Medieval Theater Acting Styles

By Margot Callahan ; Updated September 15, 2017
People dressed in medieval period clothing.

During the medieval period in English-speaking countries, styles of theater acting moved from amateur expressions of religious faith toward a technical craft practiced by professionals for public amusement and enlightenment. What had begun in the Roman Catholic Church early on the Dark Ages, around 900, would lead directly to the Renaissance artistry of Shakespeare and his players nearly 700 years later.

Some History

Medieval drama and acting styles are inextricably linked to the Catholic Church. Early drama was designed to teach people about the Bible and God’s word and was performed solemnly and reverently in Latin as an illustration of the liturgy -- except during the Feast of Fools and similar holidays of subversion and parody. Themes were taken from the Old and New testaments. By 975, these dramatizations, enacted by amateur actors – altar boys, clerics and, on occasion, congregation members – became a common feature of church services. By 1350, dramas were performed in the vernacular rather than Latin but were still almost exclusively located within church walls. As the secularization of theater continued, a class of professional, largely itinerant actors evolved. They were often protected by the private houses of the nobility even after the advent of commercial theater at the end of the Dark Ages.

Saint Plays

Saints played a huge role in religious life in medieval times. Churches, trade guilds and other community organizations adopted a patron saint with an annual “saint day.” So it’s no surprise that plays depicting incidents and chapters from the lives of the saints were popular. These plays and skits were not necessarily spiritual in nature but would have been performed as entertainment at community gatherings. Players were chosen for attributes that resembled the saint in question. The style was broad and melodramatic -- fitting for the various atrocities and miracles that were a feature of the lives of the saints.

Passion Plays

In the Catholic tradition, plays were performed for special holidays such as Christmas and Easter, first within the church and later outside the church in public halls, theater or outdoors, although always with church overview. The Passion Play is perhaps the best known and was a traditional part of devotions leading up to Easter. It is a dramatic and often bloodily realistic presentation depicting the Passion of Jesus Christ, his trial, suffering and death. This medieval tradition has persisted to modern times, and performing in the annual Passion play is generally awarded to the most respected members of a church congregation.

Mystery and Miracle Plays

Mystery and miracle plays were based on stories from the Bible such as the creation or the story of Noah. As these plays became more elaborate and secularized over time, the style and tone of their presentation became more raucous and comic to appeal to the masses. Elements of satire and political commentary also began to appear. This led to a backlash by church and other authorities and they were often banned. Acting was still usually done by amateurs, usually men of the community, with some women getting roles as the exception. But with the introduction of music and verse sequences, the acting requirements for these productions became more sophisticated. Plays were sometimes created in complex cycles, which sometimes toured from town to town with portable stages, known as "pageant wagons," and could take up to 40 days to complete a full performance cycle.

Secular Theater Traditions

Regional and local secular theater traditions persisted for the duration of the medieval era alongside religious theater. These included masques – dance and music interludes presented by skilled performers between the courses of banquets at royal courts or houses of nobility; town pageants presented to honor dignitaries or visitors and featuring verses and songs praising their attributes; farces with satires or parodies; and holiday mumming, in which members of a community dressed in elaborate costumes and traveled from residence to residence telling jokes and singing songs, a precursor to the Victorian and contemporary custom of caroling at Christmastime. By the late-16th century, the Renaissance was in full effect across Europe and England, and the religious drama of the medieval period had fully lost its force to secular entertainments.

About the Author

Margot Callahan has Bachelor of Arts degrees in philosophy and film studies. She has written for newspapers and magazines such as the "Toronto Star" and "Toronto Life Fashion" since 1991, in addition to producing and directing documentary films.