With the fall of the Roman empire, the rich dramatic tradition the Romans inherited from the Greeks was lost to the people of Western Europe. It was not until the tenth century that drama was reborn. Its rebirth, appropriately enough, happened as a brief trope preceding the Introit of the Mass for Easter. In its origin, it was just four sentences long from The Gospel of St. Luke.
Quem quaeritis in sepulchro, o christicolaeOr in my translation:
Jesum Nazarenum, o coelicolae
Non est hic. Surrexit, sicut praedixerat.
Ite nuntiate quia surrexit de sepulchro.
Resurrexi, postquam factus homo, tua jussa paterna peregi.
Who are you looking for at Jesus' tomb Jesus freaks?
We are looking for Jesus duh. You know that Nazareth guy who was crucified, remember?
He ain’t here. He told you he was going to split. So go tell everybody to quit coming around here m'kay.
And that is how modern drama began in Western Europe.
In its earliest form it was simply sung by two parts of the choir. One half of the choir would sing the lines of the angel and the other half sang the lines of the three Maries.
Although very modern and partly in English, this is the closes I could find of what I think it would have been like.
Over time the choir was replaced by four brethren. Three playing the parts of the Maries and the other the part of the angel. This is a bit of a break from the strict liturgy, but was allowed as Bishop Ethelwold put it to “fortify the faith of the unlettered vulgar and of neophytes”.
The little plays were extremely popular and expanded as time went by. Soon churches were putting up a tomb on Good Friday that served as the set for the play on Sunday. New characters were added. Along with the three Maries and the angel, the characters of Pontius Pilate, the Jews, and the soldiers guarding the sepulcher showed up. New plays for the Passion of Christ were added, but what good is watching some guy get tortured if you don't know why. So the play was expanded to include the life of Jesus.
At this point the 'trope' had gotten big. It took up a lot of real estate in the sanctuary and really was getting pretty far outside of the liturgy, so the church told them to take it outside. This was the turning point. Although they remained religious in theme and the priest maintained the right to direct the plays, freed from the confines of the sanctuary the plays started to develop a more spectacular flair. Latin was replaced by the vernacular, the Passions were graphically reenacted, humor appeared. The pageant now took place on multiple stages or wagons that traveled around the town with elaborate sets. New plays started to show up. Mystery plays, Miracle plays, Morality plays … and Everyman.
Everyman plays were still confined to the restraints of the Morality play but started to delve into decidedly more secular subjects. Elaborate scripts were written and for the first time in a thousand years professional actors played the parts in courts and dedicated theaters. By 1576 the Wakefield Mystery Plays consisted of 32 morality plays which included the Second Shepard’s Play, the first non-biblical story presented on stage.
This was the world that William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson were born into.
Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!
Comets, importing change of times and states,
Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky,
And with them scourge the bad revolting stars
That have consented unto Henry's death!