The Evolution of Liturgical Drama: from Miracle Play to Judgement House Essay

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20) This New Testament passage, often referred to as the ‘Great Commission’, urges all Christians to evangelize and share the message of Jesus Christ with others. Of course, such a task is most vital to religious leaders, priests and pastors – those professional theologians that strive to communicate the gospel in a powerful and influential way.

Besides the quotation of scripture, the sermons, the hymns and the rituals, the church has long utilized the liturgical drama as a means of communication and celebration. Beginning with the simple ‘miracle plays’ in the early Middle Ages, this type of religious theatre became gradually more elaborate and lengthy until it’s peak around the time of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Although the church’s use of liturgical drama declined after this point, moral and religious themes continued to be popular in the arts.

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It is ironic that, in the very secular world of the late 20th century, fundamentalist Christian groups revived the tradition of evangelizing through drama – whether through play, movie, or television program. The recent development of ‘Hell Houses’ or ‘Judgment Houses’ is a particularly vivid example of such evangelism. Around the 10th century, as Europe was leaving the stark poverty and cultural suppression of the Dark Ages behind, religious monasteries began slowly adding theatrical presentations to church services.What happened in the monasteries gradually began to spread to the universities and eventually to the general public – at least those in the cities. These presentations primarily took the form of ‘miracle plays’ – brief dramas that told the story of the lives of the Saints or the Virgin Mary. These plays typically quoted the scriptures, in Latin, while visually portraying the gospel tale.

Obviously, such a multi-sensory presentation would be more engaging and influential for an often-illiterate and nsophisticated audience. Although the more stoic and tradition-bound leaders of the church often resisted such practices, which to them seemed similar to the pagan rituals of the past, miracle plays proved their effectiveness and steadily grew in popularity.Miracle plays generally deal with the supernatural intervention of God, a Saint, or the Blessed Virgin in the life of a common man. Some of the notable miracle plays include: “Adam” (the Fall from grace, the paradise of Eden, Eve, Cain and Abel), “Quem Quaeritis? (dialogue between an angel at the tomb of Christ and the women who are seeking his body), and “The Miracles of Our Lady” (the blessed virgin consoles and saves sinners that repent). As time went on and the miracle plays increased in popularity, there was a natural inclination to expand the Biblical stories into more elaborate productions with dramatic moral lessons. What gradually evolved was the mystery play. The word ‘mystery’ is derived from the Latin ministerium, which means, ‘act.

’ “The plays frequently took for subject the mysteries of Christian belief.However, the mysteries were often devoted to a saint, and, in exceptional cases, even represented matters which were not religious. (Bertrin)” Instead of simply dealing with our awe for the transcendent power of God, mystery plays began to deal with the moral conflicts of everyday life. Some of the notable mystery plays include “Mystery of the Destruction of Troy” (the sins of becoming too worldly); “Wise Virgins” (wise and chaste virgins … good! , foolish & hedonistic virgins … bad! ); and “Play of St. Nicholas” (heroic stories about defeating Muslim infidels in the crusades).Over time, the miracle and mystery plays evolved into the more stylized form of the morality play.

Instead of a straightforward portrayal of Biblical stories, the morality plays used allegorical characters in teaching a moral lesson. The pattern is the same in every morality play: A concept – what it means to be human – is represented on the stage by a central dramatic figure or series of figures. Subsidiary characters, defined by their function, stand at the service of the plot, which is ritualized, dialectical, and inevitable; man exists, therefore he falls, nevertheless he is saved.

Potter) The plot typically revolved around an ‘everyman’ character with whom the audience could identify. This everyman was generally a naive and innocent character that is vulnerable to temptation. Good and evil forces sparred for the protagonist’s soul, with the secondary characters personifying the seven deadly sins and various other moral attributes. Needless to say, these plays emphasized the horrible degradation and pain that resulted from immoral conduct, as well as the redemption and salvation available for devout Christian.The popularity of morality plays peaked in the late 15th century and included such notable plays as: “The Pride of Life” (realizing the sin of conceit and vanity); “Man the Sinner” (our weakness in the face of temptation and the need to find true happiness in obedience to God); “The Castle of Perseverance” (the perilous journey from birth to death, and the final judgment of one’s soul); and “Everyman” (facing Death and discovering that only your friend Good Deeds will accompany you to your fate).Interestingly, the symbolic and metaphorical nature of the morality plays provided a convenient method for forward-thinking playwrights to introduce secular and even political themes to their audience.

