Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Catholic and Protestant Dramas.

Literature, and the arts connected with it, in this free country, have been involved with its political state, and have sometimes flourished or declined with the fortunes, or been made instrumental to the purposes, of the parties which had espoused them. Thus in our dramatic history, in the early period of the Reformation, the Catholics were secretly working on the stage; and long afterwards the royalist party, under Charles the First, possessed it till they provoked their own ruin. The Catholics, in their expiring cause, took refuge in the theatre, and disguised the invectives they would have invented in sermons, under the more popular forms of the drama, where they freely ridiculed the chiefs of the new religion, as they termed the Reformation, and “the new Gospellers,” or those who quoted their Testament, as an authority for their proceedings. Fuller notices this circumstance. “The popish priests, though unseen, stood behind the hangings, or lurked in the tyring-house.”1 These found supporters among the elder part of their auditors, who were tenacious of their old habits and doctrines; and opposers in the younger, who eagerly adopted the term Reformation in its full sense.

This conduct of the Catholics called down a proclamation from Edward the Sixth, (1549,) when we find that the government was most anxious that these pieces should not be performed in “the English tongue;” so that we may infer that the government was not alarmed at treason in Latin.2 This proclamation states, “that a great number of those that be common players of interludes or plays, as well within the city of London as elsewhere, who for the most part play such interludes as contain matter tending to sedition, &c., &c., whereupon are grown, and daily are like to grow, much division, tumult, and uproars in this realm. The king charges his subjects that they should not openly or secretly play in the English tongue any kind of Interlude, Play, Dialogue, or other matter set forth in form of Play, on pain of imprisonment,” &c.3

This was, however, but a temporary prohibition; it cleared the stage for a time of these Catholic dramatists; but reformed Enterludes, as they were termed, were afterwards permitted.

These Catholic dramas would afford some speculations to historical inquirers: we know they made very free strictures on the first heads of the Reformation, on Cromwell, Cranmer, and their party; but they were probably overcome in their struggles with their prevailing rivals. Some may yet possibly lurk in their manuscript state. We have, printed, one of those Moralities, or moral plays, or allegorical dramatic pieces, which succeeded the Mysteries in the reign of Henry the Eighth, entitled “Every Man:” in the character of that hero, the writer not unaptly designates Human Nature herself.4 This comes from the Catholic school, to recall the auditors back to the forsaken ceremonies of that church; but it levels no strokes of personal satire on the Reformers. Percy observed that, from the solemnity of the subjects, the summoning of man out of the world by death, and by the gravity of its conduct, not without some attempts, however rude, to excite terror and pity, this Morality may not improperly be referred to the class of Tragedy. Such ancient simplicity is not worthless to the poetical antiquary; although the mere modern reader would soon feel weary at such inartificial productions, yet the invention which may be discovered in these rude pieces would be sublime, warm with the colourings of a Gray or a Collins.

On the side of the Reformed we have no deficiency of attacks on the superstitions and idolatries of the Romish church; and Satan, and his old son Hypocrisy, are very busy at their intrigues with another hero called “Lusty Juventus,” and the seductive mistress they introduce him to, “Abominable Living:” this was printed in the reign of Edward the Sixth. It is odd enough to see quoted in a dramatic performance chapter and verse, as formally as if a sermon were to be performed. There we find such rude learning as this:—

Read the V. to the Galatians, and there you shall see

That the flesh rebelleth against the spirit —

or in homely rhymes like these —

I will show you what St. Paul doth declare

In his epistle to the Hebrews, and the X. chapter.

In point of historical information respecting the pending struggle between the Catholics and the “new Gospellers,” we do not glean much secret history from these pieces; yet they curiously exemplify that regular progress in the history of man, which has shown itself in the more recent revolutions of Europe; the old people still clinging, from habit and affection, to what is obsolete, and the young ardent in establishing what is new; while the balance of human happiness trembles between both.

Thus “Lusty Juventus” conveys to us in his rude simplicity the feeling of that day. Satan, in lamenting the downfall of superstition, declares that —

The old people would believe still in my laws,

But the younger sort lead them a contrary way —

They will live as the Scripture teacheth them.

Hypocrisy, when informed by his old master, the Devil, of the change that “Lusty Juventus” has undergone, expresses his surprise; attaching that usual odium of meanness on the early reformers, in the spirit that the Hollanders were nicknamed at their first revolution by their lords the Spaniards, “Les Gueux,” or the Beggars.

What, is Juventus become so tame,

To be a new Gospeller?

But in his address to the young reformer, who asserts that he is not bound to obey his parents but “in all things honest and lawful,” Hypocrisy thus vents his feelings:—

Lawful, quoth ha! Ah! fool! fool!

Wilt thou set men to school

When they be old?

I may say to you secretly,

The world was never merry

Since children were so bold;

Now every boy will be a teacher,

The father a fool, the child a preacher;

This is pretty gear!

The foul presumption of youth

Will shortly turn to great ruth,

I fear, I fear, I fear!

In these rude and simple lines there is something like the artifice of composition: the repetition of words in the first and the last lines was doubtless intended as a grace in the poetry. That the ear of the poet was not unmusical, amidst the inartificial construction of his verse, will appear in this curious catalogue of holy things, which Hypocrisy has drawn up, not without humour, in asserting the services he had performed for the Devil.

And I brought up such superstition

Under the name of holiness and religion,

That deceived almost all.

As — holy cardinals, holy popes,

Holy vestments, holy copes,

Holy hermits, and friars,

Holy priests, holy bishops,

Holy monks, holy abbots,

Yea, and all obstinate liars.

Holy pardons, holy beads,

Holy saints, holy images,

With holy holy blood.

Holy stocks, holy stones,

Holy clouts, holy bones,

Yea, and holy holy wood.

Holy skins, holy bulls,

Holy rochets, and cowls,

Holy crutches and staves,

Holy hoods, holy caps,

Holy mitres, holy hats,

And good holy holy knaves.

Holy days, holy fastings,

Holy twitchings, holy tastings

Holy visions and sights,

Holy wax, holy lead,

Holy water, holy bread,

To drive away sprites.

Holy fire, holy palme,

Holy oil, holy cream,

And holy ashes also;

Holy broaches, holy rings,

Holy kneeling, holy censings,

And a hundred trim-trams mo.

Holy crosses, holy bells,

Holy reliques, holy jouels,

Of mine own invention;

Holy candles, holy tapers,

Holy parchments, holy papers; —

Had not you a holy son?

Some of these Catholic dramas were long afterwards secretly performed among Catholic families. In an unpublished letter of the times, I find a cause in the Star-chamber respecting a play being acted at Christmas, 1614, at the house of Sir John Yorke; the consequences of which were heavy fines and imprisonment. The letter-writer describes it as containing “many foul passages to the vilifying of our religion and exacting of popery, for which he and his lady, as principal procurers, were fined one thousand pounds apiece, and imprisoned in the Tower for a year; two or three of his brothers at five hundred pounds apiece, and others in other sums.”

1 Eccl. Hist., book vii. p. 399.

2 Collier’s “Annals of the Stage,” i. 144.

3 Bale’s play, God’s Promises, and that called New Custome, reprinted in the first volume of Dodsley’s collection, are examples of the great license these dramatists allowed themselves.

4 It has been preserved by Hawkins in his “Origin of the English Drama,” vol. i.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37