It is ironic that the Church, which caused theatres to be outlawed as the Roman Empire declined and then fell, was one of the primary means of keeping theatre alive through the Middle Ages. This resulted from the Church’s need to establish itself in the community a community still steeped in pagan ritual and superstition which manifested itself in seasonal festivals.
The Church ultimately linked its own religious holidays with these seasonal festivals and began to use dramatic form to illustrate the stories underlying these holidays so as to reinforce their religious connotation and to better communicate the stories to an illiterate congregation. At first the parts played in these simple religious re-enactments of the nativity and adoration of the Magi were played by priests in the sanctuary of the church.
However, as the repertoire of the Church grew to include the passion and crucifixion of Christ, the Church was confronted with the dilemma of how a priest should portray Herod. While division of opinion in the Church continued as to the worth of dramatic interpretations, the members of the congregation clearly enjoyed and were moved by them. The dramas continued to grow, moving out of the sanctuary and into the open air in front of the Church. Ultimately, the members of town guilds began to contribute to these dramas, which continued to grow more elaborate with time.
Known as passion plays, miracle plays and morality plays, they continued their close connection with the Church and church holidays, but began to introduce elements of stock characters that were more contemporary in nature. With the growth of towns and the introduction of stable governments in Europe, the stage was set for the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Counter-Reformation and the secularization of theatre as it emerged from the influence of the Medieval Church. Ironically it was the church during the Medieval Times that was responsible for the rebirth of theatre.
The church and the government at this time were one and the same. Not belonging to the church made you a social outcast. People were illiterate and church services were in Latin. The visual aid of a performance helped the people of the time to better understand the sermons. Mystery plays were based on bible stories such as the birth of Christ. Allegorical morality plays had story lines that were always about man and how he succumb to sin. During performances there were definite mansions (setting) for heaven and hell.
The goal of morality plays was to show man what will happen if he continues to live in sin by sending him to hell, but if he changed his life and repent he will go to heaven. Everyman (author unknown) is the best known and one of the very few Medieval plays that survived. The rules for these performances were very strict and had to be approved by the clergy before performed in the church. Eventually the performances moved to outside areas of the church and later to a fixed stage (similar to a stage as we know it today) or a pageant wagon.