Performance for Christmastime: The Nativity Play

With the holiday season upon us, our Artistic Director has been thinking about the ways that performance is so often linked to our celebratory traditions. So for the next few weeks she’ll be musing on the history and continuation of those events. While they may not be the kind of theatre we tend to work on at HIDden, who knows how their influence may be felt upon our own projects!

Among the many traditions of the Christmas season, there is one to bring either joy or dismay into the hearts of all involved, largely dependent upon their age and relationship to the event. This is the Nativity Play, a staple of primary and Sunday schools throughout Britain and, to a lesser extent, America. Young children get excited at the prospect of putting on a play; the adults may heave a sigh at the prospect of the cat-herding that will be involved, and grin and bear it for the delight that their offspring have in the process. From a professional or commercial standpoint it is a stretch to consider this holiday phenomenon “theatre”, but it is inarguably one of the most common performative traditions associated with the holidays – and, one suspects, the first occasion when many professional performers trod the boards! There is also a fairly good likelihood that their existence owes something to the medieval drama traditions of so many centuries earlier, and their sudden revival at the turn of the twentieth century.

Christmas play-making has an extensive history. Performance has always been part of the holidays, particularly at the royal courts. Perhaps surprisingly, these were generally not the religious story of the Nativity. They were also performed for and by the adults, but we do well to remember that children were treated as mini-adults, without particularly special consideration, until the Victorians came along. One might therefore guess that it would be the nineteenth century which created the nativity play as we know it today, but thus far I’ve found no evidence of them until the early twentieth century. Possibly this is owing to the Victorian wariness about showing the deity on stage, an issue still effectively legally curtailed until the 1950s. The Victorians tended to hold sacred things as precisely that, and the idea of entrusting their performance to children would likely have been met with a cold reception, if the idea of performing holy things was even seriously considered.

The beginning of the twentieth century brought on a new interest in reviving medieval drama on the professional level (William Poel’s 1901 Everyman leading the way), and a general trend towards religious drama on the whole followed in its wake. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the first modern religious plays to be performed after it was about the Nativity. Dramas of faith began to proliferate, and church groups had an advantage when it came to staging them: as private organisations, they were exempt from the censorship laws. Another factor which probably fed the development of nativity plays was the fashionable pageant, a large-scale community spectacle which was popular during precisely the same time. Both children and adults were frequently involved in these events, which usually presented episodes of local history in a chronological progression. In fact, performing as a serious hobby seems to have been very much a part of life in those pre-television years, with drama groups of all sorts springing up across Great Britain.

By the mid-1920s, scripts for Nativity plays which were not dependent upon a medieval antecedent were beginning to emerge. These weren’t necessarily for children – when they became the province of the young remains elusive, although it seems possible that the disruption of World War II, and the quickened pace of life which followed it, may be a turning point in that direction. Certainly it makes sense that Christmas should be the particular occasion for drama: its purely festive atmosphere lends itself to play making in a way that is not true of Easter (inevitably accompanied by the sombreness of Good Friday). Moreover, family members are more likely to turn out if one of their children is in the play, making it a good chance to re-engage with those who aren’t normally involved in the church community otherwise. And it’s a story which, even if somewhat anarchic due to the very young age of participants, will still be sufficiently familiar to the audience.

Given its ubiquity, it might be expected that the nativity play would be the product of a long and richly documented history, but one of the interesting aspects of considering its history is the way that it reflects a common problem among theatre history studies. By virtue of being a true “folk” play, something put together by ordinary people among their own, for their own small community, it remains largely undocumented. The folk plays of medieval England are almost entirely lost to us; so it seems likely to be with the nativity play in the future. There are innumerable events every winter, yet practically no trace of them after the fact. Seemingly eternal yet ultimately elusive – perhaps this renders them a good metaphor for both the childhood which is so much at their heart, and the truths of faith which are their theme.