Enduring drama: The Nativity Play

Christmas is a religious festival. There are two festivals of equal importance in the Christian religion – Christmas and Easter – although the former is larger and grander. It is the one that has captured the interest and imagination of the entire world, making an impact on all cultures, including non-Christian cultures that have their own different religions.

It has therefore become a popular festival, and is the most popular in the world. For many countries, it is also a traditional festival, a cultural one with long deep roots, and commercial. Christmas is also a calendar festival because it is fixed at a particular annual date and time of year.  Christianity’s other big event, Easter, is a calendar festival of a different nature because it depends on cycles and does not fall on the same date every year. For example, it is fixed at 40 days after Ash Wednesday (which is a different date each year) and tied to Carnival as that date is determined by the same cycle.

We have analysed these factors before in this forum and can therefore skip the details; today we want to focus on the Nativity Play. In order to do this effectively, it has to be placed in the context of Christmas, the type of festival that Christmas is, the place of the Nativity Play in the Christian culture and religion, and how it also finds itself in tradition and in popular culture.

Like all religious festivals, Christmas is based on religious belief. The festival has meaning fundamental to the beliefs and provides the religion with a means of celebrating and proclaiming these beliefs in a public way. It also serves as public outreach, helping to spread messages associated with the principles of the religion. On and around the prescribed date, the devotees or believers will practice rituals and other activities sacred to their beliefs, but the festival also allows them to exhibit these to all mankind whether they are believers or not.

This festival has its origins in developments in the first century AD (Anno Domini: in the year of Our Lord; otherwise expressed as “in the Christian Era”) and continuing in the second century.  It was created by the Christians  to celebrate the birth of Christ, but originated from a mixture of other complex pagan festivals and observances, including the Saturnalia. It developed considerably and became rooted in many traditions in the Middle Ages (or medieval times) when the Yuletide became central. These were all based on or attached to Christianity, but included many secular and some popular traditions. But other developments were religious, and the Nativity Play was one of those.

A Nativity Play is a drama which very basically tells the story of the birth of Christ. That birth is known as the nativity. That type of drama is very popular today and has survived not only as a theatrical type, but as a tradition since its origins in medieval times. The story is well known and is recorded in the Holy Bible in the Books of the Four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It tells of the birth of Jesus to the carpenter Joseph and his wife Mary, which had been foretold in a prophecy.

What was special about it, was that it was a miracle since Mary was a virgin and Jesus was the son of God, pre-ordained to come to earth to redeem mankind. The plot is handled differently in various plays that [treat with it,] but it depends on the point at which the story is picked up.

The main characters – sometimes extensive, sometimes restrictive – always include Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the Three Wise Men (the Magi), who made a long journey bearing symbolic gifts. The Dramatis Personae may be extended to include the despotic King Herod, who sought to have the child killed, along with other Jewish and Roman protagonists who played roles in the sacred birth, or in Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem.

The popularity of these plays is extensive, and they have their presence marked even in non-Christian countries. Even when it is not being performed, the drama has given rise to symbolism and a brief static representation or tableau, which is the very recognisable ‘Manger scene’. This scene, also called the “crèche” or “crib” in Catholic churches, is seen everywhere at Christmas time and very significantly, this “everywhere” includes countries with different cultures and beliefs, countries that are not Christian, such as China and its Far Eastern neighbours.

In China, it has no religious significance (the Christians there are a negligible minority), but is prevalent in what is a popular and commercial festival. The scene is represented all over in the large cities at Christmas time, including at international hotels, commercial centres, shopping malls and public places.

The main characters in the tableaux are restricted to those who actually witnessed the birth and will always include Mary, Joseph, the baby lying in the manger, sometimes a shepherd and the Three Wise Men, along with a cow and a sheep. Most often these are life-like three dimensional figures and once they are are seen, one immediately identifies them with the Christmas story.

This drama originated at the time of the rebirth of drama in Europe in the Middle Ages. During those centuries Europe was a feudal society, governed by the monarchical system of Feudalism in which there were serfs bound to the king but specifically to a lord, a duke, a count or other aristocrat on whose land they worked. Under serfdom, the society was very strictly hierarchical, headed by the king and the royal family, served by the aristocracy who comprised the ruling class. Up there with them were the high officials of the church (church and state were like one in the government of the country).

