Drama and Church (2 of 5) - Rev. G. Van Rongen

Second in a series of five articles on dramatizing biblical stories by Rev.G.van Rongen, taken with permission from Clarion Vol.24, No.22, Year End, Vol.25. No's 1-6 (1975-1976).

Introduction and Biography 2. Drama and Church 4. Drama and these Modern Days
1. Drama and Preaching 3. Drama and School 5. Drama and Holy Scripture


Was the mediaeval "biblical play" a by-product of the decline in preaching, as in our first article we heard someone say? Can the propagandist for the re-introducing of drama in the church services as an alternative to the preaching rightly make an appeal to history? These questions make a dip into Church History necessary.


The first fact to be mentioned is that the Christian Church condemned the "spectacula" rather early. These were plays that served as public entertainment during the days of the Roman Empire.

Because of their profane and pagan character it was no wonder that Tertullian strongly opposed them in his writing De Spectaculis, and Cyprian did the same, while the Synods of Arles (314) and Carthage (397) made some clear statements against these plays. [1]

However, at the same time a sort of "Christian drama" had developed in the East, in the Byzantine world. The liturgy became a matter of dramatizing biblical materials.

This was not strange at all. For Byzantium - or Constantinople - was considered as an earthly reflection of the heavenly sanctuary and palace, a sort of "image of God" on a large scale, representing the heavenly Great King here on earth.

Consequently the ludic element became a matter of course: They played there in every respect - although not as a game but with serious intentions. There was complete identification: the Kingdom of God was there in Byzantium!

However, even this did not go without opposition. The wellknown Chrysostomus, patriarch of Byzantium since 398, declared himself against these practices. [2]


It is a remarkable fact that later on the Church gave the impulse to the developing of what is called mediaeval drama. This was no wonder, since the liturgy had already been - at any rate partly - a matter of drama.

In the fourth century a Spanish nun, Egeria, made a pilgrim's journey to Jerusalem. She was there also during "Holy Week". About the liturgy she reported that Christ's passion and death were enacted, just as it still happens in the well known "Passion Plays" of Oberammergau and other places. Every event was played, i.e., repeated, on its proper place in or around the city of Jerusalem, and also at its proper time during the week.

On Good Friday, e.g., at approximately 3 o'clock in the afternoon a solemn procession of worshippers went to Calvary. There the cross - which up till that hour had been kept under cover - was unveiled and given special honour: the "elevation crucis" as it is called.

There are still some remnants of this ceremony left in the Good Friday liturgy of the Missale Romanum. [3]


However, although this practice spread from Jerusalem to several parts of the world we cannot speak of a generally accepted liturgy. But this information may prove that dramatization of the biblical history was practized at an early date already. Besides, was not to a certain degree the Mass - this degeneration of the biblical sacrament of the Lord's Supper another proof of the same thing?

Anyhow, it seems that during the 9th century for the first time- a musical addition to the liturgy was made. It was a "trope", a sort of dialogue between a number of monks who played the role of the women on the Easter morning.

After the first line this dialogue is called "Quem quaeritis?" whom seek ye? Here is its translated text as it is known from a 10th-century manuscript from the monastery of St. Gall in Switzerland, the author most likely being the Benedictine monk Tutillo:

Whom seek ye in the sepulchre, Christian women?

Jesus of Nazareth the crucified One, 0 dwellers in heaven.

He is not here, he has arisen as it has been prophesied;

Go ye and announce that He has arisen from the tomb. [4]

It may be interesting to hear that the Benedictine monks were given a sort of scenario for the performance of this trope. In an appendix to the Monastic Rule of St. Benedict, called "Regularis Concordia" and dating from the 10th century, we read the following:

While the third lesson is being sung, let four of the brethren vest themselves, one of whom, vested in an alb, is to enter as if to participate in the service. But let him unnoticed go to the place of the sepulchre and there sit quietly holding a palm in his hand. While the third responsory is being celebrated, let the remaining three follow, and be vested in copes, and bear in their hands thuribles with incense, and advancing tentatively as though uncertainly seeking for something, let them come before the place of the sepulchre. [5]


Later on more additions followed. The story of the "Peregrine" - the men of Emmaus - was added to the dramatized Easter story during the 12th century. Then also the story of Christ's appearance to the disciples in the evening was inserted.

