What can we learn today from our Church History and the Theatre?

When we examined the understanding of the early Christian leaders at the beginning of this article it is clear that they were against theatre. However, it is not that they were against theatre in itself, but they opposed the paganism and debauchery associated with it because the people copied the immorality of the pagan gods to the detriment of Roman society. To them theatre was so shot through with evil that they wanted nothing to do with it and instead spoke out against it. It was Christians that pressed for the abolition of theatre after the collapse of the Roman Empire on these grounds.

As the church spread and became the dominant force in the Middle Ages, church leaders began to see that drama, stripped of its pagan and worldly trappings, could become a powerful vehicle for the Christian faith. Instead of using theatre for bad values it could be used to tell of Christ and cultivate positive moral values for the people to follow, and so help to encourage Christian living in Europe.

In 1931 the BBC was dedicated to God and a text was chosen from the New Testament as a guideline for the principles behind television and any drama shown. The text, in Latin, used to be found above the entrance hall at Broadcasting House in London. The English translation says:

This Temple of the Arts and Muses is dedicated to Almighty God by the first Governors of Broadcasting in the year 1931, Sir John Reith being Director-General. It is their prayer that good seed sown may bring forth a good harvest, that all things hostile to peace or purity may be banished from this house, and that the people, inclining their ear to whatsoever things are beautiful and honest and of good report, may tread the path of wisdom and uprightness.

The biblical reference from which this is taken is from Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

(Philippians 4:8)

The BBC and theatre industry may often be far from those principles today, but God is raising up Christians to be salt and light. Films such as Chariots of Fire about the Olympic sprinter and missionary, Eric Liddell, and Amazing Grace about the Christian politician, William Wilberforce, who led the movement to abolish slavery, and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, have had a huge impact on many. More recently The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, based on the book by C.S. Lewis, had an impact on many who viewed it. May such films be an inspiration for today’s generation of Christian actors, directors and producers, and may beauty, honesty, purity, uprightness, wisdom and peace be found everywhere in theatre through the influence of Christians.

Theatre in Edinburgh

John Knox, in his book The Reformation in Scotland, wrote:

A Black Friar [Dominican order], called Friar Kyllour, set forth the history of Christ’s Passion in form of a Play, which he both preached and practised openly in Stirling, the King himself being present upon a Good Friday in the morning. In this, all things were so lively expressed that the very simple people understood and confessed…This plain speaking so enflamed the hearts of all that bare the Beast’s Mark, that they ceased not, till Friar Kyllour, and with him Friar Beveridge, Sir Duncan Symson, Robert Forrester, a Gentleman, and Dean Thomas Forrest, Canon Regular [in the Monastery of St. Colm’s Inch] and Vicar of Dollar, a man of upright life, all together were cruelly murdered in one fire, the last day of February, in the year of God 1538… upon the Castle Hill of Edinburgh.

(p.19, Banner of Truth Trust, © 2000)

Clearly theatre could be used effectively to communicate a message. Indeed the authorities had to stamp it out by burning the Passion Play culprits to death near Edinburgh Castle. The last day of February in 1638 was chosen by the Covenanters here to sign their National Covenant in order to coincide with the martyrdom of the seven involved in the Passion Play a hundred years before. This Covenanting movement, which acknowledged Christ as the Head of the church, led to the deaths of over 18,000 Covenanters, many of whom were killed because they were in prayer meetings and read their Bibles. Ultimately what began with a Christian play led to our democracy and the human rights movement.

However, during the Enlightenment theatre was regarded as worldly by many in the church and the plays by Shakespeare that were performed in the Canongate Concert Hall in the Royal Mile between 1747 and 1769 led to protests. Rev. John Home from Edinburgh wrote a play called Douglas, which was a tragedy about an illegitimate son of Lady Randolph. It was first performed in Edinburgh in 1756 and it caused an uproar amongst many of the clergy. Some of the supporters of drama hoped that Rev. John Home would pioneer a national Scottish theatre here but the persecution seems to have driven him off to Covent Garden, London, where he became popular as a playwright. He resigned his position as a church minister and was content to be a lay speaker instead.

