Reference > Cambridge History > The Drama to 1642, Part One > The Origins of English Drama > Festival Plays
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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume V. The Drama to 1642, Part One.

I. The Origins of English Drama.

§ 7. Festival Plays.

It is hardly necessary, before reaching the main root of the growth which we are discussing, to point out that, by the side of, or in connection with, the festival plays to which reference has been made, the general favour bestowed in England as well as elsewhere, during the later Middle Ages, upon processional exhibitions and moving shows of various kinds, devoid of either action or dialogue, cannot be left out of account among the elements of popular life which helped to facilitate the growth of the drama. Notice will be taken below of the processional solemnities which accompanied the celebration of the Corpus Christi festival, and which certainly had their effect upon the pageants, as the particular religious plays afterwards collected into cycles were very commonly called. 8  In later times, however, the term “pageant” came to be more generally employed in the sense which, at all events till our own days, has usually attached to it—namely, a show or exhibition in which costume, with its accessories, including, sometimes, the suggestion of scenery, plays the principal part, music lending its frequent aid, words being, at the most, used in the way of illustration or introduction. 9    9

Note 8. The term was applied to the plays even when regarded as literary productions: thus, in the time of Henry VI, we hear of a “Pageant of the Holy Trinity” painted with gold—i. e. an illuminated MS. of some dramatic piece in the nature of a mystery or miracle-play. [ back ]
Note 9. It is noteworthy that, in the pageants which have of late been exhibited in many English towns, not only has the admonitus loci been emphasised as much as possible—nowhere with such overpowering effect as at Bury St. Edmunds, where the actual scene of the performance was the Abbey gardens—but dialogue and even dramatic action have formed an integral part of the presentment. In several instances, these modern pageants have fully met their purpose, and, in any case, there is no reason for cavilling at a perfectly legitimate development, except in so far as to point out that all modernisations of an artistic species are apt to produce, for better or for worse, something quite different from their supposed prototype in kind as well as in degree. [ back ]

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