Liturgical drama is also known as religious drama. In its Christian contexts, it originates from the mass itself, and usually presents a fairly complex ritual that includes theatrical elements. Christian tradition saw religious drama stem out of liturgy at the end of the Middle Ages (mostly the 15th century) in the form of mystery plays.
Mystery plays are among the earliest formally developed plays in medieval Europe. Medieval mystery plays focused on the representation of bible stories in churches as tableaux with accompanying antiphonal song. They developed from the 10th to the 16th century, reaching the height of their popularity in the 15th century, before being rendered absolute by the rise of professional theatre.
Tableaux has also been used as part of passion plays, in religion, to depict the passion of christ: the trial, suffering and death of Jesus Christ. Participants play the roles of the characters within this story to represent the events.
Tableaux was also a major feature of festivities for royal weddings, coronations and royal entries into cities. Often the actors imitated statues, much in the way of modern street entertainers, but inlarger groups, and mounted on stands along the main procession.
Before film, radio and television, tableaux vivants were popular forms of entertainment. It was sometimes used to recreate paintings "on stage", based on an etching or sketch of a painting. This was before the age of colour reproduction of images.
English censorship often forbade actresses to move when nude or semi-nude on stage, so tableaux vivants also had a place in presenting risque entertainment at special shows. In the nineteenth century they took such titles as "Nymths Bathing" and "Dana the Huntress." Such entertainment was also seen at fairground shows. But the shows largely died out by the 1970's.
Tableaux vivants were also performed as the basis for school nativity plays in England during the Victorian period. Now the custom is only practiced in a single English school, Loughborough High School (the oldest all girl school in England, founded in 1850.)
In the early years f the 20th century the German dancer Olga Desmond caused scandals with her "Evenings of Beauty" in which she posed nude in "living pictures," imitating classical works of art.
A tableux vivant-style production called the Pageant of the Masters has been held in Laguna Beach, California every summer since 1933 (except four years during world war 2). It involves hundreds of volunteers from the surrounding area and attracts over a hundred thousand visitors anually. The festival recreates famous works of art on stage. nother tableaux vivant-style production called Pageant of our Lord has been held in Rolling Hills Estates, California every spring since 1985. This production differs only in that its focus is exclusively on the life of Jesus Christ as told through religious arts of work.
In photography tableau vivant was an approach to picture-makig taken up by pioneers of fine art photography in the 1840's. It has also influenced current trends in photocompositing. It has also been used in art films, as a more expressionistic and experimental art form.