Given the conditional general periodization of Western European culture, the history of medieval theater has its own periodization, which is divided into 2 stages. The first stage is called early and entirely coincides with the era of the early Middle Ages (V - XI centuries). The second stage is called mature. It begins with the XII century. and continues until the middle of the XVI century.
During the early Middle Ages the European nation is only being formed, therefore the history of the theatrical art of this time is considered not in individual countries, but in comparing the two directions: clerical and secular. To the clerical direction is the liturgical drama, miracle, mystery and morality. The secular direction includes early ritual games, gistric performances, an oblique farce and the first experiments of secular drama.
It should also be borne in mind that in the early Middle Ages up to the XI century. we can only talk about the origins of the European theater. There is a confrontation between Christian and pagan religions. Despite the fact that Christianity was universally successfully disseminated thanks to the efforts of the church, the barbarian peoples of Europe were still strongly influenced by pagan beliefs. The village population, according to ancient pagan customs, continued to celebrate the end of winter, the coming of spring, harvesting. In games, dances and songs, people expressed faith in the gods, who personified the forces of nature. It was such festivals that laid the foundation for future theatrical performances. In Switzerland, the winter and summer portrayed guys. One of them was in a fur coat, the other in a shirt. In Germany, in honor of spring, costumed carnival processions were arranged. In England, the spring holidays were poured into crowded games, dances, competitions in honor of May, as well as in the memory of the national hero Robin Hood. Spectacular elements have become rich spring games in Italy and Bulgaria. These mass holidays were distinguished by healthy humor, demonstrated the creative strength of the people. But they could not give rise to the theater, because they were not enriched with civil ideas and poetic forms, as in ancient Greece. In addition, the church managed to prevent the development of the folk theater associated with folklore.
At the same time, the popular creativity of the vagants developed. In their work, even more vividly than the troubadours, a rebellious, anti-ascetic and anti-church spirit was expressed. Vagants became, as a rule, schoolboys, the lower clergy, demoted priests. They performed parodic Latin songs on church hymns and parodies of church rites, in which instead of appealing to "God Almighty" there was an appeal to "Bacchus the All-Driving." Their daring satire even reached the point of parodying the prayer "Our Father". Troubadours and Vagantas were persecuted by the church. However, both the higher clergy and the secular authorities could not resist the temptation to see cheerful, cheerful performances of gistrions. Their work took place in the second stage of the development of theatrical art, but only as jesters in the courts of the feudal lords. In general, the art of gistrions from the XIII century. extinguishes. But at the same time, it accumulated elements of acting, made the first attempts to depict human types. This art has prepared the birth of farce actors and secular drama.
Another form of theatrical art became a church drama. Struggling against the remains of the ancient theater, in contrast to rural games and gistrions, the Catholic Church sought to use the effectiveness and spectacularity of theatrical art for its own purposes. Already in the IX. the Mass is dramatized, a ritual of reading in the faces of episodes from the life of Jesus Christ is developed, beginning with His birth and ending with burial and resurrection. It was from these dialogues that the early liturgical drama began to be formed, which was played out in the middle of the temple. Gradually, the liturgical drama began to exist in two annual cycles, namely Christmas and Easter.
The liturgical drama was part of the liturgy and was in the style of unity with it. It was played out in Latin in the form of a singing church recitation. But this limited the impact of the drama on the weakly educated parishioners who did not speak Latin. In order to bring his theater closer to life, to make accessible the content of the evangelical plots, the Catholic church dynamized the drama, began to use everyday details in it, the characters of the plots provided dialect, understandable to the local inhabitants speech.
During the second stage of the development of European theatrical art, secular elements continued to develop in the church drama. There appeared the genre miracle in which the vital contradictions connected with the arbitrariness of feudal lords, the dark passions of noble and rich people, with bloody episodes of military medieval history, were resolved thanks to the intervention of the saints and the Virgin Mary.
In parallel with the church drama of European theatrical art, the secular drama of the French truitor (the northern French name of troubadours), the poet, musician and playwright Adam de La Ala (about 1238 - about 1287) developed. He was originally from the city of Arras, he lived in Paris and Italy at the court of Charles of Anjou. His first play, "Playing in the Gazebo," was written and played around 1262, back in Arras, in a poetic, theatrical circle – Puy.
The further development of the medieval theater is marked by the development of a more universal genre - the mystery, which also begins its history from the 13th century. The greatest flourishing of the mystery was received from the 15th to the middle of the 16th centuries, when the city almost overcame feudal dependence, but it did not yet fall under the authority of an absolute monarch. It became a product of urban culture and grew out of "mimic mysteries", that is, city processions in honor of religious holidays and solemn arrivals of kings. From these festivals gradually formed the area of the mystery, which was already organized not by the church, but by city workshops and municipalities. Its authors were scholars, theologians, lawyers and doctors. In the Mysteries hundreds of townspeople participated, and religious and mundane beginnings united in them. Mistrial dramaturgy was divided into three cycles: 1) Old Testament, 2) New Testament and 3) apostolic.
The Mystery developed theatrical technique, nurtured the people in the taste for theater, prepared some features of the Renaissance drama. The mystery could not get out of the church influence, but it split the thematic range of the medieval theater, accumulated a great stage experience, which was used by later genres of the Middle Ages.
Another genre of drama in verse - morality, also begins its history from the XIII century, but the greatest flowering he experienced in the XV - XVI centuries. The main sign of morality is the allegory. In this genre, each allegorical person personified some one human vice or virtue, as well as the elements of nature or the church concept. The clashes of the heroes were built according to the struggle of two principles: good and evil, spirit and body. Reasonable people portrayed virtue, and unreasonable people became victims of vice. This basic didactic thought was affirmed by all morality.
The historical significance of this allegorical genre is that he introduced structural clarity into medieval drama, set the task of building a typical image before the theater. But at the same time the genre in its original form did not receive further development.
The most fortunate fate turned out to be a farcical theater, whose origins date back to the times of the representations of the Gystric and carnival Maslenitsa games, where the farce (from the Latin word farta - "stuffing") was an insertion into the general fabric of representations. The farce was also used in the Mysteries, in which it was strengthened and formed as a stage genre. By the second half of the XV century. the square plebeian farce stands out as an independent theatrical genre.
Farce had a great influence on the further development of theater in Europe. From the farce, the comedy del arte was born in Italy; in Spain - the work of the "father of the Spanish theater" Lope de Rueda; In England, as a farce, he wrote his interludes by John Heywood; in Germany - Hans Sachs; in France farcical traditions fed the art of Moliere. It was the farce that became the link between the old and the new theater.