Thus, the morality plays gradually moved away from simple theological issues toward more complicated psychological and sociological concerns. The 16th century saw the Protestant Reformation, with many playwrights assuming a pro- or anti- Roman Catholic stance.This era also saw celebrated playwrights such as Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare come to the fore – both of whom are renowned in the secular Elizabethan theatre. Following the Reformation, the use of theatrical presentations in church services declined. Religious evangelism took a more basic and straightforward approach, with pastors utilizing their best rhetorical methods, but seldom resorting to the theatrical presentations of the past.Of course, moral themes continued to resonate with the public and to be popular elements of art, but their dramatic portrayal in church fell out of fashion for several hundred years. Fundamentalist Christian churches revived the tradition of the morality play by staging ‘Hell Houses’. These productions, typically done in October prior to Halloween, vividly portray the torments of eternal Hell that await those sinners who do not live a devout Christian life.

The earliest modern day hell house was “created by the Trinity Assembly of God in Dallas, TX… and then popularized by the Reverend Jerry Falwell in the late 1970’s. (Halloween Hell Houses)” Falwell’s ‘Scare Mare’ is “a mix of traditional haunted house scenes and eternal judgement scenes (Hartman)” and has been sponsored by Liberty University for over 40 years. Although Falwell’s Scare Mare has been successful, it is nothing in comparison to the Hell House franchise created by Reverend Keenan Roberts, senior associate pastor of Abundant Life Christian Center in Arvada, Colorado.Hell House premiered in 1995 and has grown increasingly more elaborate, lasting more than 45 minutes and covering more than 30,000 square feet. Reverend Roberts has not merely profited from running Hell House tours in Denver, he has created Hell House Outreach kits to sell to other churches for $299 and bills them as “the most in-your-face, high-flyin’, no denyin’, death-defyin’, Satan-be-cryin’, keep-ya-from-fryin’, theatrical stylin’, no holds barred, cutting-edge evangelism tool of the new millennium. Sandell)” These kits include a 263-page manual covering “everything from media publicity to casting and costume.

” (Hell House) These productions extend the traditional ‘haunted house’ concept to extol against adultery, pre-marital sex, infidelity, abortion, homosexuality, substance use, date rape, occultism, and anyone that does not hold conservative, right wing Christian beliefs. Hell Houses intend to go over the line of social propriety, shocking people with their blunt message of eternal damnation and pain for those who do not conform to their religious belief system.The goal is to portray what hell is like in stark and flamboyant terms, scaring people into Christian redemption from sin and the promise of a wonderful afterlife in Heaven. Since Hell Houses generated a critical backlash for their extreme and hyperbolic presentations, some churches developed the less vociferous Judgment Houses, which portray the moral decision to accept or reject Christianity and the eternal consequences of that decision.Judgment Houses use fewer scare tactics and are less vivid and in-your-face about the consequences of sin; however, they continue to posit fundamental Christianity as the one true path to salvation, with all other religions or belief systems as being inferior or fraudulent. Over time, there have been many attempts to evangelize and communicate religious ideas through theatrical presentations. This began with the miracle plays of the early 10th century and continued through the mystery and morality plays of the Middle Ages.This form became less overt after the Protestant Reformation and was revived in the late 20th century as the Hell House or the Judgment House.

All of these dramas are designed to engage, educate, persuade and convert the audience to a traditional Christian belief system. As such, the modern Hell/Judgment House is the contemporary equivalent to the miracle plays of a millennium ago.Works Cited Bertrin, Georges, and Arthur F.

J. Remy. “Miracle Plays and Mysteries. ” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol.

10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 6 Dec. 011 . Hartman, Greg.

“A Hell of a Ride. ” Plain Truth Online. Nov. 2003. Web.

. Hell House. Abundant Life Christian Center. “Halloween Hell Houses. ” Religious Tolerance.

Web. . The Holy Bible: New International Version.

Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984. Potter, Robert A. The English Morality Play: Origins, History, and Influence of a Dramatic Tradition.

London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1975. Sandell, Scott. “The Horns of a Dilemma: A Morality Play Gets a Hollywood Makeover, the Author Takes a Look, Theological Debate Ensues. ” Los Angeles Times 2 Sept.



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