Key Characteristics of a Morality Play

By Robert Russell
Morality plays set the stage for modern theater

The morality play appeared in the 14th century and thrived into the 16th century. The legacy of the morality play, however, continued much longer. It resonates in contemporary literature and drama. The morality play was a literary steppingstone leading from the medieval world to modernity, and was one of the keys that helped liberate art from the authority of the Church.

Historical Antecedents of the Morality Play

The morality play is intimately related to the liturgical dramas of the Catholic Church, and the mystery or miracle plays evolved from them. The liturgical drama was pedagogical in nature. Its function was to teach churchgoers about religious rites and celebrations. The basic dramatic structure was dialogue. The priest and choir would chant back and forth in a call-and-response pattern. As the drama evolved, it became more sophisticated involving two or more characters; this eventually evolved into the mystery or miracle play. Mystery plays were performed outside of the church in outdoor settings. The plays would travel from town to town and the dramatic themes were religious in nature. Mystery plays would dramatize biblical stories, the lives of saints and similar themes. Mystery plays also were marked by a shift in language. Latin gave way to the vernacular of the day. This made the plays more accessible to the general public. Another major shift was the loosening of the authority of the Church. Professional guilds began taking on more responsibility for producing and staging the plays.

Allegory and Symbolism

Morality plays are dramas told in allegory form. The characters are universal in nature and therefore symbolic of all humankind. A protagonist encounters various personifications of moral attributes representing virtue and vice. The hero of a morality play was a symbolic representation of the human condition as a whole. One of the most popular morality plays is “The Everyman.” The play is intended to teach moral lessons and truths. The play guides the protagonist as he attempts to live a holy life dedicated to God. The protagonist experiences trials and tribulations, and struggles with sin and temptation on his journey to redemption.

Two Types of Morality Plays

Morality plays used two different narrative structures: episodic and specific. Episodic morality plays follow a chronological narrative. The main character is presented as a unified life going from the cradle to the grave. The story focuses on the trials and tribulations the protagonist endures throughout life to the time of Judgment Day. The second type of morality play adopts a different narrative strategy. The focus is on a specific journey or event in a character’s life. The Everyman may be summoned to settle his final account before God’s judgment and deal with the threat of eternal damnation.

Secularization of Drama

Morality plays are strongly rooted in the style of mystery plays and earlier liturgical dramas, but they represent an important step from religious drama to a more secular style of theater. The English “Castle of Perseverance” (1420) and “Everyman” (1510) are two of the most well-known morality plays. They are didactic in nature and intended to teach moral lessons to a general audience. At the same time, the plays begin to include a more lighthearted treatment and elements of popular farce. Entertainment begins to compete with moral instruction in the staging of the plays. Another important shift was the inclusion of secular themes. European culture as a whole was marked by a growing interest in questions of politics, education and science. Art began to be viewed as uplifting and redeeming.

Summary of Morality Plays

Morality plays employ allegory and symbolism, which allows the narrative to have many levels and be universal. The protagonists, antagonists and supporting characters are not individuals; they are abstract personifications of religious and moral ideas. Morality plays serve as a dramatic vehicle for dramatizing the spiritual and psychological struggle that is a universal quality of humanity. The morality play had a significant influence on modern literature, from Shakespeare to James Joyce. The Everyman is the primary character in Joyce’s "Finnegans Wake."

About the Author

Robert Russell began writing online professionally in 2010. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and is currently working on a book project exploring the relationship between art, entertainment and culture. He is the guitar player for the nationally touring cajun/zydeco band Creole Stomp. Russell travels with his laptop and writes many of his articles on the road between gigs.