Only the royals, the aristocrats and members of the clergy and the free men (a middle class) were properly educated. The peasants (serfs) formed the large masses of working people who did not receive formal education. These subjects were Christians but were not able to read the Bible or automatically expected to grasp the teachings and philosophy of Christianity. But the clergy wanted everyone to learn these things. They therefore decided to use drama as a means of educating the masses about the religion.

The high levels of drama and the vibrant theatre that flourished in the Classical period had all faded away after the decline of Rome in the Fifth Century AD. So theatre disappeared in Europe during the “dark ages”. The priests began to have the congregation recite verses in Latin in dramatic fashion, then it developed into written scripts to be read out and performed during mass. This was the beginning of the rebirth of the theatre.

The dramatic verses written by the priests were known as liturgies or liturgical drama. They gradually developed into full plays performed inside the church. One example is the Quo Vadis a type of dialogue built around question and answer, in which one character would ask the other, “Quo vadis? (Where are you going?)” The respondent would reply, “I am going to the tomb of Our Lord” or “I am going to the manger where Jesus was born” or words to that effect, and the story would unfold around that dialogue. All these fledgling dramatic works were used by the priests to dramatise elements of Christianity to teach the congregation.

To make up for illiteracy and inability to read the Bible, they gradually developed different types of plays  in the Twelfth Century that all told stories from the scriptures.

Miracle plays performed stories from the Bible about the miracles performed by Jesus. Mystery plays performed other bible stories to show how the Lord worked. Passion plays were dramas telling about the passion of Christ – stories of the Crucifixion. Nativity plays all showed stories surrounding the birth.

In addition to those, there were other plays about the nativity called the Shepherd’s plays.

They took that name because they were focused on the shepherds who were important in the story because it is a Pastoral. The Pastoral has to do with the environment of pastures, natural surroundings, the countryside. This was seen as the ideal type of setting in the midst of nature.  “Pastoral” from pastor (shepherd), because shepherds guided their flock in this kind of peaceful setting, ideal for the birth of the Lord. In the story, an angel of God appeared to the shepherds to tell them of the nativity and they were able to go to the manger to see the infant and pay homage.  The Shepherd’s plays all had shepherds as characters.

After this beginning, the drama moved out of the church, first performed out in the churchyard because there was more space, but then it outgrew the church entirely and was taken over in the towns by the townsmen – tradesmen, artisans and the like. They began to perform the plays in the market places, and even to travel in carts or pageant wagons from town to town, stopping at places to perform to gathered audiences. Nativity plays also went with them.

Although other kinds of theatre developed over those years, the Nativities survived as a type.  They developed among the folk, to be linked to folk forms, and evolved into Yuletide traditions.  Different types evolved in the United Kingdom at Christmas, for example – the Mummings, the Pantomimes, and Christmas pageants.

Many of these plays were therefore traditional, but eventually individual playwrights would craft them. So that they continued into the present time, series of Nativity plays performed by various groups at Christmas, often in Christian churches, and performed by church groups.

All kinds of impromptu or improvised scripts are very often used for these because groups would simply get together at Christmas time to fashion them.

But the Christmas story has never ceased to inspire the imagination of accomplished playwrights, who would always produce plays on the theme of the Nativity, or dramatising the events.

This inspiration has of course resulted in many types. One outstanding example is the American play Agnes of God by John Pielmeier performed in 1979 at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. This was a case of a nun found to be pregnant who insisted it was a miracle – another virgin birth. Her case was investigated by a court psychiatrist who was an atheist, but who ended up believing, and was convinced that the nun was correct. The whole idea of not believing is set against faith and the possibility of miracles.

Closer to home, Guyanese Roy Brummell wrote Adventure, a musical drama narrating the conventional Christian nativity tale. The drama was driven by music since most of the dialogue was done by songs sung by the various characters, strung together by a narrator.

The Nativity Play is a significant fixture at Christmas as a festival because it proclaims the religion’s belief in the miraculous birth and the many principles of Christianity. Using literature, mythology, symbolism and theatre it makes public statements that are a part of the celebration of the religious festival.

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