JMC : Philosophy of Literature / by Brother Azarias


Somewhat earlier than the time of appearance of this work, the influence of the Holy Scriptures became manifest in the mysteries or miracle-plays and moralities that were popular throughout Christendom. They consisted of some mystery or parable of Scripture dramatized for the purpose of instructing the people in a pleasing manner, and initiating them into the spirit of the festivals which the Church celebrated. Few among them could read and study the explanations of the festivals, but all could take in and appreciate what was placed before their eyes. Hence the popularity of these plays. They are the originals of the modern drama. It is the common history of all dramatic poetry. "A tragedy was a religious festival,"{1} says Villemain, speaking of Grecian literature. "The English drama," says Richard Grant White, "like the Greek, has a purely religious origin." And Lorinzer says: "Dramatic poetry, in its source, was above all, religious poetry."{2} The Crusades helped to render these plays popular. "Those who returned from the Holy Land," says Disraeli, "or other consecrated places, composed canticles of their travels, and amused their religious fancies by interweaving scenes of which Christ, the Apostles, and other objects of devotion, served as the themes."{3}

The great heart of the people yearned to witness them. Confraternities were formed for their composition and representation, and in the latter the scenic accompaniments were grand and imposing. The student just returned from the university would consider himself honored in seeing his maiden production placed before the public, as in the case of the unfortunate Chrysostom mentioned in Don Quixote -- that faithful mirror of the age in which it was written: "I had forgotten to tell you," says the shepherd, "how this Chrysostom deceased was a great hand at composing verses, so much so that he made Christmas carols and Autos for Corpus Christi, which our young people play; and everybody says that they could not be beaten."{4} And Pellicer says that these sacred dramas were in such general favor "that they were not only enacted in the theatres, but separately before the royal court, and even before the head of the Holy Inquisition."

The mediaeval bards who wrote these pieces often "builded better than they knew." There is art in their construction; point, variety, and sentiment are to be found in their language; even graceful diction is not wanting in their expression. The authors' motives in writing were elevated; their subjects were in themselves grand and inspiring; the occasions for which they wrote were worthy of both; and not unfrequently did they rise to the dignity of both subject and occasion. With the universal popularity of these plays came their abuse, and they were finally discouraged by the Church. They are said to be immoral. Vulgar expressions are to be found in them, especially in the English plays; but their spirit and scope are invariably moral. Vulgarity is not immorality, and our standard of propriety is not that of our forefathers. This is an age of books, and reading has made us so artificial that we are shocked at expressions that passed harmlessly among them. Warton does not find them degrading in tone. He says: "Rude, and even ridiculous as they were, they softened the manners of the people, by diverting the public attention to spectacles in which the mind was concerned, and by creating a regard for other arts than those of bodily strength and savage valor." They even left their impress on architecture. All those grotesque figures, now of buffoonery, now of tragedy, in the Gothic cathedrals are drawn from these religious plays.

Not only were the miracle-plays not immoral, but they never did thrive in an immoral atmosphere; and therefore it is that we find comparatively few in the sunny land of Provence -- the land of chivalry, and love, and song, and also the hot-bed of doctrinal novelties and heresies -- the stronghold of the Albigenses, Waldenses, and Huguenots. Not in the soft-flowing verses of the love-sick troubadour, are the great truths of religion sung; but rather in the more hardy tones of the langue d'Oil does the sturdy trouvere, from the fulness of his pious Catholic heart, send forth a flow of well-attuned verses and cleverly adjusted dramas, illustrative of the lives of the saints, the spirit of their religion, the ways of their Saviour, and the perfections of their God. These plays are truly, as Onesime LeRoy remarks, "the religious philosophy of our fathers."{5} Their spirit is discernible in the Divina Commedia and they are the inspiration and foundation of the Paradise Lost.{6}

But if these religious plays had produced no other result than to bloom into the Autos Sacramentales of Calderon de la Barca (1600-1683), they would de serve well of posterity. These Autos are the handiwork of one of the great world-authors. They are stamped with the impress of all time. They are the highest effort of human genius in their artistic presentation of the truths of religion. Under the magic hand ot Calderon the whole universe is transfigured. Men and things, history and philosophy, myths and facts are all transformed and clothed with a spiritual sense; the spectator soars above space and time into the sphere of eternal truth. The very mysteries of religion are made palpable with consummate art. Visible form and plastic roundness are given to the most abstract conceptions. They belong to the same world of allegory with the great pictures of Titian and Raphael and Orcagna. In order to appreciate them we must abandon the present routine of thought and transport ourselves to the ages of faith in which their every word bore significancy. Through them all there runs a central thought; they have one object, that of paying homage to the Blessed Eucharist. They were represented before a Catholic people believing in the Real Presence. Calderon is both poet and priest. All his Autos are built upon that magnificent poem, the beautiful office in the Roman Breviary for Corpus Christi, composed by St. Thomas. This is the foundation on which those aërial temples of poesy have been constructed, and therefore it is that they remain such noble monuments of the philosophic thought, the theological lore and the plastic genius of the author who built them up, and of the intense faith of the people who witnessed them. These plays were accompanied by music and scenes the most gorgeous. Remembering these things, and noting the ease and skill with which the poet projects his inmost thought into outward representation, we must needs marvel at the power of his genius. It is customary to judge Calderon by his secular plays. They are the least part of him. His best work, his most perfect art, he put into his religious plays. This is evident to anybody who takes the pains to discern their real worth. They stand alone in the whole range of literature. They are the most beautiful wreaths of dramatic art ever woven by human genius to be placed upon the altar before that central fact of Catholicity, the Real Presence. The incidents of the play are not given for their literal worth; they are so many symbols of higher truths. The long monologues which weary him who has not insight into their bearing, are sublime presentations of the profoundest doctrines and dogmas of the Church. Indeed, the poet makes use of the symbolism and allegory of the whole universe and its history in order to bring home these great truths to his audience. "We feel," says Baron Von Eichendorff, "that under the terrestrial veil lies silent and asleep the unfathomable song which is the voice of all things, lost as it were, in dreams of unutterable longing; but Calderon speaks the magic word, and the world begins to sing."{7}

{1} Une tragédie était une fête religieuse. " -- Littérature Française, leçon xc. The Genius of Shakspeare.

{2} "Die dramatische Poesie in ihrem Ursprung überall eine religiöse war." -- Geistliche Festspiele, b. i., Vor. s., 43, et seq.

{3} Curiosities of Literature, ii., p 15.

{4} Part i., ch. xii.

{5} "La religieuse philosophie de nos pères." -- Etudes sur les Mystéres, int. vii.

{6} It is well known that Milton began his Paradise Lost as a miracle-play. When the autbor first approached the subject of miracle-plays, he found every avenue in English literature pronouncing them "rude scenic performances," with Hallam ; or "rude, gross, and childish," with Richard Grant White; or "rude, and even ridiculous," with Warton. But à priori reasons led him to infer that the religion so successful in every other department of art -- capable of scoring the Gregorian Chant, of erecting the Gothic cathedral, of dictating the Divina Commedia, of inspiring Paradise Lost, and of tracing the Transfiguration on the canvas -- could not, after working for centuries, have produced such barbarous things as these critics represent. Deeper research has proved his inference to be correct.

{7} Zur Geschichte des Dramas. Leipsig, 1854, 5. 57.

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