Rectifying Religion and Antichrist
“Hello, everyone! Be happy! You can finally (safely) see your saviour! Christ, the Messiah, the most powerful being EVER is here! The one that they said would come. I know that because I am him!” Antichrist begins our play with these words, firmly establishing this text’s roots in medieval Christian beliefs and practices. While the exact history of how, why, and when the laity began performing religious plays in the Middle Ages is not precisely known, scholar Alexandra Johnston notes that it most likely came out of convents and monasteries performing liturgical dramas for specific seasonal celebrations. This practice spread out from the monasteries into the communities of laity who already associated the Mass with a kind of drama. The liturgical dramas put on by lay communities were used to celebrate as well to pass on the history given to them by their faith.
At about this time in the history of the Catholic Church, the priest had been given a newly elevated stature. Catholics were required to participate in the sacramental elements of the faith, lifting priests from their role as scholars and leaders of parishes to a place of higher honor: they now possessed the tools for salvation, through the Eucharist and confession. Confession became a place to test the catechism of the faithful, which meant that the laity needed to learn their faith in a vernacular language they could understand instead of the Church’s Latin. Later, the Franciscan tradition of adding emotional appeal to articles of faith entered into the teaching methods. This led naturally to the incorporation of dramatic elements to help pass on doctrinal information to large portions of the population in a way that would be both easily comprehensible and engaging for all involved.
With this in mind, it is easy to see why play cycles like those performed at Chester and York were so popular in their time—at key moments of festivity in the liturgical season, their performance both entertained the public and engaged them in their faith. The “historical” biblical plays in these cycles provided a means of transmitting integral bible stories and lessons to the people in an amusing and palatable way. However, each of these cycles include plays outside a strictly historical setting: the last judgment plays. These end-times plays were usually less amusing than the historical plays and sought to elicit an emotional response from the audience. They served as a reminder to the watching audience of what awaited them in the unknowable future.
The Chester Antichrist uniquely exists in between these two categories of play. It retains elements of historical plays by referencing biblical figures like Enock and Elias, and it takes places in the present day of the people of the Middle Ages, but also points directly towards the final judgment play that follows it. Antichrist manages to be humorous on the one hand while retaining the foreboding tone of the judgment play on the other. The play’s major shift occurs when the Archangel Michael comes down to slay Antichrist and actually initiate the last judgment by casting the Antichrist down to hell and raising Enock and Elias to heaven. Despite the significance of this shift, though, it is really in the four kings, their doubts, and their inevitable conversion that true weight of the Chester Antichrist resides. As with the medieval morality plays, the kings’ dilemma reflects a present struggle for the audience: will they be taken in by the devil’s wiles, or will they find Christ and be saved? As Jill Stevenson explains, because of this, the Chester Antichrist becomes the only play in the cycle which actively resonates with the medieval present by directly representing the daily religious struggle of its audiences.
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Jumping forward a few centuries, we arrive at our performance of the Chester Antichrist, occurring at a very different time, historically and theologically speaking. Not only is Catholicism no longer the dominant religion in the western world, it no longer has the power to dictate education. Though we attend a Catholic university in Fordham, we do not encounter the same church and catechism of the Middle Ages, nor do we have a medieval understanding of sin and punishment. Today’s Catholic church has de-emphasized sin and damnation and re-emphasized good works and forgiveness so that the concept of hell is no longer the threatening sword it once was. Modern Catholics know what hell is but no longer fear damnation the way it was feared in medieval England.
“Though we attend a Catholic university in Fordham, we do not encounter the same church and catechism of the Middle Ages, nor do we have a medieval understanding of sin and punishment.”
It’s important to examine what these significant changes in population and ideology mean for the message and purpose of the Chester Antichrist in our modern world. The play loses its bite as a religious piece that reminds its audience of the impending repercussions of their actions in the present, since it no longer resonates with the teachings of the church it came from. (In this respect, modern American Evangelists might experience the play in ways closer to the original medieval audience.) Furthermore, since the play reflects a religious system no longer practiced by Catholics, it loses its relevance as a commentary on the church’s effect on its people today.
So what purpose does performing Antichrist in a modern world serve? Beyond the value that comes from exploring different styles of theatre, the message of Antichrist addresses evils that do not only belong to the Middle Ages; as the biblical play closest to a morality, the text is still able to distinguish good from bad even for a modern audience, even when the emotional subtext that would have affected medieval audiences doesn’t survive. Our production achieved this effect by emphasizing the deception and false glamour of Antichrist, characteristics a modern audience would recognize as vices just as readily as their medieval counterparts. With this recognition in place, the play’s religious subtext can become active again: instead of eliciting an emotional response in its onlookers, it affirms the role of truth for morality in the world.
Though we can never understand the precise reaction that medieval audiences would have had to this play, performing the Chester Antichrist allows modern audiences to connect to the spirit of the Middle Ages in a way that would be impossible from just reading the text. Medieval audiences understood that emotional connection to this doctrinal material was essential for its full comprehension. Even though it is difficult to know how the Chester Antichrist impacted the moral sensibilities of its time, we can explicitly connect a modern production of the Antichrist to concepts of immorality we share with the Middle Ages. In doing so, we can connect with the text, with the people, and with the religion that dominated medieval life on a new level.
Jill Stevenson. “Playing with time’s end: cultivating sincere contrition in medieval Last Judgment performances.” The Routledge Research Companion to Early Drama and Performance, ed. Pamela King. Routledge, 2016. 118-136.