Rise of Christian theatre in AD 925

From the time of the early church up until the tenth century theatre was rejected as worldly and pagan. After the fall of the Roman Empire theatre was eventually banned by the church. However, paganism began to dwindle so much that by the Middle Ages we see the rise of the Passion Plays, which grew out of the church liturgy. So here we see a strange enigma: the church banned theatre in Europe, but then resurrected it as a means of telling the stories about Christmas and Easter! Stripped of the paganism and debauchery of classical theatre the monks were keen to use the vehicle of acting to spread their message. The earliest liturgical drama was in AD 925, initiated by the Benedictine monks of St Gallen in Switzerland, and it was called Quem Quaeritis? (Whom do you seek?) There are four lines, which are preceded by a choir:

Whom seek ye in the tomb, O Christians?
Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified, O heavenly beings,
He is not here, he is risen as he foretold;
Go and announce that he is risen from the tomb.

In AD 975 Aethelwold of Winchester composed Regularis Concordia (Monastic Agreement) with a play and directions for the performance, and Hrosvitha (AD 935-973), a Roman Catholic canoness in North Germany and the first woman playwright, wrote six plays. Her works were published in 1501 and had a real influence on theatre in the sixteenth century. Hildegard of Bingen, a Benedictine Abbess, wrote a Latin musical drama called Ordo Virtutum in 1155. In 1110 there is the earliest record of a Miracle Play in Dunstable, England, and by 1204 church theatre began to take place outside the church buildings.

By the late Middle Ages there were Passion Plays about the life of Christ being performed in 127 towns, such as York, Chester and Wakefield, and this method of theatre was seen as a wonderful means of educating the masses about the Christian message. This led to the Morality Plays which imparted moral values to the audiences between 1400 and 1550.

In 1430 professional actors begin to reappear and theatre blossomed again outside the church. However, because ‘worldly’ theatre was thriving again some of the church leaders began to have second thoughts about Christian theatre and in 1548 religious drama was banned in Paris. In 1558 Elizabeth I forbade the writing of religious drama, but in 1633 the first performance of the Passion Play of Oberammergau in Germany began. The Puritans in England began to seek reformation in the arts and saw theatre banned there in 1642, but this was short-lived as in 1660 the theatres re-opened in London. During the 18th century there was a huge renaissance of theatre outside the church and this led to our present day cultural view of theatre.

Confessions of a converted theatre-goer

Augustine, in his book, Confessions, shares with us his testimony of how he became a Christian. Apart from his previous life of paganism and womanising, he also reveals to us his feelings from the past when he used to regularly watch the theatre tragedies:

I was much attracted by the theatre, because the plays reflected my own unhappy plight and were tinder to my fire. Why is it that men enjoy feeling sad at the sight of tragedy and suffering on the stage, although they would be most unhappy if they had to endure the same fate themselves? Yet they watch the plays because they hope to be made to feel sad, and the feeling of sorrow is what they enjoy. What miserable delirium this is! The more a man is subject to such suffering himself, the more easily he is moved by it in the theatre. Yet where he suffers himself, we call it misery: when he suffers out of sympathy with others, we call it pity.

But what sort of pity can we really feel for an imaginary scene on the stage? The audience is not called upon to offer help but only to feel sorrow, and the more they are pained the more they applaud the author. Whether this human agony is based on fact or is simply imaginary, if it is acted so badly that the audience is not moved to sorrow, they leave the theatre in a disgruntled and critical mood; whereas, if they are made to feel pain, they stay to the end watching happily.

(Augustine, Confessions, 3:2)

The case of a converted actor

There is extant a letter of Bishop Cyprian to Euchratius in about AD 250, and it is all about a master actor who has been converted to Christ and who is asking whether it is alright to stop acting but still teach at a theatre school, as it is his only means of earning a livelihood. Cyprian is clear that the man should also stop teaching theatre, but that the church there should supply his needs until he can find another job, or if this is not possible because of lack of funds, then the man will be financially helped by the church at Carthage. I have transcribed this letter below:

THE EPISTLES OF CYPRIAN: EPISTLE LX.– TO EUCHRATIUS, ABOUT AN ACTOR
EPISTLE LX.[2]

TO EUCHRATIUS, ABOUT AN ACTOR.

