Difference Between Medieval & Modern Drama

By Christine Harvey
There was very little diversity in the attire of comedic characters during the Middle Ages.

Modern and medieval drama have more differences than similarities. Drama has evolved and expanded and is now much more complex than its medieval roots. The whole purpose of acting, drama, theater and entertainment has shifted significantly. Drama has become more advanced and versatile.

Themes

During the Middle Ages, plays were primarily religious in content. Passion plays, mystery plays, miracle plays and morality plays all depicted stories and themes from Christianity and, primarily, the Bible. Clergymen wrote plays, sometimes in Latin, with the intention of the plays being performed as part of religious instruction methods or religious celebrations. Humor crept into plays over time. Modern drama has a diversity of themes and explores genres, cultures, experiences and issues.

Acting Styles

Religious plays of medieval times had informative, realistic and melodramatic acting styles. Characters were stereotypically depicted in an informative storytelling fashion. Today, drama is primarily realistic in style but also symbolic, ritualistic and even abstract. Experimentation with style and presentation is standard in modern drama.

Actors

Actors in the Middle Ages were primarily male with the exception of some female actors permitted in France. Actors were poor and considered at the bottom end of society. Today, actresses fill countless roles and are some of the richest and most idolized members of society. Switching up gender and gender roles is part of the experimental process of modern theater and does affect the tension created in a dramatic piece.

Settings

Religious plays of medieval times were originally mounted in churches. As the plays' set designs expanded, the church buildings became too restrictive and the performers took their drama to the streets. Acting troops formed and toured their plays in wagons. The influence of street performers, like traveling musicians and circus performers, became integrated into the religious plays. Today, some traveling acting troops still exist, but most performances are either housed in theaters or captured on film and available on the television and Internet.

Entertainment Value

During the Middle Ages, passion, mystery, miracle and morality plays could hardly be called entertaining, because they began as vehicles to teach religion rather than amuse the masses. But as spectacle, humor and sensationalism became part of these religious plays, audiences responded with awe, laughter and approval. Today, drama has more subtle, intellectual and intricate forms. Technology still provides sensationalism, but sophistication has become part of dramatic entertainment.