This brief account of the liturgical drama of Western Europe and of the vernacular drama of England from the late tenth century to about 1500 is addressed to the general reader, not to the literary scholar. The latter has an abundance of resources more definitive and more authoritative than I can provide.
But the lover of the theater, the playgoer, or the tourist who has seen the magnificent production of the old plays at York and would like to know more about the sort of drama they represent is not so well served. If he lacks the technical tools of scholarship, a knowledge of Latin and of Middle English, for example, or if he is unfamiliar with the interests and techniques of literary scholarship, five hundred years of a drama which he might learn to love is pretty well closed to him.
It is my hope to provide the sort of introduction such a reader can use. To that end I have tried to do much of the specialized work for him, and to transfer the result of specialized scholarship into the terms of a living theater. The Latin I have translated, except for a few terms (quem quaeritis, for example) which baffle my efforts. I have likewise modernized the English, which is generally not only medieval but also dialectal, as much as I could without losing the rime or upsetting the meter. When it was necessary to keep an archaic word or expression I have glossed it.
The sole purpose of all of this is to get at the dramatic essentials, which are likely to be obscured by unfamiliar language, stage conventions, and social usages. Once these are understood, the remarkable vitality of the drama of the later middle ages can work its own way with the reader.
If any of my more learned colleagues condemn such procedures as vulgarization I can only reply as Professor Coghill did to those who accused him of "surrendering the castle" when he modernized Chaucer. "I never thought of Chaucer," he said, "as a castle, but as a garden."
The bibliography at the end is intended for the more curious reader who may want to venture a bit further into the drama of the Middle Ages. Though it provides a reference for every work specifically cited in the text, it does not record my indebtedness to the host of scholars whose results I have used, much less to many friends, colleagues, and students on whom I have tried out my opinions. Dr. W. L. Smoldon and Professor Hans Nathan helped me with the music, and Professor Nevill Coghill called my attention to the van Alsloot paintings.