a graveyard full of traders, and a place of jesting and edification, where women and men caroused in the midst of the throng; where the minstrel and the story-teller and the tumbler gathered knots about them; where the sheriff caused new laws to be published by loud proclamation in the gathering places of the people; where the young men bowled at 9 pins, while the clerks and friars peeped at the young maids; where mounted knights and ladies curvetted and ambled, pedlers loudly magnified their wares, the scholars met for public wrangle, oxen lowed, horses neighed and sheep bleated among their buyers; where the great shouts of laughter answered to the Ho! ho! of the devil on the stage, above which flags were flying, and below which a band of pipers and guitar beaters added music to the din.

The stage also, if ever there was presented on it the story of the Creation, was the first Wild Beast Show at the Fair; for one of the dramatic effects connected with this play… was to represent the creation of beasts by unloosing and sending among the excited crowd, as great a variety of strange animals as could be brought together, and to create the birds by sending up a flight of pigeons.

Under foot was mud and filth, but the wall that pent up the city in shone sunlit among the trees, a fresh breeze came over the surrounding fields and brooks, whispering among the elms that overhung the moor glittering with pools, or from the Fair’s neighbour, the gallows. shaven heads looked down on the scene from the adjacent windows of the buildings bordering the Priory enclosure, and the poor people whom the friars cherished in their hospital made holiday among the rest.

The curfew bell of St Martin’s le Grand, the religious house to which william the Conqueror had given with its character the adjacent moorland, and within whose walls there was a sanctuary for loose people, stilled the hum of the crowd at nightfall, and The Fair lay dark under the starlight.

Here are some of the shows and sports associated with the fair. Dont’ try these at home.

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