A morality play is a form of theater associated with the medieval and early Tudor entertainment. Prevalent in the 15th and 16th Century, morality plays were a medium to teach moral lessons to the people. These were done in true Christian style making use of symbolic characters. These were also known as "interludes" to include plays which did not have a moral ending. Having grown out of the desire to present the biblical mystery plays of the medieval period in a more compact and direct manner, morality plays formed the foundation for the more secular plays of the Renaissance period. The basic idea of morality play was to develop a character of a common man who in the course of his life's journey meets other characters with moral attributes who encourage him to choose a life of godliness over evil. The basis of the morality play still continues to influence certain cultural theater and film though the popularity has declined over the years.
The exact origin or who wrote these morality plays is not exactly known. In spite of various attempts to find the origins for morality play writers, till date that attempt has been futile. But one thing that historians and literature enthusiasts have been able to unravel is that whoever wrote these morality plays had a good knowledge of the local issues and geography of the place where these characters were based. Plays like Everyman and Mankind are examples of these. The whole story of Mankind is based on villages in Cambridge and King’s Lynn which are situated in United Kingdom and East of Anglia and are separated by 40 miles from each other. Also the way Everyman has been written shows that the author was familiar with Latin and had an experience of theater.
The unique feature about these morality plays is the characterization of the various attributes. Each of the character is named after an attribute or idea instead of the names of people. This can best be understood through the famous morality play "Everyman" where the characters are named as Fellowship, Knowledge, Good Deeds, Kindness and the like. The play goes on to show that all the above characters do not stay with the hero when he goes to meet Death apart from Good Deeds. Through this play, the writer tries to emphasis that only the good deeds done by one stays with him forever and helps him get into the heavenly abode. Nothing other than the goodness he follows ever lasts in the true sense. This morality play had a message that prompts the protagonist to choose a life of goodness over evil.
The advantage of the morality play over the mystery plays was the creativity it awarded to the writers. Whereas the mystery plays of the period only concentrated on the biblical and traditional stories, morality play offered a wider platform to the writers to include many other forms of theater and ideas. With the plays exhibiting more and more secular lessons to the audience, morality play continued to flourish in the later centuries. Morality plays started including themes to influence the people on social issues like how to choose the best form of government. All through the Renaissance, morality plays kept evolving to become more representative of real life and less moralizing and allegorical.
Morality play as a form of theater gradually waned somewhere in the seventeenth century but its influence continue to remain even in today’s theater culture. Apart from creating a demand for drama, morality plays introduced certain stage traditions that are still largely followed in present times with slight variations or modifications. Practices like disregard for unity especially of time and place, the introduction of clowns, men depicting body parts of women, minimum usage of props can be attributed to morality plays that still continue to be followed in many plays and theaters across Europe.