During the 14th century a whole dramatic series was included in the Easter liturgy consisting of the following elements: The laments of the three Marys on their way to the sepulchre; "Quem quaeritis?"; Peter and John on their way to the grave after a lyrical sequence Victimae Paschalis Laudes; then a dialogue between the three Marys and the disciples - most likely represented by a choir -; while finally the Te Deum was sung.

Some manuscripts include also the story of Mary Magdalene in the garden.


In the meantime a second series came to the fore: the "Christmas and Epiphany Plays" (Pastores et Magi - shepherds and wise men).

This was apparently a development from the trope "Quem Quaeritis?" because the first line read here: "Quem quaeritis in praecepe, pastores, dicite", a question asked by the midwives who could not be missed in a "biblical" play: the shepherds had to tell them whom they were so eagerly looking for.

It is interesting to observe that even in its primitive stages "biblical drama" could not do without unbiblical fantasy!

A later addition was the announcement of the Saviour's birth to the shepherds in the field. Then the Magi, the Wise Men from the East, were introduced, which part of the play was performed on "Epiphany", January 6.

Afterwards the story of the flight to Egypt was added.

The "Christmas cycle" was complete when the "prophetae" was inserted. This was a play of the prophets. On the night before "Christmas" the preacher used to bring forward the Old Testament prophets as having predicted the Nativity event. In the 11th century this was replaced by a play.

Other additions were: the Annunciation - the story of the angel informing young Mary about the coming great event - and Mary's visit to Elizabeth.


With the introduction of the "prophetae" the Old Testament was given a place in the mysteria - as this type of "biblical plays" is commonly called.

At the end of the 12th and during the 13th century the number of Old Testament plays was considerably increased, e.g. with the story of Joseph, and that of Isaac and Rebecca and their sons.

We can go even further back into sacred history. A well known play was "Ordo Adae", the story of the temptation and fall of man in paradise.

But also the very last of the sacred events in the history of salvation was given a place in the series of plays: the Judicium (= last judgment).

Herewith the "cycles" - see below - were almost complete.


At the same time another process was going on. We mentioned in the first part of this second article the "Ordo Adae". Well, this play was performed at the church door, so halfway in- and outdoors. Indeed, religious drama shifted slowly from indoors to outdoors. The plays came more and more in secular hands. The laity, in particular the trade guilds, which were religious guilds also, took over from the clergy. Consequently the language changed from Latin to the vernacular. One of the results of this process was that the resurrection plays became less popular than the passion plays.


The passion plays were most likely also additions to the resurrection plays in the form of prologues. They were closely related with the Feast of "Corpus Christi", which was established by the Council of Vienna in the year 1311 and held on the Thursday after "Trinity" in honour of the Mass.

The plays of this day, passion plays, were particularly popular in England. They were originally performed in the church, at the "loca" or "sedes" or "stations". Later on they moved outside: During the procession about the city processional plays were performed on wagons. They were enacted in chronological order at selected places, as e.g. church yards, market place, or in the streets. That way a great number of plays could be performed simultaneously at different places. They were given the name of "cycles", being sequences of short scenes which followed the lines of the history of redemption. At a certain stage the following successive scenes could be watched: the fall of satan called Lucifer -; the creation of the world and of man; the fall of man; the stories of Abel, Noah, Abraham, Balaam, the prophets; the Nativity story; Christ's Passion, His Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension into heaven; and the Last Judgment.

As a matter of course the plays varied from town to town, let alone from country to country. Some of the Abraham-and-Isaac plays may have been part of a Corpus Christi Play. Dr. Thomas Howard in Eternity of September 1975 points to their "typological view of the Old Testament", Abraham being a type of the obedient servant of God, and Isaac of the willing victim Christ. We would prefer to speak of a mixture of "exemplary" and "typological" interpretation and are not even very happy with the use of the latter term. However, we agree with Dr. Howard when he states that these plays were more faithful to the biblical story than "Godspell", "Jesus Christ Superstar", and such like.


Apart from the above mentioned "mystery plays" there were also the "miracle plays" or "saints' plays". They presented the lives and martyrdom of the saints. Many of them had the "Virgin Mary" as their subject. The origin of these plays was the same as that of the mystery plays: the liturgy of the church. As an example we mention the fact that from the service on St. Nicolas Day - which is December 6; and not, as many Dutch-born readers may think, December 5, which was the important "St. Nicolas Eve"; this "good old man" took a day off to celebrate his birthday in all peace and quietness! - four liturgical plays - in Latin - are known.