ARGUMENT.–HE FORBIDS AN ACTOR, IF HE CONTINUE IN HIS DISGRACEFUL CALLING, FROM COMMUNICATING IN THE CHURCH. NEITHER DOES HE ALLOW IT TO BE AN EXCUSE FOR HIM, THAT HE HIMSELF DOES NOT PRACTICE THE HISTRIONIC ART, SO LONG AS HE TEACHES IT TO OTHERS; NEITHER DOES HE EXCUSE IT BECAUSE OF THE WANT OF MEANS, SINCE NECESSARIES MAY BE SUPPLIED TO HIM FROM THE RESOURCES OF THE CHURCH; AND THEREFORE, IF THE MEANS OF THE CHURCH THERE ARE NOT SUFFICIENT, HE RECOMMENDS HIM TO COME TO CARTHAGE.

  1. Cyprian to Euchratius his brother, greeting. From our mutual love and your reverence for me you have thought that I should be consulted, dearest brother, as to my opinion concerning a certain actor, who, being settled among you, still persists in the discredit of the same art of his; and as a master and teacher, not for the instruction, but for the destruction of boys, that which he has unfortunately learnt he also imparts to others: you ask whether such a one ought to communicate with us. This, I think, neither befits the divine majesty nor the discipline of the Gospel, that the modesty and credit of the Church should be polluted by so disgraceful and infamous a contagion. For since, in the law, men are forbidden to put on a woman’s garment, and those that offend in this manner are judged accursed, how much greater is the crime, not only to take women’s garments, but also to express base and effeminate and luxurious gestures, by the teaching of an immodest art.
  2. Nor let any one excuse himself that he himself has given up the theatre, while he is still teaching the art to others. For he cannot appear to have given it up who substitutes others in his place, and who, instead of himself alone, supplies many in his stead; against God’s appointment, instructing and teaching in what way a man may be broken down into a woman, and his sex changed by art
  3. and how the devil who pollutes the divine image may be gratified by the sins of a corrupted and enervated body. But if such a one alleges poverty and the necessity of small means, his necessity also can be assisted among the rest who are maintained by the support of the Church; if he be content, that is, with very frugal but innocent food. And let him not think that he is redeemed by an allowance to cease from sinning, since this is an advantage not to us, but to himself. What more he may wish he must seek thence, from such gain as takes men away from the banquet of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and leads them down, sadly and perniciously fattened in this world, to the eternal torments of hunger and thirst; and therefore, as far as you can, recall him from this depravity and disgrace to the way of innocence, and to the hope of eternal life, that he may be content with the maintenance of the Church, sparing indeed, but wholesome. But if the Church with you is not sufficient for this, to afford support for those in need, he may transfer himself to us, and here receive what may be necessary to him for food and clothing, and not teach deadly things to others without the Church, but himself learn wholesome things in the Church.I bid you, dearest brother, ever heartily farewell.

Some Early Christians thought that Theatre-going was not against the Bible

Although the Church leaders castigated the theatre there were some Christians who argued that if theatre-going was not listed as a sin in the Bible, then what was the harm in going to the theatre with their friends? Tertullian (c. AD 200), a Roman Christian lawyer, answered this problem:

There are certain people, of a faith somewhat simple or somewhat precise, who when faced with this renunciation of public shows, ask for the authority of Scripture and take their ground in uncertainty, because abstinence in this matter is not specifically and in so many words enjoined upon the servants of God. No, we certainly nowhere find it enjoined with the same clearness as; “Thou shalt not kill,” “Thou shalt not worship an idol,” “Thou shalt not commit adultery” or “fraud”; – we nowhere find it expressly laid down, “Thou shalt not go to the circus, thou shalt not go to the theatre, thou shalt not look on the contest or spectacle.” But we find relevant to this type of thing that first word of David; “Happy is the man,” he says, “who has not gone to the gatherings of the impious, who has not stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the chair of pestilences.”

(Tertullian, The Spectacles, 3)