In reading a book on dramatic traditions, I came to learn the role that Byzantium and the early church had on theater. The role the early church played in development of dramatic tradition in the West is remarkable. The ecclesiastical drama, which was born out of conflict between the church and the pagan world, was the first form of theater which travelled to the West. That it started in St. Sophia is also amazing. I paste below some very interesting passages. I have put them under summary headings to make the long passage easier to read...
From: "Dramatic Traditions of the Dark Ages", J. Tunison, 1907,Univ of Chicago press, London.
The author acknowledges using Constantine Sathas, byzantine historian as a reference.
1. The effect of the Iconoclasts:
"This slow process of putting the theater inside of the church by degrees was completed at a stroke by the Iconoclasts; for they simply transferred the dance and music of the stage to the churches with the dancers and musicians. The proof that this was an effective device lies in the fact that the orthodox party, though it had been subjected to unsparing satire, was obliged, on returning to power, to imitate its foes. It had learned that the obscure mime, to whom citizenship and the meanest of human rights were denied, was a dangerous adversary. In place of new proscriptions, it deemed best to make this enemy a friend. The council which proclaimed the victory of the church re-enacted only the canon against icons in the theaters, and this was aimed exclusively at the scene-painters. The practica of the Iconoclastic council were sung unchanged at Nicaea. The drama and its music were indeed put out of the churches, but only to be relegated to a theater under ecclesiastical patronage along with the comparatively new, already familiar, but not yet Christianized, instrument, the organ.
2. Patriarch Theopylactus and the worship in St. Sophia
"With these advantages and the indulgence of the civil authorities the ecclesiastical theater began to make a greal deal of noise in the world. The Council in Trullo had attempted to put a stop to the tumult in the churches which resulted from the practice of applauding or disapproving the preacher audibly; but without much success. With the final reconciliation between the clergy and the actors came worse noise and a new kind of spectacle which enabled the people to get their religion and their comedy on certain occasions, both in one spot and at the same hour. Even the Iconoclasts had not dreamed of what now took place. The solemn aisles of St. Sophia re-echoed to the songs, the dances, the shoutings, the declamation, the humor, grotesque or otherwise, of the Hippodrome. This innovation is ascribed to Theophylactus, patriarch of Constantinople, and it fixes a date in the history of the mediaeval theater for all Europe. Theophylactus has the honor, such as it is, of having originated what became in the West the Feast of Asses and the Feast of Fools. Sober-minded churchmen censured this travesty, rude and coarse beyond imagination, of sacred things; but it was supported by the monks, favored by the highest clergy, and tolerated by the emperor. Theophylactus is supposed to have been a son of the emperor Romanus I, but his power was due to the fact that he was not only patriarch of the Eastern Church, but brother-in-law to the reigning emperor, Constantine VIII."
3 A financially weak empire Leveraging the wealth of the church to entertain citizens of the empire
"His (Patriarch Theophylactus) authority would hardly have availed for such a purpose, if the empire had been financially as sound as it was in the days of Justinian. Expansion under the Macedonian house to which Constantine belonged had been marvelous, but it was not accompanied by a proportionate increase of revenue. There was no longer a vast surplus to be wasted on the Hippodrome for the amusement of the capital. While the state, in comparison with the business which it had to manage, was poor, the church was rich. The necessity of amusing the populace of Constantinople was a presupposition of the Byzantine polity. The government was founded on this principle. So the church in its relations with the state was obliged, willingly or not, to share a burden which the civil power could no longer carry. But no other man could have ventured to undertake what Theophylactus performed -- the introduction of the professional actors and dancers from the Hippodrome into St. Sophia. After him the custom continued unchanged for centuries, in spite of bitter censure on the part of stricter churchmen. It is important to remember that the date of this theatrical revolution in the Greek Church was about 990 A. D., and to note also the family connections of Theophylactus."
4. Spread beyond St. Sophia
" Sixty years later Cedrenus, the historian, alluded to thedisorder caused by festive merrymakers in the great church, and at the end of the next two centuries Balsamon, patriarch of Antioch, complained of the gross abominations committed by the priests at Christmas and festivals, not only in St. Sophia, but in churches elsewhere, observing that on certain holidays the clergy presented a variety of feigned characters, and even entered the choir in a military habit. In fact, the custom of allowing the masquers from the theaters and the streets to invade the places of worship spread from St. Sophia to the great churches of the provincial cities. St. John, archbishop of Euchania or Theodoripolis, took a prominent part in theatrical performances before his own altar, and composed hymns that were close copies or imitations of pieces written by Euripides; while the patriarch Michael the Cerullarius from his pulpit directed a company of actors to perform a series of plays representing the life of Christ from his birth to his baptism. In these plays John the Baptist, instead of his usual title of Prodromus, bore that of Acersecomes -- an appellation in pagan times deemed particularly appropriate to Dionysus. "
5. Ecclesiastical Drama Travels to the West
"Shortly after the time of Theophylactus the liturgical drama began to be known in western Europe. Little interludes illustrating those parts of the service known as the Officium stellae, the Adoratio Christe,the Elevatio crucie, and the Visitatio sepulchri began to be popular in the eleventh century. In the course of two or three generations these became so familiar that they were already looked on as ancient, and were supposed to have been devised by the ancient fathers of the church to strengthen the confidence of the faithful and to attract the unbelieverGÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Â¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Âª."
6. Travel of Byzantine culture to the West
"In general, western opinion on the subject of actors reflected that of the Christian East. Mimes and histriones must still have existed -- the descendants probably of the scattered and persecuted denizens of the old Roman circus and amphitheater -- for Charlemagne and his successors took cognizance of them in the laws. But the theater, still perfectly familiar to the East, was utterly unknown in Germany, France, and England, and very indistinctly remembered in Italy. North of the Alps, in fact, there was as yet no city life in the sense understood by Byzantines, Italians, and at the present day by all civilized peoples. The villagers, rustics, and burghers gathered in multitudes only at fairs, which increased in numbers rapidly from
In those times as now, a few men in love with art, not as artists, but as students, preserved the clear traditions of a glorious past. Meanwhile pilgrims and crusaders and wandering peddlers carried to the West, not a notion of the drama, but a notion of religious plays and spectacles such as they were capable of imitating. The conclusion of the whole matter is that whatever value the stage tradition had, which was handed down by the performers of the religious plays to the generation which represented and enjoyed the dramas of Shakespeare, was ultimately due wholly to the uninterrupted culture of Byzantium"
I suppose in the end that it is not surprising that the eastern church gave birth to the theater in the West- for much of history is notably the history of religion and how it affected the world around it...
In XC, Kizzy