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The Morall as an Elizabethan Dramatic Kind: An Exploratory Essay Alan C. Dessen Most students of the drama would agree that the story of the morality play has been oft told and well expressed. Literary historians have surveyed the terrain, mined the ore deemed of value, and displayed their finds to non-specialists glad to forego any firsthand experience of the raw material. The justly famous fifteenth century moralities, to be sure, have sustained their devotees, but few of the many sixteenth century plays have found their way into modern editions, college survey courses, or live productions. With few exceptions (e.g., T. W. Craik, David Bevington), scholars are apologetic when dealing with much of the morality tradition, perhaps in the fear of echoing Arist­ archus’ dedication to Dullness (“For thee we dim the eyes, and stuff the head/ With all such reading as was never read”). Cer­ tainly behind most treatments of these plays he shared assump­ tions that the development (to many readers the degeneration) of the moralities has been accurately mapped with little need for new voyages of discovery. The standard histories of the morality play, however, often omit many problems and anomalies. Of particular interest is the question of dramatic nomenclature, for not all readers are aware that “morality” and “morality play” are not Elizabethan terms. Admittedly, John Young’s account of the marriage of James IV and Margaret Tudor in 1503 states: “After Dynnar, a Moralité was played by the said Master Inglishe and hys Companyons, in the Presence of the Kyng and Qwene,”l but Young’s spelling probably indicates a borrowing of the French moralité rather than usage of the term familiar to us. Outside of this account and a curious reference from Thomas Nashe,2 I 138 Alan C. Dessen 139 am unaware of any instances wherein “morality”—or “morality play”—is used to describe a form of English drama until the eighteenth century. So, in his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), Bishop Percy states: As the old Mysteries frequently required the representation of some allegorical personage, such as Death, Sin, Charity, Faith, and the like, by degrees the rude poets of those unlettered ages began to form compleat dramatic pieces consisting intirely of such per­ sonifications. These they intitled MORAL PLAYS, or MORALI­ TIES. (I, 120) Percy then devotes several pages to a plot summary and brief discussion of the two plays he had at hand, Everyman and Hickscorner . The first use of “morality” in this sense recorded by the OED comes from 1773 as the half-title of an edition of Every­ man. A year later Warton incorporated Percy’s passage into his History of English Poetry, omitting the reference to “MORAL PLAYS” (“These were called MORALITIES” [I, 242]). In a more extensive discussion in his Historical Account of the Rise and Progress of the English Stage (1800), Malone cites Percy’s account, quotes directly from Warton (p. 25), and consistently refers to such plays as “moralities.” Subsequent historians of the drama have continued to favor “morality” or “morality play,” although some (e.g., E. N. S. Thompson, Willard Famham ) have preferred “moral play” or “moral interlude.” But according to the available evidence none of these terms had any currency during the heyday of this dramatic kind. Even though moralité was used to describe a form of drama across the channel (and occurs in various French-English dictionaries), the obvious English equivalent is rarely if ever applied to contempo­ rary drama during the sixteenth century. Nor are the other familiar terms readily at hand. Admittedly, both the title page and prologue describe Everyman as “a morall playe” (hence Percy’s use of the phrase along with “morality”), but, to my knowledge, there is no other contemporary usage of this combi­ nation. In fact, examples of “moral” as an adjective applied to dramatic kinds are exceedingly rare. Warton’s description of The Nigramansir, a morall Enterlude and a pithie written by Maister Skelton is rejected by W. W. Greg, who reluctantly agrees with Ritson’s verdict that the play never existed;3 Lupton ’s All for Money, a typical late morality from the 1570’s, is described on its title...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 138-158
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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