Christian Cyclopedia

About the Cyclopedia

Religious Drama.

The Gk. word drama means “deed, act,” then “action represented on a stage.” In a wider sense: any demonstration in action as opposed to abstraction; cf. Jer 19; 27; 28; Eze 4.

Natural instinct for imitation and rhythm in man led to imitative action. Dramatic action (e.g., dancing, pantomime) early played a prominent part in worship (e.g., at funerals).

1. Classical. Dramas of Gk. tragedians (e.g., Aeschylus [525–456 BC], Sophocles [ca. 496–406 BC], Euripides [5th c. BC]) were performed at the feast of Dionysus (see Greek Religion, 3 b). Plays of Aeschylus were deeply religious and dealt, e.g., with the power of gods and their relation to men. nemesis, and future life. Sophocles dealt with faith and moral issues (esp. in human relations). Euripides (the “liberal” in the trio) tried to show psychol. reasons for action. Under Roman influence, drama lost religious character. Christians opposed theater because of its idolatry and obscenity. Classical drama was crushed for ca. 1,000 yrs.

2. Medieval. Spiritual dramas of the Middle Ages originated in the ch. The first, in Lat., were performed at chief ch. festivals (e.g., Corpus* Christi). Guilds, nobility, city fathers, and common folk took part. Secular and diverting features were added (see Feast of Asses). In course of time the liturgy offered opportunity for dramatic action, which in turn led to Passion plays (dramas developed from responses and readings of Lent, esp. Holy Week). Saints' plays, developed from processions and other festival celebrations in honor of saints, led to miracle plays, which used mainly material connected with legends of saints and their intercession for those who venerate them. Mystery plays (or mysteries) originally were enactments of events from the life of Christ and later of the whole Bible; but distinction bet. mysteries and miracle plays disappeared and the terms were used interchangeably. Morality plays (or moralities), allegorical presentations popular esp. in the 15th and 16th cents., tried to teach a moral lesson by personifying vices and virtues (as in Everyman).

Secularization of plays resulted from influence of guildmen as actors, from increasing appeal of Fastnachtsspiele (drolleries of itinerant actors performed at Shrovetide*), and from revival of classicism with renewed interest in dramas of L. A. Seneca,* Titus Maccius Plautus (ca. 254–184 BC; Roman playwright), and Terence (Publius Terentius Afer; 185–159 BC; Roman playwright).

3. Reformation. M. Luther* took a positive attitude toward secular drama (see Theater) and encouraged religious drama. His praise of drama in his 1534 Bible (WA-DB 12, pp. 7, 109, 493) sparked use of the stage for the Reformation. The whole plan of salvation was dramatized, though Luther discouraged Passion plays (WA 2, 141). Die Parabel vom Verlorenen Sohn by B. Waldis* is one of the most outstanding 16th-c. dramas. Other authors include C. Lasius,* G. Major,* H. Sachs.*

Drama was used by evangelicals (e.g., N. Manuel,* W. Pirckheimer*) also for polemics (e.g., to portray the pope as Antichrist). Radtschlag des allerheiligsten Vaters Bapsts Pauli des Dritten, mit dem Collegio Cardinalium gehalten, wie das angesetzte Concilium zu Trient fürzunemen sey, Anno 1545 has a woodcut entitled DAS CONCILIUM ZUTRENT (the last word [1] indicating the place of assem. [Trent] and [2] being a play on the Ger. word zertrennt, “divided”). Some opposition dramas were directed against Luther's marriage.

Often borrowing from classical material, 16th-c. dramatists (e.g., J. H. Bullinger,* J. Camerarius,* B. Ringwaldt*) also wrote historiconovelistic and didacticosatirical works.

M. Rinckart* was one of several ev. dramatists who wrote on Luther's life.

4. Jesuits, noting the influence of dramas, soon produced plays of fixed form, with great pomp, and for pedagogical purposes and continued doing so till the gen. suppression of the order 1773.

5. Modern. The Passion play of Oberammergau,* Upper Bav., Ger., first presented 1634 by inhabitants of the RC village in fulfillment of a 1633 vow in gratitude for cessation of the Black Death; performed once every decade.

Gen. interest in religious drama was revived ca. the beginning of the 20th c. Pageants, dramas, and dramatized stories came to be widely used in ch. work via radio (various radio plays), motion pictures (e.g., Martin Luther), and TV (e.g., “This Is the Life” series [see Radio and Television Evangelism, Network, 8]).

Religious novelistic dramas of the 20th c. include M. Anderson, Journey to Jerusalem; C. R. Kennedy, The Terrible Meek; A. MacLeish, J. B.; J. Masefield, The Trial of Jesus. Dramas with religious themes include M. Connelly, The Green Pastures. EL

K. Young, The Drama of the Medieval Church, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1933); N. C. Brooks, “Processional Drama and Dramatic Procession in Germany in the Late Middle Ages,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, XXXII (1933), 141–171; H. Holstein. Die Reformation im Spiegelbilde der dramatischen Litteratur des sechzehnten Jahrhunderts (Halle, 1886); H. A. Ehrensperger, Conscience on Stage (New York, 1947); The Questing Spirit, ed. H. E. Luccock and F. Brentano (New York, 1947); P. E. Kretzmann, The Liturgical Element in the Earliest Forms of the Medieval Drama, with Special Reference to the English and German Plays (Minneapolis, 1916); O. B. Hardison, Jr., Christian Rite and Christian Drama in the Middle Ages (Baltimore, 1965); A. G. Loomis, Guide for Drama Workshops in the Church Prepared for Leaders and Instructors (New York, 1964); K. M. Baxter, Contemporary Theatre and the Christian Faith (New York, 1965; pub. London 1964 as Speak What We Feel); C. J. Stratman, Bibliography of Medieval Drama (Berkeley, California, 1954).

Edited by: Erwin L. Lueker, Luther Poellot, Paul Jackson
©Concordia Publishing House, 2000, All rights Reserved. Reproduced with Permission

Internet Version Produced by
The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod

Original Editions ©Copyright 1954, 1975, 2000
Concordia Publishing House
All rights reserved.

Content Reproduced with Permission

Stay Connected! Join the LCMS Network:

Contact Us Online
(Staff Switchboard)
(Church Info Center)
1333 S Kirkwood Rd
Saint Louis, MO 63122-7226 | Directions


Featured Publication

The Lutheran Witness

LCMS Communications

Interpreting the contemporary world from a Lutheran Christian perspective.
Visit TLW Online