Another group of plays consisted of the Morality Plays, which had the nature of dramatized allegory. The characters in them were abstractions as e.g. Humanum Genus (Mankind or Everyone), the forces of Evil and Good, and Death.

Neither of these groups, however, can rightly be typified as "Bible plays" or "dramatization of biblical stories".


1. Dr. Rittersma (6) says that the Christian Church started early in trying to win the masses, to educate the people and draw outsiders towards itself. In this context drama was considered to address the people in a better way than "abstract preaching" could do.

2. This resulted in a drastic change not only in the form but also in the contents of the liturgy. The sober ceremony of the Lord's Supper was too simple and had to make room for the "rich" liturgy of the Mass. For the weekly Sunday a complete series of Christian Feasts was added. The enriching of the liturgy had as a consequence that the reading of Bible pericopes had to be abridged. The New Testament was preferred above the Old. This way the insight in the whole of the Word of God was darkened. A. Baumstark says (7): "The cause here has been just fragilitas carnis", the weakness of the flesh.

3. The basic idea of "biblical drama" was the same as that of the Mass: the sacred events concerned were "repeated", enacted; they had to become a visible and relevant reality for today (8). We have already seen this in its historical context and therefore as a historical process.

4. Dr. Rittersma (9) correctly points to the fact that soon certain scenes were inserted in the plays that cannot be found in the biblical story itself. This happened also under the influence of the increase of the number of roles and players. Other than biblical characters were introduced, as e.g. the pedlar, the fool. When the plays turned from the church buildings to the public places humorous scenes were added, as e.g. a foot-race between the apostles Peter and John on Easter Morning.

5. This development should warn us, not only with respect to the introduction of drama in church and school but also in other fields. There is a certain tendency in contemporary Bible-translation, as is shown in e.g. "Good News for Modern Man" and "The Living Bible", to allow too much ground to the inability of the average man of this secularized modern world to understand the specific biblical language. The same danger is there in the field of "modernizing" the language of our doctrinal and liturgical writings.

6. It is true, we are living in days of "pictorial communication": television and all sorts of audio-visual teaching aids, films, slide shows, etcetera. They involve serious dangers. It may be known that certain T.V. teams manipulate the "news". The same may easily be done with respect to the biblical stories: their contents could be altered for the sake of the form and performance, and that way the message becomes the prisoner of the act. History has proved that this often happens!

7. Zacharias Ursinus in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (10), of which he was the main authors, wrote in his comment on Lord's Day 35 that during the Middle Ages the office of the minister of the Word had been replaced by the office of the images and stained glass windows. But apart from these "dumb images" (11) there happened to be "speaking images" also, to which the same could be applied. How great it is that it pleased the LORD God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe (I Corinthians 1:21), and that this is still made true among us. We should not transfer this "office" to drama, neither in church nor at school!

1) Z. Rittersma, Het dramatiseren van Bijbelse geschiedenissen door jeugdigen, page 22.

2) Same, page 22.

3) This writer in De Reformatie, Volume 49, No. 4, and in Pro Ecclesia (Grand Rapids), Volume 19 No. 25. See also Encyclopedia Britannica, Volume 5, page 754, and Christelijke Encyclopedie, Volume 1, sub Aetheria.

4) Encyclopedia Britannica, Volume 7, page 635.

5) V.F. Hopper and G.B. Lahey, eds., Mediaeval Mysteries, Moralities, and Interludes, quoted by Dr. Thomas Howard in Eternity of August 1975

6) Z. Rittersma, op. cit., page 22.

7) A. Baumstark, Comparative Liturgy, page 23.

8) Z. Rittersma, op. cit., page 23.

9) Same, page 23-26.

10) Schat-boeck Der Verklaringen over den Nederlandschen Catechismus, Uyt de Latijnsche Lessen van Dr. Zacharias Ursinus, Op-gemaeckt van Dr. David Pareus, Vertaelt, ende met Tafelen, etc., verlicht, door Dr. Festus Hommius, Nu van nieuws oversien . . . door Johannes Spiljardus, . . . 't Amsteldam, By Johannes van Ravesteyn, Boeck-verkooper op 't Water in 't Schrijf-boeck. Anno 1675, page 112, second column.

11) Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day 35, No. 98.